The most famous art event in Boston history involved not creation but removal: the 1990 theft of 13 works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In a small but not-insignificant way, “Sophie Calle: Last Seen” reverses the balance. The French conceptual artist has created a set of works predicated on that removal. The show runs at the Gardner through March 3.
Calle, whose art draws on photography and narrative, was in Boston in early 1990 for an exhibition of her work held at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Agreeing to give an interview during her stay, she specified that it be conducted at the Gardner, in front of Vermeer’s “The Concert,” a favorite painting of Calle’s.
The Vermeer was the most grievous loss from the robbery, which took place several weeks after the interview. The other stolen items were two Rembrandt paintings and an etching, one painting each by the 17th-century Dutch artist Govaert Flinck and Édouard Manet, five gouaches by Edgar Degas, a Chinese vase, and a finial from a Napoleonic flag holder.
That fall, Calle returned to Boston and came to the Gardner to work on a project called “Last Seen . . .” (there’s such poignance to the indeterminacy of that ellipsis). It makes up two-thirds of “Last Seen,” the present exhibition. The other third is called “What Do You See?”
The idea for “Last Seen . . .” is deceptively simple. Calle interviewed museum staffers about the missing artworks and photographed the spaces where the works had been displayed. She then excerpted comments from the interviews, printed and framed the resulting text, placing it next to a framed color photograph of where the art had been. The photographs are very large. Two are nearly 8 feet by 5 feet. Each of the resulting nine works is a kind of diptych: image and word, present absence shown and past presence described, what can now be seen and what can now be remembered.
The Gardner being the Gardner — that is to say, richly appointed even down to its wall coverings — what we see in the photographs is quite beautiful. In some ways, the beauty of what’s shown in them is heightened beyond what one would see in the actual gallery. The images are visually uncluttered, almost chaste in their straighforwardness, as the galleries (again, the Gardner being the Gardner) are not. The very different character of the exhibition space in the new Renzo Piano wing — cool, stripped down, slightly aloof, almost mannered in its understatement — complements Calle’s work. The one concession to Mrs. Gardner’s taste is the unapologetic red of the walls.
In 2012, Calle returned to the Gardner and created “What Do You See?” It, too, consists of color photographs of spaces where stolen art had hung, each photograph paired with text. There are a number of differences, though. The images aren’t as large; most are slightly more than 2 feet by slightly more than 3 feet. They include a viewer, shown from behind (or, in one case, a viewer’s shadow, that viewer being Calle). And each photograph now has a frame in it. In 1995, the museum chose to rehang the frames of the works stolen from the Dutch Room. The frames are like “the chalk seen around the body” at a crime scene, as one of Calle’s interview subjects remarked last year.
This dual addition, of anonymous viwers looking at empty frames, adds a further emotional element to the images. What had been melancholy now becomes incongruous and disquieting too.
Calle has also done two things differently with the interviews. She spoke to museumgoers as well as staff, which means some of the comments are even more unpredictable, if not necessarily as articulate or sophisticated. And one of them consists of the remarks of a specific individual, a Parisian clairvoyant named Maud. One suspects that Mrs. Gardner would have approved.
The texts bear close reading. Many of the observations are acute, memorable, or both. “You felt like an intruder,” someone said to Calle in 1990 of “The Concert,” “and you wouldn’t want them to know you were watching.”
A dozen years later, two commenters offer diametrically different views. “To be honest with you, I don’t think it elicits much response anymore. It’s been gone for too long,” someone says of a Rembrandt. That’s surely true, but so is what someone else says of the empty frames: “What you see is yourself.”Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.