French conceptual artist Sophie Calle manages to turn the shocking heist of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 into an absorbing game between text and image. Stipulations in Gardner’s will forbade moving or rearranging any part of her collection, so the robbery left a visible void in the galleries. Calle visited the crime scene soon after the theft to ask curators, guards, and other staff members what they remembered of the stolen pieces, which included paintings by Rembrandt and Manet as well as a cherished Vermeer. In her two-part installation Last Seen, on view through March 3 in the new wing of the museum, she transforms these absences into possibilities, like a tabula rasa.
For the first section, from 1991, edited recollections are silk-screened and paired with a companion color photograph documenting the empty space. Recently, after Calle learned empty frames had been re-installed in the galleries where the stolen paintings once resided, she returned to create the second, smaller section asking museum workers and visitors what they saw when they looked at the vacant frames. These responses form the basis for large textual lithographs hung next to photographs that depict an anonymous viewer, with his or her back to us, gazing at the empty frame.
Bathed in soft natural light, the warm photographs are seductive, drawing attention to fragments from nearby paintings, such as the tip of a man’s shoe peeking out from behind a robe. The recollections and inferences of visitors and guards are as astute as they are contradictory. One says simply: “What you see is yourself;” while another references the “horror vacui” of the decorative pattern on the wall inside an otherwise empty gilded frame. Is the young man in the photograph, his head and shoulders centered inside the golden frame, contemplating emptiness or his own infinite potential? Calle suggests anything is possible. Perhaps even one day, “to receive a telephone call”, as a final printed quote reads, ”Vermeer is back.”