Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Gardner Heist

Prior to living outside of Boston I knew very little about the city and its rich history. Certainly, there were the vague generalities gleaned from junior high American history courses. Most Americans recall phrases like Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, the shot heard ‘round the world, and the midnight ride of Paul Revere. I actually did know a bit about the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but my knowledge of the art scene in the city was lacking. I was mostly aware of the MFA’s collection of John Singleton Copley works which I had discussed while teaching an American Art History course.

Even after I was living in Massachusetts for a year or so I was still unfamiliar with another treasured landmark—the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I had heard from friends and acquaintances that it had a superb collection and that it had been the victim of an infamous art theft, but I had not made the time to visit. So, my first visit was with a friend from the Church of the Advent. I had heard tales about the museum and its namesake from people who worshipped at that church.

I attended the Church of the Advent for three years. At each mass I was entranced by the extensive neo-gothic stone reredos that graces the back wall of the chancel. I was told that Mrs. Gardner had actually gifted that item to the church. She had attended there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A rather peculiar individual, Gardner is said to have scrubbed the steps of the chancel by hand—on her knees on Good Friday—as a form of personal penance. Her will stipulated that a requiem mass be said for her there each year around the middle of April. It was possibly these stories of a famous former parishioner that led me to my first visit to the museum.

That visit also led me to eventually pick up the 2009 book—The Gardner Heist—that examines the multifaceted art theft. This remains the most infamous art heist on record and Ulrich Boser provides an enthralling account of the tangled web—or rather, endless cocoon—that surrounds the mystery.

There is something in this book to engage nearly any reader. A reader need not know anything about Mrs. Gardner, her museum, or art in general. Boser initially approached his writing somewhat distant from all these. The reader becomes enveloped in the tale just as the writer became subsumed by the mystery. Boser had never intended to be so personally invested in the theft, yet he was compelled.

The tale begins like a scene from a movie. Using the details given by witnesses, and from the author’s countless interviews over several years, he paints a vivid image of the night of the museum robbery. The reader is already invested in the story by this point. The author then proceeds to unravel the tale, from every imaginable vantage point.

Boser, first, details how he was infected with an unrelenting fever that kept him chasing every lead in the case. The author initially met Harold Smith, a renowned art robbery detective, in early 2005. His goal was to research the story of the Gardner heist for a writing project. Smith has solved several major thefts in the past. However, the Gardner theft had remained unsolved for a decade and a half by that point. It was no small job as the thieves had taken a Vermeer, a Manet and two Rembrandt paintings. It was always just out of Smith’s reach. Within a year the detective was dead and the mystery was still not solved.

After all those years, chasing down all those leads, Boser decided to continue tracking down the art himself. Through that journey he provides us with detailed accounts of all the major figures. Gardner herself is considered. We learn of the wealthy eccentric and her passion for collecting art. We discover some history of the museum and the lax policies that allowed the robbery to happen, along with Gardner’s own stipulation that the works remain in the places she left them upon her death. This last tidbit provides an ever present reminder for the museum staff that part of their precious treasury is still missing.

From there the paths spread out across Boston, North America, and around the globe. Boser moves from one Boston underworld figure to the next. Each seems a likely suspect. Even when discounted for one reason or another, the author second guesses the mobsters’ involvement. At one point the infamous James “Whitey” Bulger is even implicated. This was before his recent arrest. Bulger had been on the FBI most wanted list for some time, but stealing artwork was minor on the list of charges.

The Boston underworld connections take the author to the British Isles. Some informants suggest that the IRA was connected to the missing paintings; that they may possibly be stored in Ireland. Near this part of the story Boser evaluates his own involvement in the long tale of the missing paintings. He brings the book to a close, leaving the reader still examining the possible leads not yet resolved. And it is this lack of resolution that actually makes the book so intriguing. The reader does not feel left in the lurch. The mystery remains and the reader is still considering the heist, waiting for the eventual return of the paintings.

Ulrich Boser, Smithsonian Books, 2009

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Creation through Destruction

There is something quite intriguing to me about the processes of our creative endeavors. While viewers of artwork are immediately taken by the object or image that is ultimately presented before their eyes, artists have more opportunity to consider the creative process in relation to and separate from the artwork itself. As with many other activities of our daily existence, we can make some analogies to the deeper questions of life when we examine art in this way.

That seamless connection between the art object and its creation was ramped up during the mid-twentieth century when artists from the Abstract Expressionist movement joined psychological and philosophical ideologies to consider the prominence of the “act” in the making of art. The existentialist concept that “being is doing” pervaded some of that work, such as in the action paintings of Jackson Pollock.

Still, the conceptual analogy of the art making process goes back even further. Pablo Picasso, though still often misunderstood among the wider population, was even seen by the conservative art establishment of his day as destroying the foundations of art. Yes, he and Georges Braque did pull apart the picture plane, but he did other things that were equally “destructive.” One of his unique additions to art production was the process of reduction relief printing.

For centuries prior, there had been woodcut prints composed of multiple colors, printed from multiple blocks. Picasso’s new twist on this process was to use only one block to print multiple colors. In order to accomplish this he had to basically destroy the linoleum block to create his final image.

The small linoleum prints shared here utilize the same process. I printed some extra images outside of the editions in order to show the process more clearly. This allows viewers to see just what is cut away at each stage. Very little was cut away from each block before the first colors were printed. Those carved areas reveal the bright white highlights. The next area carved then reveals the first color printed and down on the line, through the fifth color.

This process ensures that there will never be additional images printed. There can only ever be a maximum of the images printed from the first state of the linoleum block, as the second carving of the block destroys the information available from the first carving.  Each additional carving and printing removes more of the block until the only remaining information is what is left from the final carving. The registration of the colors in the process is usually quite exact because it is all from the same block, yet there are bound to be some mistakes in registration. Therefore, the artist usually ends up with even fewer prints than the number printed from the initial carving.

Confusing? A little. That is one of the reasons I printed the various stages of the process for my students. They typically cannot conceive of what I am explaining to them until after they have done the whole process at least once. Reduction printing cannot produce exactly the same results that multiple block printings do, but it is a useful and sometimes beautiful process.

This concept of creation—and even beauty—from destruction is the concept that most intrigues me with this process. Just as we see in nature, in processes like the death of the seed that creates a new plant, we find elements of this idea in many world religions. Some Eastern deities represent both the creative and destructive forces simultaneously. Related to these piece, obviously, is the idea of the suffering and death of Christ in order to gain redemption and eternal life for humanity. When artwork can remind us of these ideas by its very processes, and not simply through its imagery, it is a complex and wonderful thing.