BOSTON, MASS. — When two thieves disguised as policemen made their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum one March night in 1990 and stole masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Govaert Flinck, Degas and Manet, along with a Chinese ku and an eagle-form finial, Boston and the larger art world were devastated. It remains the largest property crime in the United States, a loss in the hundreds of millions of dollars. That loss has festered now for 23 years, but the turnabout new exhibit on view, “Sophie Calle: Last Seen,” looks not at what is lost, but at what remains. It is an exploration of the connection between the viewer and the work of art.
French conceptual artist Calle, in Boston for an exhibition of her work at the Institute of Contemporary Art, chose to be interviewed at the Gardner a few weeks before the robbery in the Dutch Room in front of Vermeer’s “The Concert,” a painting she loved. After the robbery, she got in touch with museum director Anne Hawley proposing a project at the museum. In the fall of that year she became what was essentially museum’s first artist in residence. Her project — the foundation of “Last Seen.”
From a position in front of the empty spaces left by the stolen artworks, she interviewed museum staff, guards, curators, conservators, as well as visitors, asking them what they saw in each space and what they remembered about the missing pieces. For Calle, the written word is as much art as any other image. She created textural amalgams of their comments and juxtaposed them with photographs of the empty spaces. “Last Seen” was exhibited at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, the Leo Castelli gallery in New York, Dartmouth College and at numerous sites in Europe, but until now not at the Gardner.
Under the terms of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will, the arrangement of objects in the museum cannot be altered in any way. Renzo Piano’s spectacular yet understated addition to the museum affords the space to hang such a show. Nine works, each comprising a photograph alongside a silkscreen text panel, appear to float amid the expanse of the airy special exhibits gallery. One is conscious of vast space, and its scale draws a visitor across the gallery to get a closer view.
In 2013, the museum invited Calle to revisit “Last Seen.” She agreed and created a new body of work for the show that incorporated photographs of the frames from which the paintings had been cut by the thieves. Those frames had been restored and reinstalled, empty, in 1995 in the museum’s Dutch Room from which much of the art was taken.
For her 2013 project, which she calls “What do you see?” Calle interviewed staff and visitors in the Dutch room. There was no mention of the thefts; instead she focused on what the empty frames suggested to the viewer.
Each image depicts an anonymous viewer seen from the back as he or she stands before an empty frame. The artist and the viewer want to know what the person in the image sees, the person in the image wonders about the empty frame and its meaning, and the museum visitor wonders what the work conveys. Further questions arise — what does the image depict? What does the empty frame convey, what does a viewer see and what does he or she imagine? What remains? Next to each the text panel records the comments of anonymous viewers.
The exception is the empty frame of Rembrandt’s “Storm in the Sea of Galilee,” of which the comments of French clairvoyant Maud Kristen are recorded. “Ghosts fill the frame, as if the theft had freed the characters, had allowed them to leave that frozen representation while staying on-site. I feel that they are more present in their absence. The visitors’ gazes held them back, but now they can wander around the museum. They have that physical freedom one has in the dark, the pleasure of living one’s life without being seen….What I see in this opening is alive and joyful.”
The artist herself says her installation is merely a presentation; the viewer is intended to take away whatever is provoked by each piece.
The exhibition itself is a meditation on remembrance and memory, loss and what remains. Some visitors have clear memories of the stolen art; others were not even born when the art was taken.
“Sophie Calle: Last Seen” is on view through March 3. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is at 200 The Fenway, Boston, with the entrance on Evans Way. Hours are Wednesday through Monday, 11 am to 5 pm, Thursday until 9. For information, 617-566-1401 or www.gardnermuseum.org.