Couple stole more than other artists' ideas

By Blake Gopnik
Monday, May 17, 2010

NEW YORK -- A dress made of raw meat? A cut-up shark in formaldehyde? A doorway made of naked bodies?


It's not easy to impress an art critic these days.

So how about a piece of contemporary art that consists of fragments stolen from priceless major modern works? My head's still spinning.

On Saturday evening, in the back room at Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea, veteran dealer Magdalena Sawon gave me an early glimpse of a work called "Stolen Pieces," which she said has never been exhibited. Made by a young Italian couple, Eva and Franco Mattes, but kept secret since the mid-'90s, it consists of a display case full of tiny chips from significant works of art, snatched or snapped off by the duo over a two-year crime spree. The artists did the deeds between July 28, 1995, and July 29, 1997, in museums all around the world.

The loot includes a manufacturer's label peeled from the aquarium in which Jeff Koons floated his famous basketballs in 1985. There's a short length of shoelace from a Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture. There's a little blob of lead from an installation by Joseph Beuys, and a couple of threads from an Andy Warhol. Perhaps most significantly, there's a tiny chip of porcelain from the urinal "Fountain" of Marcel Duchamp, taken from an unspecified exhibition.

The artists also claim to have lifted bits from works by Kandinsky and Rauschenberg. Sawon says the piece is being unveiled now because the statute of limitations has run out on its thefts.

A clandestine video shows the then-21-year-olds completing their final theft -- of a tiny chip of burnt material from one of Alberto Burri's famous "Combustion" paintings -- from the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna, Italy. The artists also provide before-and-after stills of some of the works of art they altered during their game of Grand Theft Museum.

"Stolen Pieces" doesn't look like much, just a bunch of scraps, for the most part unrecognizable. Among the few things you can actually make out are a speedometer from one of the crushed cars of the French artist C├ęsar and a bottle cap from an installation by the American Edward Kienholz. The bottle cap is the trophy from the Italians' very first theft, before they had fully decided that it would also count as their first work of art. (They went on to be major figures in the world of Web art, working under the famous alias

'Tribute,' not 'vandalism'

Franco Mattes said Sunday that the artists' intention when they began "Stolen Pieces" 15 years ago was "absolutely not vandalism. I thought it was the greatest tribute I could ever pay to these artists.

"I loved them," he added. "We thought we were giving new life to these works -- bringing them back to life from the grave of the museum."

"Stolen Pieces" may not look that great, but like so much of the work made in the 20th century -- like so much art, ever -- "Stolen Pieces" gets its force from the questions it raises.

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