Although the art world — especially the contemporary one, where nearly everything has retail value — likes to preserve and maintain artworks as much as it can, it’s inevitable that some pieces get lost along the way. Maybe they were made out of an unusual material, maybe they once passed into private hands and then disappeared, or maybe they were made to be ephemeral in the first place. Unless you had a chance to see or experience these artworks in person, they become a bit like mysteries, leaving us to piecing together their stories and study the photographs of them left behind.
To this end, Tate has teamed up with Channel 4 to create the Gallery of Lost Art, a website devoted to works of art that are no longer with us. The site has a sort of detective, Unsolved Mysteries vibe to it, with overhead shots of “evidence” laid out on tables, plus case-file-like type and eerie electronic music playing in the background. It’s all slight hokey, but the works they highlight make up for it.
The creators have sorted “lost art” into 10 different categories, among them stolen, destroyed, unrealized and missing. To navigate the gallery, the visitor can pick an artist, choose one of these categories or just click through in different directions to encounter random pieces. Each artwork is accompanied by a short essay about it and its disappearance, as well any related archival pictures or texts.
Some stories are more mysterious than others; some raise questions about art history as we know it. Would Georges Braque get more credit for his role in founding Cubism if we still had — or at least had more evidence of — his paper constructions? Among my favorites in the gallery are an infrared digital partial reconstruction of the Willem de Kooning drawing that Robert Rauschenberg famously erased and a photograph of Otto Dix’s incredible-looking “The Trench,” which somehow made it through the Nazis’ infamous Degenerate Art exhibition intact but then was sold to a private dealer, in 1940, and never seen again.
On July 1, 2013, after being up for a year, the Gallery of Lost Art will disappear itself. Until then, they’re adding new lost works every week.