A Day of British Art

Yesterday I set off, in the brilliant, sunny, autumnal weather to go see some art. I’m at a university (the Courauld Institute of Art) that only teaches art history and I’m doing a Masters degree in art history, so I’m looking at art constantly right? Right, but sometimes it can be easy to forget to go and look at the real things, especially in London where there is so much to choose from! Yesterday I stayed very local, both in terms of location and time. I went to see the work of two contemporary british artists, Tracy Emin at the White Cube and Grayson Perry at the National Portrait Gallery. The work in both these shows was created in the last two years, so its very current, and both explored themes of identity, making them an interesting couple to compare.

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My first stop was the White Cube in Bermondsey to see Tracy Emin’s latest show ‘The Last Great Adventure is You.’ Tracy actually came to my university a few years ago and did a talk, which was amazing, and since then I have been a real fan. This show is brilliant. It starts with a whole row of really rapid sketches of female nudes. It’s hard to tell, but from the names of the sketches, written in pencil on the bottom of each work, they could well be self portraits. There are no information panels with any of the works in the gallery, nor describing the show as a whole, so it is really up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

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In the next room, the gallery entitled 9x9x9, there are what appeared at first to be much larger versions of the first sketches. They are and huge and imposing and very impressive, really dominating the whole space, despite only using black lines on a white background. However, as the viewer gets closer, it becomes clear that they are not made of drawn or painted lines at all, but are in fact embroidered onto a lineny sort of material. Tracy has used different thicknesses of thread to create the differences in line and build up some areas more than others. This room was undoubtedly my favourite in the exhibition, and I had to revisit it one more time before I left.

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The next room shows her versatility as an artist. It includes works made of paint, neon lights, plaster, clay. The paintings have the same feeling of rapidity as the female nude sketches, but are much more colourful and abstract. The furthest end of this space is made up of little tables with sculptures of women of varying degrees of abstraction and deformation. I was reminding of the maquettes Henry Moore made before creating his enormous stone sculptures. However the way they were presented on these isolated tables also made me think of the presentation of Edgar Degas’ sculptures of dancers, like the ones we have in the Courtauld Gallery.

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Another room is full of very bright, abstract paintings, which contrast with the black and white sketches of women. This show is definitely worth a visit. It’s engaging, versatile and shows a great amount of artistic ability. Also, Bermondsey Street, which the White Cube is on, is just a fabulous place to mooch around or get breakfast, so make the most of the opportunity to visit!

I then ran across town (via Borough Market, because hey, I was in the area and hungry!) to the National Portrait Gallery to see the new Grayson Perry exhibition ‘Who Are You?’ This exhibition is quite unique in that it is not given a dedicated space in the gallery, but rather the works are distributed within the 19th and 20th century rooms. The viewer is then led on a trail through the different spaces to seek out his works.

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The show is made up of portraits of all different people, from politicians to celebrities to transsexuals. He is hoping to get to the bottom of the question ‘who are you?’ Like Tracy’s show, this too includes a lot of different media, from ceramic to tapestry to screen printed silk to sculpture. The first work in the show is a self portrait in the form of a map. It shows a walled city, with the sense of self in the centre; the roads are called things like ‘boredom’ or ‘inspiration.’ This map of personality serves to set out the aims of the rest of the exhibition.

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The next work is a huge tapestry showing British identity. It is brightly coloured and loud and commands attention, and comments on British identity as a collective. The viewer is then led through the 19th and 20th century galleries, spotting pots and rugs, money boxes and hi jabs. Each work includes a description written by Grayson himself, outlining what his aims were in creating the piece and what he was trying to convey about each person. This was very unlike Tracy’s starkly blank walls with no descriptions or information.

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I thought there were both positive and negative attributes to the work being displayed within the permanent galleries. The exhibition was taking a huge number of viewers into galleries that they might not normally visit- I’ve never seen the National Portrait Gallery so busy! (But then, I normally don’t go on a Saturday…) Many of the works, it seemed, were placed in a very specific gallery for a reason, and they often provided an interesting comparison to the other works in the room. A lot of the portraits in the gallery, particularly the 19th centuries ones, show powerful, white, men, so Grayson’s portraits of arguably more normal, less idealised people seemed almost subversive, dotted among these galleries. However, there also seemed to be a lot of people ignoring the permanent collection completely in their hunt to find the Graysons. IMG_6771 IMG_6777 IMG_6779IMG_6772

My favourite was called ‘Memory Jar,’ and showed a man with Alzeihemers disease, and his wife, who acts as his carer. The pot included photographs of their life being snipped into tiny fragments by a personification of the disease itself. I think this was the most emotionally arresting piece in the exhibition.

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The exhibition ended in the 20th century gallery, where a portrait of Grayson himself, from 2011, hangs, which seemed a fitting way to end.

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Like Tracy’s show, this serves as a exploration of identity. Tracy’s, at first glance, appears to be much more autobiographical, focusing mainly on self portraiture, whereas Grayson creates images of other people. Yet, through these images he seems to be trying to understand something fundamental about people in general, and therefore, something about himself too. IMG_6776

Grayson’s show is run in collaboration with a Channel 4 documentary, which shows some of the people he has depicted and him creating the works. I had seen one episode before visiting, however, the works that I hadn’t seen on the documentary seemed to me to be far more engaging. I would thoroughly recommend seeing the art first, and engaging with it in person, and then watching the documentary to hear the story behind it, instead of the other way around. The Tracy Emin is on until the middle of November- so get down there quickly! The Grayson is on until March, so you have more time, but both are well worth a visit and free, so there really is no reason not to! xxR

Rebecca Louise Law exhibition

Quick exhibition update on a fun little exhibition in London:

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Rebecca Louise Law at the Coningsby Gallery off Tottenham Court Road

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Rebecca started her career as a florist- and flowers take centre stage in her work. The exhibition includes photographs of flowers, flower and other natural curiosities, including butterflies, beetles, shells, in exhibition cabinets.

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The best piece is this one- hundred of live flowers cascading from the ceiling on wire. So beautiful and smells amazing too! The exhibition is only on this week- so be quick!

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xxR

Mexico: A Revolution in Art at the RA

The Royal Academy’s Mexico: A Revolution in Art exhibition has been on my to-do list all summer. And this week I FINALLY got around to going.

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It was a beautifully hot day in London, and I was carrying a lot of library books- as that was my next stop, so I arrived a little bit sweaty and flustered- but I’ll spare you the gory details.

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The Royal Academy itself is just a lovely place to visit: I really felt like I was treating myself as I walked through the bright courtyard and into the main entrance, bought my ticket and ascended the stairs to the Sackler Galleries.

The exhibition documents the changes in Mexican cultural life after the Revolution of 1910, as well as documenting the political changes of the following thirty years. It is displayed chronologically, with a description of the political situation at the start of each room. What I thought was most interesting about the way the exhibition was displayed, was the way it seamlessly mixed the art of native Mexican artists with photographs of the period and the art of Americans and Europeans who had visited Mexico at the time. It struck me that the way we tend to think of Mexican art- as full of bright colours and simplified, stylized figures, was more characteristic of the non-Mexican art. The Mexican artists tended, on the whole, to be far more naturalistic, both in their use of colour and depictions of people. It seemed to me that the European and American artists were trying to live up to this idea of naïve Mexican art, a similar one to the views that I think we still hold today. Not knowing much about the Mexican Revolution, this exhibition taught me a lot, not only about the art of Mexico, but about the politics of the early 20th century too.

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There was a strict ‘no photos’ policy and, while I did take a few sneaky sneaky snaps on my phone, I am a little bit too scared to post them online- for fear of the RA mafia coming after me. So these (kind of lame, I know) pictures of the outside and my tickets will have to do.

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Some of my personal favourites include Francisco Goitia’s Old Man Seated on a Trash Heap of 1926-27. While there was an obvious sadness about this melancholy old man seated atop his mountain of rubbish, there was something strangely beautiful too. This beauty, I think, lay in the use of colours- clear, uninterrupted blue sky juxtaposed with the, well, trash-y browns and greys. I was also quite taken by Edward Burra’s El Paseo, which depicts an urban, city scene. The scene appears normal at first, however upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the figures which mill about in the moonlight and dance to the brass band, are actually skeletal, grey and dead looking.

This is one show that I would highly recommend seeing. It is fairly expensive, especially considering that it is only four rooms! But it is definitely worth every penny!

It closes at the end of September so go soon! Info here: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/mexico/

xxR

London’s Lost 9/11 Memorial

I wrote my second year dissertation about Maya Ando’s After 9/11, a memorial to the events of September 11, 2001, which stood in Battersea Park. The memorial’s sad, somewhat twisted fate intrigued me, see, not even a year after the colossal statue was erected, it was taken down and put into storage. The reason’s behind this are incredibly indicative of the way we view memorials in today’s society.

With the anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching, it seems a good time to further explore the reasons behind the removal of this memorial from the public sphere. Here is a edited (and much shortened) version of my dissertation.

Ando’s After 9/11 is a three-storey tall sculpture, made from three steel girders that were once part of the World Trade Center, memorializing the destruction in New York and the other events of September 11, 2001. The artist hoped that the artwork would serve as an educational tool in helping students understand the events of 9/11.

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In the aftermath of the attacks, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sought proposals from public and city agencies and not-for-profit groups who wished to acquire a piece of the steel for public display. It had been intended to stand outside theGreater London Authority building near Tower Bridge, however the necessary permissions could not be acquired.  It was moved to its temporary location in Battersea Park, until a permanent site could be decided on. The London Borough of Wandsworth granted it only a temporary license so that it could be unveiled in conjunction with the ten-year anniversary of September 11, 2001. According to a council spokesman, they had to ‘step in at the last minute as there was nowhere else for it to go… had [they] not made an offer, it would have remained locked in a warehouse in Liverpool.’ However, a mere month after its unveiling, this enormous sculpture was unceremoniously removed from the park, following complaints from a support group for victims’ families, and the breakdown of negotiations over where to display it. To this day, it remains in storage, still waiting for its permanent display location.

The question remains: what was the reason for such animosity and disapproval from the public? What about it singled it out from the many other memorials that have been created all over the world in the decade after 9/11 to make it the object of hatred and even disgust? The answers lie in the construction of the memorial itself, its production technique and materials as well as its form of display.

Memorials are becoming increasingly important as a desire to remember and anxiety about forgetting in the West becomes ever more prevalent. The obsessive desire to memorialize is driven by debates about national self-definition and purpose, and is shaped by the affective and emotional conditions of public life, with such feelings as grief, gratitude, fear and anger, all of which play a role in the reaction to and commemoration of 9/11. The obsession with making memorials has rocketed, particularly in the late twentieth century, when both commemorative and celebratory memorials were being created at an astonishing rate. This ‘memorial mania,’ a term coined by Erika Doss in her 2010 book, grips America, and indeed much of the Western world. The events of September 11th resulted in a desperate attempt to understand what had happened and why, and these feelings were manifested by various memorials across the country.

One of the earliest memorials to the World Trade Center was found amongst the rubble, and may prove to be informative when analyzing Ando’s sculpture. Iron girders from the Twin Towers fell in the shape of a cross, and, so it has been claimed, became a symbol of hope for the community in the aftermath of the tragedy. Two days after the disaster, Frank Silecchia, a construction worker, discovered several perfectly-formed crosses standing upright amid the mounds of mangled steel and rubble. Silechhia was reported as saying of discovering the crosses: “it helped me heal the burden of my despair and gave me closure on the whole catastrophe.”  These crosses became pilgrimage sites for people who had lost loved ones, both Christian, who interpreted the clear Christian symbolism in the iron, and otherwise, who saw the crosses as purely a secular symbol of hope.

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A comparison of Ando’s sculpture with the iron girder crosses may help to be to show why the former was met with such animosity. There are many obvious similarities between the two, most notably the materials of their construction. Both are made of the same iron girders that were once a part of the Twin Towers themselves, however, what differs is the circumstances, and indeed method of their creation. The crosses were completely spontaneous, created purely by the falling buildings, allowing them to be perceived by some people as a miraculous creation. Ando’s sculpture was clearly a premeditated and planned out piece of artwork. What people found very offensive about this work was the way it seemed to almost mimic or replicate the mangled pieces building in the aftermath of the attack, when it was reduced to a pile of rubble. The crosses were seen as a symbol of the nation rising above the tragedy; Ando’s sculpture reduced it back to the base, raw result of the destruction.

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Arguably the main reason for the controversy surrounding Ando’s sculpture is its use of ‘genuine materials’- materials that came from the World Trade Centre itself. In the aftermath of the attacks in 2001, a huge cleanup operation was staged, which involved salvaging as much of the metal from the towers as was possible, with the idea of using it in memorial construction. According to the Port Authority of New York, girders much like the ones used by Ando, were sent to every US state to be used as they saw fit, as well as a number of European countries. Serving as an even more poignant comparisonwith Ando’s sculpture is the use of the very same steel in Grosvenor Square: the steel was buried in the 9/11 memorial garden, under a plaque bearing the poem For Katarina’s Sun Dial by American poet Henry van Dyke; nearby are three more plaques, listing those victims with British connections. This is a vastly different use of the steel than Ando’s: it is unassuming and hidden away, having almost been laid to rest, allowing people to remember the attacks in their own way. According to The Washington Times, Ando’s pieces of steel served only as a painful reminder of the destruction they caused on September 11. The fire commissioner of New York at the time of the attacks, Thomas Von Essen, was one such person who struggled with Ando’s memorial: ‘’I look at it, and I don’t see beauty, I see pain, I see steel that destroyed a lot of lives.” Alex Clarke, chairwoman of the September 11 UK Families support group, asked “does London really need this? …we have a piece of the girder buried under Grosvenor Square, that’s where it should be.”This group was set up as a way to help families of victims work through their grief, organizing memorial services, ceremonies and concerts, and was the main oppositional force behind the removal of the sculpture.  Hannah Ali, another member of the group, disapproves of the memorial, claiming that she was dismayed at the thought of turning pieces of steel that “had bodies strewn on them” into a work of art.

Perhaps one of the reasons the British public was so unable, or even unwilling, to try and understand Ando’s sculpture lies with cultural differences and the different approaches to memorialization in the West as opposed to the East. Ando cites her Japanese heritage and upbringing as a major influence in her work, claiming that as ‘a descendant of Bizen sword maker Ando Yoshiro Masakatsu… raised among sword smiths-turned Buddhist priests in a Buddhist temple in Okayama, Japan, [her] spiritual, familial, and academic experiences deeply inform every aspect of my work.’ She is playing on a sense of spirituality and transcendence that is present in Buddhist funerary tradition, evoking the reverence and compassion she learnt in Buddhist temples. Ando sanded down the steel to reveal a shiny, mirror like surface, which would provide a locus for calm reflection, yet retained the shape of the girders, presenting them in a ‘pure and honest manner.’ There is a notion of ‘Migaku,’ or polishing in Japanese, playing on the idea that one can polish and refine one’s spirit. Perhaps, through polishing the steel, Ando was hoping to refine the event, helping people to heal. Evidently, this memorial can present a very powerful message to those who know how to interpret it. This perhaps led to a lack of understanding, as it suggests a very elitist target audience for the piece, serving only to alienate those it should have supported most.

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To me, it seems that Ando’s intention with After 9/11 was a good one- she hoped that her use of World Trade Center steel would serve as a sort of symbol of rejuvenation and a place of quiet reflection and contemplation. However, equally, it is not difficult to understand the reasons behind the negative reaction. To a grieving Western audience, the concepts of Ando’s sculpture could indeed seem very alien: it does not name the victims, or give any indication of the event, aspects which are very common on traditional memorials. People, especially those who had lost someone in the attacks, wanted something to remember, and even glorify, the lives of the victims, not a reminder of ultimately what killed them. This case serves to highlight the difficulties of memorializing disaster in contemporary culture, and the vast impact even a small opposition group can have on the way art in the public domain is viewed, mediated and received, particularly when those opposing it feel as though they have a legitimate claim to the act of memorialization.

xxR

Looking at the View- Tate Britain’s take on the landscape

I was walking past Tate Britain a few days ago, musing about how its been a very long time since I’ve been inside- too long, in fact. I’ve also been fairly out of touch with the gallery scene recently (appalling, I know, for an art history student!) so I didn’t even know what the current exhibitions were.

Wandering through the gallery, I stumbled across an exhibition called ‘Looking at the View.’ This free, small exhibition is all about exploring the way artists throughout time have used the landscape in their work, using a variety of techniques and medium. It also plays with the way the viewer interacts with the landscape, and the different meanings it can carry. Some of the works were solely of the landscape, others used the landscape as a backdrop for the figures, for others still, the landscape worked merely as one tiny element of the composition.

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The curators have drawn really interesting comparisons between a number of works, juxtaposing similar looking works that were created possibly a hundred years apart, like these two:

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Sir Brooke Boothby by Joseph Wright, painted in 1781 and Tracey Emin’s Monument Valley (Grand Scale) of 1995-97. (I’m sort of curious as to why this photograph too two years to produce- I would love to hear the back story behind that one!) These paintings, when looked at in conjunction, are really interesting- the artist has created a really definite relationship between the figure and the landscape, and the viewer must question why they have made these choices and what they signify. Comparisons like this one are drawn all over the gallery, like these two very similar works, again painted a hundred years apart.

P1000885 (Left: Patrick Nasmyth, View Near Sevenoaks, Kent, 1820; Right: Augustus John, The Little Railway, Martigues, 1928)

Some of the works made me feel very homesick for huge flat fields and never ending skies, like where I live when not at uni, in Essex (one of the flattest places on earth!) And it made me pine for summer, especially because its still snowing (its nearly April, what is that?) I particularly liked these two:

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John Nash’s The Cornfield, 1918 and Paul Graham’s Union Jack Flag in Tree, County Tyrone, 1985. If they don’t make you long for long hot summer days I don’t know what will!

Posted in art

Rain Room

I woke up this morning with something nagging in the back of my mind- there was something I’d been meaning to do for ages but hadn’t got round to.

Oh god! – I panicked.

The rain room- how long was it on for? – pretty sure it closes in March- aaah!

Random International Rain Room at the Barbican invites viewers to experience what it would be like to control the rain. Viewers enter a room filled with a downpour of rain, however, do not get wet, for, wherever they move, the rain stops.

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I jumped on the computer, and, sure enough, it closes in March. I had two days. It was 8 am. ‘Be prepared to queue for four hours’ the website warned. That was it. I was dressed, out of the house and crammed onto a commuter tube by twenty past. Ugh.

I made it to the Barbican centre by 9.00, armed with an almond croissant and plenty of reading, ready to face the queue. Which was, by the way, ridiculous. There were already at least 60 people there when I arrived, and it didn’t even open until 11!

Three and a half hours later, I was at the front of the queue.

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Then, I was allowed to descend the stairs into the exhibition space- a very dark, gradually curving corridor that seemed to go on forever. I must admit- it was scary. The sound of pouring rain could be heard, very faintly at first, but increasing more and more as I approached.

The initial sight of the rain was perhaps the best part of the exhibition. The room was completely black apart from one very strong spot light at the far end, meaning that all that was visible was the rain and the silhouettes of people experimenting in the installation. It was very beautiful.

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Entering the rain was slightly unnerving- I almost didn’t trust it. But, as if by magic, the rain above my head stopped. It really was quite amazing.

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Gallery of Lost Art

The notion of ‘Lost Art’ is an alien concept for most people. Art is made to be permanent, to withstand the test of time. We admire the art of the High Renaissance not only for its huge technical skill but also its age value- we relish the thought of being able to engage with something that was created 500 years before we were.

We only ever think about the work that has survived, that is still present to be admired, collected, bought and sold.

We never think about the art that is not.

bacon_1_0_1 Francis Bacon, Gorilla with Microphones, 1946 (photo: Tate Gallery of Lost Art)

The Gallery of Lost Art is a project set up by Tate to document and present the major works of the last 100 years that has been lost, either through neglect or decay, iconoclasm, destroyed, stolen and even those that were made to disappear, lasting, perhaps, a few months, days or even minutes. Tate urges us to explore how loss has shaped the modern art world, and affected the way we think about and view art in the 20th century.

The website calls itself a Virtual Exhibition and allows the viewer to move around the space, as if in an actual museum or gallery. It is divided into different sections: erased, discarded, stolen, attacked, missing, rejected, unrealized, transient, ephemeral. And frankly, it’s heartbreaking.

Perhaps the poignant piece to me was Alexander Calder’s Bent Propeller of 1970. I have always had an affinity with Calder’s work, from his huge, still, serene sculptures to his twirling and ever-changing mobiles and, of course, the circus: made completely out of everyday objects such as wire, corkscrews and scraps of fabric and metal, Calder created a whole circus of acrobats that performed incredible tricks, tightrope walkers and trapeze artists soaring through the air, and a lion with a shaggy mane and ferocious roar. Bent Propeller listed in the ‘destroyed’ section- the seven metre tall metal sculpture stood in the Plaza of the World Trade Centre, and was crushed under the debris in the attacks of 9/11. The attacks shook the world, causing tremors of shock to be felt in almost every nation, so it is without surprise that the lost art was not seen as the main victim. However, along with huge loss of life, these attacks also caused a huge loss of art. The exact number of works is unknown, since records were lost along with them, however the total value has been estimated to be as high as $100 million.

ImageGen.ashx Alexander Calder, Bent Propeller, 1970 (photo: Tate Gallery of Lost Art)

Some works were destroyed by their very creator, such as Francis Bacon’s Study for Gorilla with Microphones, 1946. Bacon never stopped working on his paintings, so the canvases often became so clogged with paint and debris that they had to be discarded. He also regularly destroyed works he was not happy with. Discovered in his studio after his death in 1992, were hundreds of destroyed works, stacked on the floor and against the walls. The fracturing of dry paint on some of the canvases suggests they were slashed long after their completion- others were clearly attacked while the pain was still wet. Gorilla with Microphones was among the paintings discovered on the floor of Bacon’s studio, cut into two separate pieces.

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Stolen works is another very interesting section, with Picasso leading the list of artists whose work has been stolen. Due to the high prices his work was achieving and how prolific he was, it is estimated that around 600 of his works have been identified as subject to theft.

This website serves to draw our attention to works that would otherwise be completely forgotten, breathing new life into what has now died out. It makes the viewer realize the fragility of art, regardless of how permanent the materials may seem, and also question how different the face of modern art might be today if we still had these missing works.

http://galleryoflostart.com/#

xxR