As you might expect, there’s not a lot to look at in the new exhibition, “Invisible: Art of the Unseen 1957-2012,” at the Hayward Gallery in London.
It abounds in empty galleries, blank canvases and unoccupied sculptural plinths. A sensual pleasure for the eye this is not.
There are, however, quite a few thought-provoking jokes and conceits to be savored.
Naturally, being in the presence of invisible art provides only vanishingly small benefits to the spectator.
Therefore, why not make an invisible visit? That is, don’t go to the actual exhibition, but instead contemplate the ideas contained in the galleries from an armchair at home.
It’s the contention of Ralph Rugoff, the Hayward’s director, that invisible art constitutes “a low-profile tradition” dating back over seven decades.
You can indeed discern a stylistic development in non-visible work similar to that which is familiar in painting, sculpture, installation and more conventionally perceptible forms of visual art.
Andy Warhol created an invisible sculpture at a New York night club in the mid-1980s. It consisted of a label reading, “Andy Warhol, USA/Invisible Sculpture/Mixed Media 1985.”
He stood next to this for a short while then went away.
In 1992, Tom Friedman went one better by creating an invisible sculpture, with added unseen lurking menace. This is again an empty pedestal, with above it a spherical ritual space cursed by a professional witch.
It’s not clear whether this piece ought to carry the occult equivalent of a health-and-safety warning (“Caution: Malign Magical Spell Hazard”). Both the Warhol and the Friedman are in the exhibition, though obviously not on view.
Some pieces in the exhibition are less visible than others. Claes Oldenburg’s “Proposed Underground Memorial and Tomb for President John F. Kennedy” (1965) would actually have been observable if it had been constructed, albeit only partially and with difficulty.
It was to have consisted of a hollow bronze casting the size of the Statue of Liberty, buried upside down with an opening “about the size of a golf ball” in the ground above. Through this, spectators could have peered at the interior while kneeling or lying on their stomachs.
In comparison, the Taiwanese-born performance artist Tehching Hsieh has achieved such levels of negative achievement that he makes mere invisibility look un-avant-garde.
His penultimate work, the last of five one-year performances, “No Art Piece” (1985-86) took the form of the artist not seeing, making, talking or reading about or otherwise having anything to do with art for 12 months.
He followed this with “Tehching Hsieh 1986-1999 (Thirteen Year Plan),” in which he made art but in secret without exhibiting it in public or revealing what it was.
The invisible tradition goes back to the French artist, Yves Klein, who in 1958 exhibited an entirely empty gallery in Paris, which he claimed to be crammed with an immaterial “blue sensibility.”
Klein subsequently sold collectors “zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility” in exchange for gold, some of which he threw in the River Seine (and some not).
Now, there’s a sharply pointed metaphor for a lot of things. It’s not only the art world that deals in imperceptible value. Just now the European economy, for example, is full of it. The irony is that Klein’s certificates transferring ownership of intangible zones might prove to have been a better investment than Greek government bonds.
“Invisible: Art of the Unseen 1957-2012” is at the Hayward Gallery, London, through Aug. 6. Information: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/venues/hayward-gallery.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on technology and Scott Reyburn on the art market.