Several inches were cut from Jackson Pollock's Mural
by Marcel Duchamp in 1943, so it would fit in Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment.
Those inches of canvas have never been found.
Tutankhamun was a minor king of Egypt. He might have remained a footnote except that his tomb, hidden under the later ruins of workmen’s huts, went mostly overlooked by grave robbers and iconoclasts. They took most of the jewellery and left the rest—necropolis officials attempting to tidy up put things back in the wrong boxes.
My interest is in the remnants of art history. Offcuts.
Does the handkerchief still exist, that received the first pneumonic cough from Lord Carnarvon, who funded Howard Carter’s Tutenkhamun excavation efforts?
Daidalos was said to have filled his statues with quicksilver to make them seem mobile, of which Plato said ‘if they haven’t been tied down, run away like fugitives, but if they are tied down, they stay in their places’. To escape Crete he built artificial wings for himself and his son. One set were famously lost, but did his wings survive after he arrived in Sicily? Was the wax recycled back into candles?
I’m interested in the leftover parts of finished works—the trimmings, truncations and remainders. Interested in collecting them. Those more so than the marginalia, working drawings or other preparatory material.
When Apelles visited the absent Protogenes’ studio, he drew a perfect line on a canvas instead of leaving his name. Later, Protogenes recognised the hand of Apelles, and drew on top of it an even finer line in a different colour, making it appear as if there were three lines on the canvas. But Apelles returned the next day, and the subtlety of the line he drew then made Protogenes despair.
That work was for a long time admired by connoisseurs despite it consisting solely of some barely visible lines.
Presumably Apelles borrowed one of Protogenes’ brushes to draw his lines. Perhaps Protogenes set it aside and never used it again, humbled.
When unable to naturalistically represent the foamy saliva about a dog’s mouth, Protogenes hurled a painting sponge at his canvas in anger, and the marks it made accidentally and naturally achieved the foam, perfectly.
My sponges are never able to depict the foam in a river or a mouth.
Chares of Lindos took twelve years to erect the Colossus of Rhodes, finishing in 280 BC. But his statue of the sun god Helios stood for only fifty-six years until an earthquake shattered it. The remains lay on the ground for over 800 years—Pliny remarked that few people could wrap their arms around the fallen thumb and that each of its fingers was larger than most statues.
They were eventually sold to a travelling salesman who transported the bronze scrap on the backs of 900 camels to Edessa, perhaps for reconversion into instruments of war. Pieces continued to turn up for sale for years, after being found along the caravan route.
Such pieces are occasionally marketed discreetly, but you never know whether they are genuine. The earthquake had reconfigured the statue, but despite that the artist remained behind his handiwork, invisible, indifferent, paring his fingernails. I wanted a toe- or finger-nail from the statue.
The Emperor Nero had Zenodorus erect a colossal statue of himself in the vestibule of the Domus Aurea, some one hundred and twenty Roman feet high. It was bronze (or marble, says Pliny), and modelled on the Colossus at Rhodes. After the memory of Nero had fallen into disrepute, the Emperor Vespasian gave it a second life as the sun-god Helios.
It was later moved on a cart pulled by 24 elephants by Hadrian, to make room for the Temple of Venus and Rome. Later Commodus reworked it into himself-as-Hercules; but at his death it was restored as the Sun. The base of the colossus was finally destroyed in 1933.
That the statue was twice converted from an unloved tyrant into Helios suggests that the stone stubbornly remembered its varying referents despite these acts of creative destruction and remodelling.
If it hadn’t already given its material to many faces, several hundred years later it also lent its name to the Amphitheatrum Flavium—which we now know as the Colosseum.
Little remains, except the odd chunk of Travertine marble steps that may have once run up the inside of a leg. I imagined scaling these steps to see the tool-marks on the head where the sunrays of Helios were added, removed, and added.
Hadrian’s Pantheon was the third on that site, its predecessors having been destroyed by fire. It retained the old inscription from the first, Agrippa’s. Was this historicist modesty?
In 1966, the river Arno flooded Florence, performing its own immersive correction upon many buildings and artworks. Among them, Cimabue’s 13th-century Crucifix in the church of Santa Croce, which shattered. Then, in Assisi in 1997, an earthquake reduced his fresco of St Matthew to shards.
Restoration can never entirely give these back to us.
Even if its techniques could have, some of these fragments found their way into private hands, where they are conserved in conditions every bit as archival as a museum’s.
In the early 1300s, Pope Benedict XI’s courtier visited the master painters of Florence, and asked Giotto di Bondone to prove his skill. Giotto immediately drew a perfect circle in red ink, saying ‘see if it will be understood’. The drawing and the inkpot are lost.
I started to notice the other remnants in my life.
For instance, I kept the fluff from the tumble dryer. It rendered the loose threads and fibres from our clothes into an undifferentiated grey fluff that collected inside the air filter. A mean describing both the colours and amounts of the garments and the volume of hot air that had passed through. The dryer also reclaimed the water into a reservoir, another remnant.
Some twenty years previously, Giotto painted a fly on the nose of a figure with such skill that his teacher Cimabue made numerous attempts to brush it away. He would have had to chip the fly off the painting.
I made tea with the tumble dryer’s reclaimed water, and considered using the fluff to simulate the offcuts of a Beuys felt piece. It was kept in a briefcase with Descartes’ wax, but I ended up putting it into the back of my shoes, into the holes that my heels had worn into the fabric.
Later I realised that I wasn’t driven by collecting a small part of something that existed. It wasn’t about collecting ephemera, or the unintentional artist’s proofs. It was about the decisions and excisions that resulted in an improved quality in the original. Or in a clearer understanding of it. Particularly if the separation resulted in both the original and the remainder accumulating increased value.
Jan and Hubert Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece was finished in 1432. It was rescued from rioting Reformation iconoclasts in the 16th century, but later dismembered by Napoleon and taken to Paris. The panels were not reassembled until after the first world war, though in 1934 one panel, depicting The Just Judges, was stolen. That panel has been replaced by a copy.
I like to look at the original whilst I spread my toast.
Savonarola’s followers publicly burned thousands of objects at a Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence on the seventh of February 1497. Among the objects destroyed were several original paintings on pagan and classical mythological subjects by Sandro Botticelli, who placed them in the bonfire himself.
Around that time, Botticelli had painted The Calumny of Apelles, a speculative reconstruction of Apelles’ lost masterpiece of 300BC.
Does that value reside in the thing itself, or in the action? Is it legitimate to repeat the action, thus repeating the thing?
Botticelli, to denigrate landscape painting, said that a mere sponge thrown against a wall leaves a patch in which beautiful landscapes could be seen. But Leonardo welcomed contingency in art, recommending that painters ‘look at the patches on the wall or into the ashes in the fire, in the clouds—and discover very wonderful inventions in them.’
I once stole a painting, or rather a part of a painting. I used a knife to cut some chips from the raised peaks of paint meringue on an Auerbach. No-one shouted, and I quickly turned to go from the gallery, the flakes of paint red hot in my hand.
In his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes used the mutable, meltable physical characteristics of wax to illustrate that to properly grasp the nature of something he must rely on his mind rather than rely on the sensed characteristics.
From a dealer I bought a lump of wax which purported to be Descartes’. I planned to melt it over a flame, reforming it into a flat tablet like Freud’s mystic writing pad, but it crumbled like yellow dust.
Jean-Antoine Watteau’s 1717 drawing Two Men was one of over 200 artworks stolen by a waiter in a seven-year, 1.25 billion pound art theft spree. They were cached at his mother’s apartment in France. When he was arrested, she cut most of them up and threw them in the rubbish, or dropped them in a canal.
One of the men in the drawing is holding a cloak as if it was for sale, or no longer required.
I now have many of the cut pieces of canvas and drawing, fragments of Watteau touching those of Breughel, Boucher, Cranach… though the black plastic bag she used to bin them has not survived, so I placed them in a new bin liner.
When Ryoie Saito bought Van Gogh’s 1890 Portrait of Dr Gachet, he put the painting in storage and threatened to have it cremated on his death. Was this a joke? He died in 1996 and the current whereabouts of the painting are unknown.
An incendiary vision of a safe deposit box locked and anonymous, inside ash.
When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 more people visited the museum to see the empty space than had ever come to see the painting. Were they looking for something they had lost?
Later, it would have acid thrown at it, and a rock, both of which left their mark.
A hypothesis: by collecting these remainders, I hoped to learn how to cut away the excesses of behaviour and being. To hone the self by an additive subtraction.
Marcel Duchamp added two dots of water colour—red and green—to a chromolithograph of a rural scene in 1914, calling it Pharmacy.
Excess baggage is what I got rid of. Well, created then threw out. Still there is baggage after all, the kind that remains in one’s head, meaning remnants of whatever one ever knew.
Early 1920. Duchamp laid his work in progress the Large Glass face down on the studio floor, so that it would collect dust. Dust breeding, he called it, and Man Ray photographed it like a lunar landscape. After a few months, he carefully glued the dust down with varnish.
Looking at the small drifts of dust that had gathered under the desk in the lee of the computer’s cooling fan, I thought that these might be more important than Duchamp’s: his had been selected, gathered, varnished down, and therefore spent. My dust did not yet belong to art, and so bore more potential, though they risked never being chosen.
Her frown at me indicated a potential mis-alignment.
The dust seemed as essential as it did mundane. I did nothing with it.
In 1936 Duchamp completed mending the Large Glass, which, after its single showing, had broken in 1931 en route from the Brooklyn Museum to Katherine Dreier’s home in West Redding, Connecticut. He had to set aside some of the most damaged glass, replacing several sections.
I have a shard.
He would later claim that he liked the restored delay in glass a hundred times better.
In the same year, Duchamp designed the cover of Transition no.26. It featured his readymade comb of 1916, whose spine carries the enigmatic line ‘works 3 or 4 drops of height have nothing to do with savagery’.
James Joyce’s reaction when he saw the cover was to tell Sylvia Beach that he would use it to ‘comb out’ his Work in Progress, some pages of which were published in the same number of Transition. Work in Progress became Finnegans Wake.
Alexander Rodchenko defaced his own book of photography Ten Years in Uzbekistan when its content became illegal and its subjects were disappeared by the authorities in the great purges of the late 1930s.
The figures are revenants: here a secret-police torturer suffered a Rothko-like extinction; here a party functionary became an apparition veiled in ink; there one was wiped out by a dark blob and his name obliterated in the caption beneath.
Would an act of self-defacement be different to those acts performed by un-named third parties, who edited out the now un-namables by doctoring the photographs of Stalin?
The list of artists that destroyed their own work is long. Among them Fra Bartolommeo, Watteau, Monet, Cezanne, Soutine, Bacon, Johnson, De Kooning, Golub, Richter, Kippenberger. And Barnett Newman, whose work was also repeatedly targeted by a militant aestheticist in the 1980s—he slashed several canvases.
Borges’ 1939 story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote imagined a translator who so painstakingly and faithfully rendered the text of Cervantes’ Don Quixote that he ended up with an identical work, re-written.
But Borges’ narrator suggests that Menard’s version must be an improvement on the grounds that its greater historic distance from Quixote’s story is an indication of a richer set of cultural and literary allusions.
If the Menard text had been fact, I could have carefully re-rendered a new version from it.
Menard’s text is incomplete though.
Jackson Pollock’s Mural was painted in a single 15-hour burst in 1943. Nearly 20 feet long, he had to knock out a wall in his apartment to fit it in. When the mural reached Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment, it was too long, and Peggy called Duchamp in to deal with the crisis. He advised cutting eight inches off one end, saying ‘that in this type of painting it wasn’t needed’.
Was Duchamp’s an act of pragmatic surgery or editorial judgement? Pollock didn’t seem to mind. In either case, the edit seemed to have sharpened the painting’s importance for me. Completed it.
The supplementary inches of painted canvas have never been found.
I could find no record of the offcut; perhaps the story was another joke by Duchamp. But it felt as if it should exist, so I considered recreating Pollock’s margin.
In 1945, German forces removed the Amber Room from the Catherine Palace to Konigsberg Castle, where it is presumed destroyed in a fire shortly after it surrendered to Soviet forces, though doubt remains.
In 1979 a reconstruction started, and in 1997 an Italian stone mosaic that had decorated the Amber Room was found in West Germany in the possession of the family of a soldier who had helped pack up the Amber Room.
Was the mosaic installed on the wall above the fireplace, or on the floor under a dog basket?
On the plane on the way back from a meeting I noticed that the bottle of water, drunk at altitude, had been slightly crushed by the air pressure as we descended. The air that remained in it was her beautiful breath and that of 150 passengers at 36,000 feet.
Duchamp discovered that his 1919 Air de Paris had irreparably broken, and had Henri-Pierre Roché buy a replacement ampoule in 1949. He was sufficiently concerned with conservation that there were eventually several of these.
I acquired one of these; then breathed it.
Robert Rauschenberg erased a Willem De Kooning piece in 1953. The older artist selected a drawing with ink and crayon for him—it took Rauschenberg a month to erase it.
I set out to recreate Pollock’s margin. My first attempts failed: strips 8 inches wide and 8 feet high, but they seemed to have no connection to either of its parent canvases. They were a remainder that hadn’t divided, and were destroyed.
The artist Mike Bidlo referenced Rauschenberg in 2005 by replicating then erasing sixteen De Kooning drawings, but his careful documentation of the stages of erasure surely diluted the appropriation.
Though the De Kooning was replaced—and no photograph of it exists—by the erased sheet, I wanted the shavings from the erasers Rauschenberg had used, because in aggregate the curled erasures surely held an imprint of the original work.
But could those curls ever be recombined to recuperate that image, like a once-divided canvas sutured back together? This seemed beyond the limits of reconstruction.
Man Ray’s sculpture Object to Be Destroyed was eventually smashed by students in 1957. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow, an earlier version had instructed.
He remade it in a large edition as Indestructible Object the following year.
I had a souvenir chunk of the dismantled Berlin Wall, of course. But I was still working on getting an unused section left over from when they started erecting it in 1961.
The history of art is full of phantoms, and one of the sources of creativity is the desire to reconstruct what once existed.
In 1965, Dalí was supposed to give an art class to prisoners in the prison at Rikers Island, but had to pull out because of illness. Instead he donated a new Crucifixion, which he specified should hang in the canteen. The original was stolen, cunningly swapped for a copy.
A decision. I would need to cut the margin away, with shears or a palette knife.
During the cultural revolution, Mu Xin was imprisoned in an institutional jail where he was able to steal 66 sheets of the paper provided for forced confessions. He covered both sides with meticulous script and drawings, hiding them for several years in the padding of his uniform.
But when transferred to a prison camp, he had to destroy his own work.
Whilst preparing the canvas I wondered whether I would need to expand the geographic scope of my recreation to make it more truthful. Would I need a facsimile of Pollock’s barn? Might this extend to a replica Long Island up the coast from a new New York?
Perhaps such a project would eventually reach back in time as well, taking in the cultural pre-conditions for Abstract Expressionism. Maybe we would see the return of lost cities as the project widened, Audoghast, Ur and Dunwich returning from the sands and seas.
But I couldn’t bear to consider time—it was too much. The leap days awarded to years that were divisible by four that weren’t divisible by 100 that were divisible by 400. The leap seconds awarded to coordinate atomic and celestial time, or withheld. It was too much, I couldn’t bear it.
But if verisimilar context were needed, surely a Krasner and a Greenberg would cover it. Though I seemed to have cut out my own Krasner in the course of this.
A dealer is finding out for me whether Anthony Gormley made too many clay figures for his Field installations. In the 2003 version in China there were 120,000.
When a hundred contemporary artworks burned in Momart’s London warehouse in 2004, Jake and Dinos Chapman said of their destroyed Hell, ‘We will just make it again. It’s only art.’
Did this willingness to repeat make Hell’s ash less valuable to the art students who combed the site’s cinders?
I saw an invisible dotted line running up one side of the canvas, like an X-ray. And the outline of some scissors hanging over it. X.
No matter. Try again. I begin again, same anew.
I have 20 feet of canvas. The wall has been knocked down.
I have the pots of paint, brushes and sticks.
I have all night, and his cigarettes. I have scissors.
By Rod, 11 October, 2006; direct link.