“A decent photograph is quite sufficient as a souvenir of this attempt to Russianize German Art”
-Count Klaus von Baudissin during the purge of Kandinsky, 1936
“I do not mind objects, but I do not care to make them. The object - becomes something that might make it impossible for people to see the art for the forest….They don’t have to buy it to have it – they can have it just by knowing it.”
-Lawrence Weiner, Statements, 1967
“Empty space is richer than a mere absence of things”
-Richard Webb, 2011
Stepping off the train in Liège, Belgium in February 2012, I headed straight to the Musée d'Art Moderne (MAMAC). Technology told me that I was a circuitous 34 minutes away by foot from this small city’s museum of modern and contemporary art. Technology, however, had failed me once before with this museum: a few weeks earlier I had sent an email to their curators and received the less than comforting response from email@example.com “Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently: firstname.lastname@example.org” Ironic, given that I wanted to ask them about artworks that had been lost.
As I walked through the quiet city, I noted the absurdity of my plan. This was the twelfth museum that I had been to on the hunt for nothing. I was searching for how, as a young artist, I was so inclined to make artworks that did not have a physical presence. Why was I making nothings? My research led me to Germany where, in 1937, the Nazi Third Reich pilfered 16,000 avant-garde Modernist works from Germany’s museums and sent 650 of the confiscated works to Munich, the first stop on a traveling exhibition entitled Entartete Kunst. This was a show of how not to paint, how not to sculpt, and most importantly, how not to think. Following the exhibition, most of the works vanished - lost or destroyed. Some disappeared across national borders into the black market or were sold by the Reich through approved art dealers to other international museums, such as MAMAC.
In many ways, these works were lost - lost to their museums and to the public. These lost works have left us with only the intangible memory of the art’s once physical existence. Since the end of World War II, curators across Germany and around the world have been dealing with the decimation of their collections differently. Do curators working with artworks from this time inherently curate against zero?
Curating ‘Modern Times’ in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie in 2010, Dieter Scholz and Udo Kittelmann set out to exhibit Berlin’s collection from the period 1900-1945. Visiting the show, I had found multi-million dollar oil paintings in gilded frames hanging next to mounted photographs of works that no longer existed. Each work represented by a photograph had been seized from the museum as Degenerate Art in 1937. Next to these photographs, on their wall tags, in addition to the work’s title, date, and original medium, I read about where the works had traveled during the war and either where they are now, when they were last seen or how they were destroyed.
Viewing these photocopies, I paused: was I viewing the intangible made tangible, the materialization of nothing? Was the facsimile creating something new? Not 0, not 1, but something in-between. Was I viewing art? Or the history of art?
Speaking with Scholz, he learned that he called these photographs part of a ‘shadow gallery.’ Reproduced in the exact size of the original, Scholz tried to treat them the way he would the original artworks. He had hung them, however, without frames. Asked about the public’s response to the exhibition, Scholz remarked that “some visitors were very angry that [the wall tags] said ‘oil on canvas’ but what was actually there was a photograph.”
In the ‘Modern Times’ exhibition, Franz Marc’s 1913 expressionist oil on canvas masterpiece, Tower of Blue Horses, hung as a photograph. Acquired in 1932, the work was confiscated in 1937. After just a few weeks in Entartete Kunst, the work was removed from the exhibition after WWI veterans protested its inclusion in the show; Marc had died fighting for Germany. No stranger to notions of disappearance, Marc spent much of his military service painting camouflage on tarps. Since 1945, various accounts of the painting’s whereabouts have surfaced — none of significant merit. The work remains lost to this day.
Standing in front of the photograph, I could appreciate its scale, its subject matter and its composition. Working hard, I could mentally fill in its color palette as other original Marc paintings were hung nearby. But working harder, I yearned to study the subtleties of its brushstrokes and its aura, all that made it a work of art. With the work physically lost, was this the closest to its aura I could get? The black and white printing put a cage around it like a quarantined friend kept just out of reach. History had placed me standing not before 1, but not quite before 0. If I were looking at nothing, was it really nothing?
Back in Liege, I followed my map to the park in which the museum was located. In a city of 200,000 people, MAMAC was supposedly the largest museum in the city. I say supposedly because MAMAC had nearly no online presence. Its website had not been updated in three years and its Wikipedia page linked directly to a different museum — in France.
But I had been traveling for months looking for nothingness, visiting over a dozen European museums to see how they dealt with the loss of their collections, and technology would not deter me. When my map said I was close, I looked up to find the usual reassuring trappings of ‘you are approaching a major cultural institution.’ But I saw no banners, no posters, no signs. Had I missed it? Had I walked too far?
I wandered into a real estate office across the street from what the map was calling the museum: “do you know where the museum is?” I asked holding up a picture of its logo. “No, I have never heard of a museum here,” replied the receptionist. That was reassuring. I walked outside and asked a young gentleman. He pointed across the river, to an empty park, “I think it is there, but I have lived in this neighborhood for many years and have never seen anyone go inside.” I looked into the distance and I could see, across a canal, in the very abandoned looking park, a very abandoned looking building – please tell me that was not the museum.
I walked across the canal and followed the path into the park. The garden was deserted and weeds had overtaken the frozen grass. The formerly manicured bushes looked like they neededhelp. But I found it! As I got closer, however, I saw that the grand windows were boarded up. No colored banners hung on the stone facade. I could tell that this had once been a regal entrance. I thought back to my visit a few weeks earlier to Düsseldorf’s Kunst Palast.
Approaching the Kunst Palast, I felt as if I were entering an arena for sport. Were trumpets about to play? Would flags be raised like at the Olympics? Built in 1902 to house a trade show, the Kunst Palast had been subsequently handed over to artists who were organizing an exhibition entitled Artibus. ‘To the Arts’ reads the inscription on the building’s facade.
Over the next 30 years, new buildings were erected near the Kunst Palast to house more exhibitions; as a group, the buildings formed the Erenhof, a cultural plaza of sorts. By 1928, Düsseldorf's entire municipal art collection was housed within its buildings. In 1937, the Nazis confiscated roughly 900 of its artworks and in 1938, Entartete Kunst traveled there for exhibition.
Outside of the Kunst Palast, in addition to the museum’s banners, were four stone pedestals that were original to the building. On the two inner pedestals stood figurative bronze sculptures. On the two outer pedestals, stood nothing.
Until 1937, these two now empty pedestals had been the home of sculptures by the artist Bernhard Sopher. Considered a Degenerate artist, in 1934 the Nazis told Sopher to stop making sculpture; by 1935, he had emigrated to the United States.
Now, affixed to each empty pedestal, is a plaque commemorating the sculpture that was once there. Both plaques are replicas of letters between the museum’s curator and the mayor of Düsseldorf. In the first letter, the curator asks the mayor what he should do with the Sopher statues that had been left behind when the Reich purged the more easily moved, and in the Nazis’ view, more obviously Degenerate artworks. In the second letter, written ten months later, the mayor replies that “we could melt down the two sculptures so that necessary bronze material is available for us to use.”
These empty pedestals are no Warhol ‘Invisible Sculpture,” (1985), no Tom Friedman “Untitled (A Curse)” (1992). They are a Rachel Whiteread library, made by the museum after the war.
Visiting the empty pedestals, their vacancy allowed me to sneak atop of them. (Shhh!) I looked out onto the Erenhof and, for a brief moment, I held the view of an absent sculpture. I looked to my right and saw my (sculpture) friend that was permitted to stay. I touched the cold stone underneath me and felt as if I were in the home of a ghost. Had I become the sculpture that was no longer?
Now in Liege, the ghosts were returning — I was most definitely approaching an abandoned museum. I walked up the stone stairs and stood before the giant closed wooden doors. They were bolted shut. I realized there was a doorbell. Strange, yes, but I rang it! I heard it echo inside the building and waited. No one answered.
I sat down on the steps, and readied myself for my 34 minute walk back to the train station. The stone underneath me was cold. Great, I thought to myself, another empty pedestal. I got up, and in a last ditch effort, rang the bell again. I heard heavy footsteps from inside and many locks snapped open. An older gentleman opened the door. I had clearly interrupted him. “Is this MAMAC?” I asked in apologetical I-don’t-speak-French English. “Yes” he said to me in broken English. “But we have nothing inside.”
1. Hüneke, Andreas. “On the Trail of the Missing Masterpieces.” Edited by Stephanie Barron, "Degenerate Art:" The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991)
2. Weiner, Lawrence. "Statements." Art in Theory. By Charles Harrison. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2008. 893-4. Print.
3. Webb, Richard. “The Hole Story.” New Scientist: Issue 19, Special Issue: Nothing. November 2011
4. Stephanie Barron, "Degenerate Art:" The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991)