Out of Sight: When Artists go Missing
We all know about artworks that have been stolen, or those which have gone missing, from Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Adoration of the Shepherds with Saints Lawrence and Francis (1609, stolen in 1969) to Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), or, to name a more recent example, Michael Asher’s caravan at Sculpture Münster Project last year. But what about artists themselves? To be stolen is, however, very different from going missing, especially when looking at artists, and in particular, at the group that follows.
In the years I have been working as a curator, by and large motivated by the discovery of new, compelling artists – and of course looking back at artists output from decades past and gone. I have preoccupied myself with a what if scenario, and a number of related questions: What if artists decide to go missing, or choose to stop producing work altogether? Has an artist ever produced a groundbreaking and potentially seminal oeuvre, and yet their very existence is only known by very few? If so, why would artists willingly slip under the radar, or choose to eschew the limelight and not exhibit their work at all? When thinking about artists synonymous with the birth of conceptual art and considering their at times quite forceful claims of originality and true innovation – particularly over their peers and colleagues – was there art as idea before art as idea? What if artists did all of this while making this air of mystification and sheer obscurity the subject of their work? Perhaps more interestingly, and succinctly, are any instances in existence in which these seemingly unjustified and unbeknown acts took place?
Alfred Johansen could certainly be described as an archetypal case study for an artist exemplifying the ideas surrounding the latter questions. Born in 1928 in Odense – which means the artist turned 80 at some point this year – his current whereabouts or even his possible death are not known. In fact, other than half finished stories and what appears to have accumulated in rumour and myth, very little is known about the artist and the works he produced. This perhaps is bolstered by very few sources in existence chartering – albeit minimally – the artist and his work, one of which reporting at some point during the mid 1970s he vanished without a trace, and without any apparent reason. Placing more obfuscation on the understanding of the artist and further shrouding him in mystery are the works he produced during his short career, which were only ever experienced directly by very few. His forward thinking artworks and radical gestures consisted of performances and installations that took place in darkened gallery spaces. Untitled (1966) is, as it stands currently, the only surviving piece and evidence of the actions Johansen carried out, yet it amounts to not much more than a mere trace. The piece consists of two photographs, each of which is virtually black and divested of anything visually recognisable. Pivotally, he instructed that all of his performances were documented but without the use of flash. With no way to compensate for the lack of light, Untitled (1966) stands in the true sprit of the performances themselves, which at the time left audiences entirely bemused and were thus understood through rumours rather than concrete facts (the same could certainly be applied to the artist’s biography). The core of Johansen and his work is indeed a mythology and it seems that this present day curiosity to learn more and grasp a deeper understanding of both himself and his work – yet, only be denied – is exactly what he intended. If we look to the present day, where a number of artists seem concerned with mining new avenues for a conceptually orientated approach to art making, Johansen and his work’s appear to stand, albeit unintentionally, at the very forefront – demonstrating that true innovation does not necessarily equate with success, notoriety and existing in the public limelight. A letter addressed to Johansen’s friend Peter Madesen, written by himself in his native language of Danish in 1972, offers partial insight into, and a reasoning for, not only the specific nature that his works took but why he suddenly stopped producing works before disappearing completely. A translation of this letter reads as follows:
Cologne 24th July 1972
I’m sitting here having my morning coffee at the hotel in Cologne, after my lecture yesterday evening – and actually feel quite dismayed at the experience of what I’ve been involved in yet again. A well-meaning crowd of so-called art art-lovers, who looked however as if I was boring them to tears! The sky outside is a rumbling charcoal-grey and so is my mood. You know that I’ve often mentioned that I no longer saw any real reason to continue my artistic career under the conditions in which we artists must express ourselves. Perhaps the most radical and most rational thing one can do as an artist today is simply to drop out of the whole circus. This feeling in me is even stronger than ever at this moment. I simply can’t stand the snobbish atmosphere that surrounds our cultural activity, and I feel that whatever I try to do to avoid being incorporated in this self-righteous, exclusive club, it will only end with me being caught all the same in situations that I thoroughly despise. We can wriggle and twist, we can shout and scream, we can criticize and rebel but we still bloody end up being fodder for the capitalist social machine’s perpetual need for opinion and counter – opinion – and thus in the final analysis we help to keep the whole shebang running. Yes, yes, I know that you’ve heard it all before!
PS. Often think about your lovely country house in Sweden.
Displaying a similar artistic and somewhat elusive temperament in regard to art making is Oscar Neuestern, an artist who exhibited on just a few occasions and appears to be only known – be the very few who do – via a text published in ARTnews in September 1969 and written by art critic Kiki Kundry. Similar to the existing evidence from Johansen’s activities the style, is strangely confusing, almost bordering on the illegible. It opens with a question posed by Kundry to the artist: "The decision to not use photographs is puzzling. Can you explain it?" "Symmetry. Transparency" Neuestern explains, to which Kundry responds, "In other words…" followed and cut short by Neuestern’s somewhat glib reply, "There is none". Not dissimilar to Johansen, the artist produced work – and practiced as an artist – in a manner that appeared to stand at a considerable distance from what was taking place around the same time. Although, in a way similar to conceptual artists – which at that point were burgeoning – his work was conceived in a clear idea based vein, possessing an equally radical impulse for expanding both the understanding and boundaries of what art might or could be. But its disparity and what subsequently allowed its uniqueness, lies in one concept which Neuestern was constantly preoccupied with investigating: the concept of the absolute. Indeed, while artists in the late 1960s were busy manoeuvring towards dematerialisation, Neuestern seemed to be a step ahead; his entire artistic career was founded on absence. Quoted within the aforementioned ARTnews article, the artist proclaims: "The absolute? I will never achieve it, despite what critics are saying. True transparency is possible only in the ultimate non-act, which I have not yet managed. It requires – that’s a terrifying word – unavailability of the knowledge of the impulse to reject activity. The contradiction is the self-knowledge required to make an art gesture. At best, while I reject material symmetry, I depend upon systematic balances, ideational, that is conceptual itemization balanced as on a seesaw, or perhaps a slowly moving pendulum in the eternal void." Neuestern explains further "the problem with the new generation, as I see it, is how to be both present and absent at the same time." His unique approach to thinking about new possibilities for art was, quite strangely, coaxed by a disease he suffered, which at times also hindered his progress. He had a memory of 24 hours, so his work was always just beginning, or rather, disappearing. Consequently, everything demanded to be written down, not only ideas for work but also the mundane events of daily life – people’s names, phone numbers, road names, etc. Therefore, ironically, while his work was primarily concerned with the idea of producing art with no apparent output at all, his life was constantly full of materiality. Yet, for what must be in abundance, none of Neuestern’s notes can be located and furthermore nothing has publicly been heard about his work since the aforementioned ARTnews article was released, leading some to believe that he went missing or simply stopped practising as an artist. Perhaps this was Neuestern finally achieving his ultimate goal, the ultimate non-act.
Close to Johansen’s and Neuestern’s approach is a more recent example, Spencer Anthony. Interestingly, like Neuestern, Anthony suffers from a mental condition, impacting upon his approach to making work and resulting in an elusive persona Perhaps in part, the reason why his work has remained largely, almost completely overlooked, yet being utterly fascinating and shifting the paradigms of art making. The current whereabouts of the artist is unclear, though in no way has this prevented the generation of interest about his work. For instance, the artist Ryan Gander has cited Anthony as a continual inspiration, even including him in a number of his works. Born in 1946 in Saint Leven, UK, he studied at the Falmouth School before moving to London in 1976. Even at that point London was one of the epicentres for the art world, but Anthony rarely mixed in those particular circles. In essence, his work is concerned primarily with amalgamating fact and fiction and playing off these two separate yet interrelated fields. The majority of his ideas – or from what I have been told – stem from his aforementioned medical condition, Aurafilia. To elucidate, Aurafilia is a rare genetic disorder. Those who suffer from it – of which there are very few – literally hear feelings, but not, however, the feelings of others. The condition is intensified by stress and extreme happiness and is most prominent in the moment in which ideas fuse together. It is during this moment that an Aurafilian will experience a wide range of sounds that would otherwise go undetected to a non-sufferer. It has been recorded that the condition is amplified in sufferers whose occupations involve vast periods of concentration and thought, a theory most pertinent to Anthony’s position as an artist. In a rare interview in the December 1998 issue of Flash Art, Anthony explains the way in which he embraces, his at times, extreme condition: "It’s like an uncertain type of alchemy, almost a blessing for me, much of what I do is to associate things, to take very different concepts articles or objects, for example, a Big Mac wrapper, the Capoeira dance, the notion of a photographically latent image, the colour burnt sienna, along with all their historical and social meaning and weight and actually see my mind to see how they collide in time and space. That is the language of conceptual art, to see how things collide, to see what happens when things are bashed against each other. For me however, I am acutely in tune with the results of each collision, because I HEAR it. I experience the conceptual making of art works in my mind in two ways. Logically in thought, but also sensually, in crashes and bangs and pops and whizzes. It is in many ways like a symphony of pure extreme thought. I know when an idea works simply because I hear it, I hear a sound that no one has heard before."
Johansen, Neuestern and Anthony, are of course just a few examples one could choose from a whole variety of artists who did not get the exposure that they deserved. Importantly though, and of vital interest here, they, and their work, insisted on avoiding mass exposure – the danger to be overly known – as if it were a masterpiece in a choreography of life, making absence take precedence, and refreshing the understanding of both art and the role of artist with works that foreground, and are, the unknown.
Adam Carr (*1981) is an independent curator and writer based in London.