Last summer, while COVID-19 was still ravaging through New York, I began noticing an unusual amount of discarded paintings on the sidewalks of my neighborhood in Brooklyn. It became an almost daily occurrence as more people moved out to the suburbs or to other states. Instinctively, I started amassing a photo archive of these paintings for a potential project. But as often is the case with new project ideas, I soon found out that someone else has already done it.
When I stumbled upon artist Jason Osborne’s Instagram account Abandoned Paintings, which has been archiving images of discarded paintings for the last decade, I immediately became a fan. Updated daily with submissions from around the world, it pays a final tribute to these disowned artworks before they fade into the trash heap of history.
Osborne, an artist with a self-professed fondness for fringe and forgotten art, first started Abandoned Paintings as a blog about unseen paintings in storage facilities of American museums. Soon after, he began documenting discarded paintings that he spotted on sidewalks and trash bins across New York City. A painter himself, Osborne initially collected some of the works he found on the streets, intending to incorporate them into his practice. However, space limitations rendered the project impossible.
In 2011, he substituted his blog with an Instagram account that quickly gained popularity. In time, he started receiving contributions from like-minded fans from across the globe, including France, the United Kingdom, and Chile.
“As a painting junkie, I like to think of all the other lives that paintings have other than the 10% that we see on the walls of museums and galleries,” Osborne told Hyperallergic in an interview. “The Instagram account was an alternate way to record and archive discarded paintings without having to physically store them.”
According to Osborne, abandoned paintings appear on the streets in cycles, mostly when art students leave their studios at the end of their studies or when people move out of apartments at the end of the month. The mass exodus from NYC during 2020 seemed to interrupt that pattern, adding more abandoned paintings to the streets.
Scrolling through the images in Abandoned Paintings, you’ll find many damaged or unfinished works. Many of the others look dated or amateurish, but that’s part of their charm. And like in any thrift store or collection of found items, there are gems to be discovered if you look hard enough.
Though he has helped find new owners to some of the discarded paintings, Osborne says that salvaging these artworks is not the purpose of his project. “I like the poetry of them being abandoned or forgotten,” he explained.
With new submissions and inquiries flowing into his DMs daily, Osborne has a handful of anecdotes to share about the different lives that one painting can have. For instance, there have been several cases in which artists reached out to him saying that they identified a painting they had previously sold or gifted to others. One unlucky painting was abandoned twice.
What’s also interesting is the way that people tend to leave paintings out on the street. Unlike other discarded objects, paintings are often leaned presentably against a wall or a fence, waiting to be noticed and taken.
“I think people have unique relationships with paintings wherever they have them,” Osborne explained. “It’s not like leaving a used vacuum cleaner on the streets. Paintings are almost never hidden in a trash bag.”
What’s next for Abandoned Paintings? If it were up to Osborne, he would “fill entire museums and galleries with discarded paintings.” But until then, he says, documenting these forlorn artworks has contributed to his understanding of painting in myriad ways.
“It solved many problems I had in my own work,” he said. “I would keep doing it forever.”