Does art require paint, stone, sound or steel?

The question of whether art even has to exist for it to possess emotional or historical significance resonates at the heart of Rick Gekoski's fascinating new survey of what culture truly means to the world, writes Jonathan Gornall

The late Andy Warhol's 1985 work Invisible Sculpture on display at the Museum Kunst Palast in Dusseldorf, Germany in 2004. 
Federico Gambarini / picture-alliance / dpa / AP Images
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Lost, Stolen or Shredded:
Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature
Rick Gekoski
Profile Books

During the spring of 1961, the French artist Yves Klein took up temporary residence at the Hotel Chelsea in New York, where he and his German fiancée, Rotraut Uecker, would remain for two months.

Even in the early 1960s, the Chelsea was a canny choice of abode for an artist flirting with posterity. Mark Twain had lived there, Sarah Bernhardt had slept there, Dylan Thomas had all but died there and William Burroughs had written the controversial The Naked Lunch there.

And for 34-year-old Klein, the embrace of posterity was closer than he could have imagined. Almost exactly a year later, he would suffer a fatal heart attack.

Klein was in New York for an exhibition of his work at the gallery of Leo Castelli, the influential art dealer. Known for championing the cause of avant-garde contemporary art, Castelli played a central part in the careers of Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

But his magic dust failed to settle on Yves Klein, and not a single painting in the show was sold. To be fair, it was a tough sell.

Work by the likes of de Kooning and Pollock might have been challenging abstractions, but at least they gave the eye and the mind something to ponder - suggestions of depth and form, powerful compositions marshalling evocative worlds of colours in energetic motion.

Klein, on the other hand, was dealing stubbornly in nothingness - "monochrome abstractions", as he termed them, canvases utterly blank but for a coating of blue paint, applied by roller because he rejected brushes as "too excessively psychological".

Frustrated by the failure of the New York art milieu to peer through what he described as his "open window to freedom", Klein sat down to write what became known as the Chelsea Hotel Manifesto.

It is an extraordinary document, part rambling self-justification, part pretentious twaddle open to easy parody: "A few months ago … I felt the urge to register the signs of atmospheric behaviour by recording the instantaneous traces of spring showers on a canvas, of south winds, and of lightning (needless to say, the last-mentioned ended in a catastrophe …)".

A trip from Paris to Nice, he added in a kind of technical postscript, "might have been a waste of time had I not spent it profitably".

Klein had "placed a canvas, freshly coated with paint, on the roof of my white Citroën" and, as he bowled along Route Nationale 7 at 100 kilometres per hour, "the heat, the cold, the light, the wind, and the rain all combined to age my canvas prematurely; at least thirty to forty years were condensed into a single day".

But, at the heart of the manifesto are flashes of insight from an artist striving to liberate art, and artists, not only from the dull necessity for passé form but also from the tiresome and limiting business of actual physical existence.

Or, if one were a composer, the imagination-shackling requirement for actual sound.

In 1947, Klein composed a "monotone-silence-symphony" consisting, in the artist's own description, of "one broad continuous sound followed by an equally broad and extended silence, endowed with a limitless dimension". It was the silence, he insisted, that was "really my symphony and not the sounds during its performance". This silence was "so marvelous because it grants 'happenstance' and even sometimes the possibility of true happiness".

Here was an artist who sniffed at "the destructive qualities of physical noise" in much the same way as he believed that "form, henceforth, would no longer be a simple linear value, but rather a value of impregnation", and for whom art and music were in the mind of the beholder.

For Klein, a man who also dabbled with what he called the architecture of air and who in 1958 had attracted a large crowd to a Parisian gallery to view precisely nothing, the ultimate aim was nothing less (or more) than "the immaterialisation of art".

"Would not the future artist be he who expressed through an eternal silence an immense painting possessing no dimension?" he mused in his room at the Hotel Chelsea. "Gallery-goers, like any other public, would carry this immense painting in their memory."

Klein had less than a year of life left. But today, as art prices climb ever higher and demand outstrips supplies of modern and even contemporary artworks dwindle, the question he framed lives on, more relevant than ever. To possess cultural, emotional and historical significance and resonance, does art even have to exist, in a physical sense?

When the Louvre museum in Paris reopened on August 29, 1911, after an unprecedented eight-day hiatus, the visitors who, according to the correspondent of The Times of London, "thronged the galleries in exceptional numbers" to view precisely nothing, were in their own way carrying Klein's concept of an "immense painting in their memory".

While the museum had been closed on Monday, August 21, one of its most famous paintings, the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, better known as the Mona Lisa, had been stolen.

It was to remain at liberty for two years. In the end it turned out that the thief was Vincenzo Peruggia, an itinerant Italian picture-framer who had once helped to rehang the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. He had simply walked out of the building with the painting that Monday and kept it for two years before trying to sell it to a Florence art dealer for 100,000 francs.

At his trial, he claimed he had been interested only in repatriating the painting to Italy and, although he was sentenced to seven months in an Italian prison and the Mona Lisa was whisked back to France, he became something of a national hero.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the story, however, was that noted by The Times, and retold in a new book that explores the very boundaries of Klein's "immaterialisation of art". The Mona Lisa never attracted as many spectators as it did during the time when it was missing - a fact the management was quick to exploit, leaving in place throughout its absence the four bare picture hooks where Leonardo's painting had once hung.

Among the crowds that thronged to the Louvre to stare at the spot where the Mona Lisa had once been was the budding writer Franz Kafka, whose best-known novels, including The Castle and The Trial, were still ahead of him.

"For Franz Kafka," writes Rick Gekoski in Lost, Stolen or Shredded, an intriguing collection of stories about missing works of art and literature, "the absent Mona Lisa was in the process of joining the internal collection that he called his 'invisible curiosities'," - places, monuments and works of art he had never seen.

It's an aesthetic approach with which many tourists might identify. After all, who could dispute that the pyramids, the Taj Mahal and even the Mona Lisa of the imagination are far more impressive than the real things?

Gekoski, chair of the 2011 Man Booker International Prize panel, is a dealer in rare books and an author and broadcaster whose previous forays into print have been concerned solely with the world of books. Now, by delving into an exploration of the absent across all forms of art, he seems to have struck a chord with a much broader audience - the BBC Radio series upon which his book is based attracted more than half a million listeners.

It has, perhaps, something to do with the unleashing of imagination and recognition of the value of participation. By inviting us to consider what might have been, rather than what simply is, Gekoski recruits us as willing collaborators in the very process of art.

It's a theme that has, of course, been extensively explored by modern and contemporary artists.

Last summer, the Hayward Gallery in London staged a highly popular show called Invisible: Art About the Unseen, complete with a helpful guide written by the curator, Ralph Rugoff, entitled How to Look at Invisible Art.

To illustrate his theme, Rugoff called upon Marcel Duchamp's "intrigue with the unseen" and "his notion that an artwork is only ever fully realised in the mind of its audience".

In 1957, Duchamp - the man who in 1917 had lumbered the world with the burden of conceptual art by signing a porcelain urinal, calling it Fountain and declaring it to be a sculpture - raised eyebrows with an address to the American Federation of Artists.

The creative act, he declared, was not performed by the artist alone. The artist's constant collaborator was the spectator, who "brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act".

This, noted Rugoff, might not only suggest that "even the most conspicuously visible types of art have an added, unseen dimension" but "may also lead us to wonder whether art necessarily requires a physical object".

One would certainly have wondered that within the Hayward Gallery.

Inside, visitors struggled with, and puzzled over, such works as Andy Warhol's Invisible Sculpture, to create which the artist had briefly stood alongside an empty plinth in 1985 and "then went away, leaving behind an aura of celebrity".

Other pieces explored different aspects of the same landscape of perception and expectation. From the Italian artist Gianni Motti there were two apparently blank, framed canvases entitled Magic Ink (1989), which in fact had been sprayed with a type of "magic" ink that had rapidly disappeared soon after application.

Untitled (Denunzia), by another Italian, Maurizio Cattelan, consisting of a framed police report from 1991, recording his reported theft of an invisible work of art from his car, appeared to attest to the ability of the imagination to create something physical - or, perhaps, merely bore witness to the gullibility of Italian police officers.

One of the more thought-provoking pieces on show at the Hayward was Writing Diary With Water, by the Chinese artist Song Dong, who since 1995 until this day has kept a diary, written daily in water on a block of stone. The water, of course, evaporates almost instantly but, insists Dong, it leaves a trace. The stone, he says, "has become thicker day by day, with my own thoughts added on it".

Experience of such art, wrote Rugoff, is "inseparable from our knowledge of how it is made" and that was certainly true for a trio of works that the American artist Tom Friedman created in 1992 "during a flurry of invisible activity". The most testing example, perhaps, was 1,000 Hours of Staring, a piece that took Friedman five years to complete, during which time he spent more than 1,000 hours staring at a blank piece of paper - or "sensibilising" it, as Klein would have had it.

This type of artistic exercise is valuable, suggested Rugoff, because it draws attention to "the way that our interpretation and experience of an artwork is often contingent on information that exists apart from the object itself … the speculative idea alone, regardless of its verifiability, seems to offer all the purchase that we require".

This line of thought opens up all kinds of giddying possibilities - among them, as Gekoski highlights, the disturbing thought that "missing, presumed lost" might be the best state of affairs for some works of art which, after rediscovery and close examination, might be found to fall far short of the imagined masterpieces they had become in the communal imagination.

Take the fabled manuscripts of the Villa of the Papyri, buried with the rest of the town of Herculaneum in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. It was the 18th century before the library's tracts - preserved as carbonated lumps at first mistaken for coal - were unearthed, and many years after that before a painstaking method was devised for opening and reading them. The result? "As soon as the papyri began to be … deciphered, most analysts agreed in their disappointment with the contents," writes Gekoski, noting there were "altogether too many minor Epicurean tracts".

Such a non-find surely dampens expectations for the reality of the legendary great library at Alexandria, supposedly a depository of the world's knowledge, destroyed in antiquity and located by archaeologists in 2004. Nothing, it seemed, had survived the passage of time which, given the disappointment at Herculaneum, was probably just as well.

Gekoski, by trade a dealer in rare books, not unnaturally concentrates much of his attention on manuscripts, missing, destroyed or otherwise unavailable to posterity, and examines how their absence affects us.

"Was Philip Larkin's secretary right to shred his [doubtless scurrilous] diaries, shortly before his death? Or Byron's executors to burn his Memoirs? Was Max Brod right to reject Kafka's final instruction to burn all his unpublished manuscripts?"

Gekoski can see merit in all of the above examples. Our modern fascination with an author's processes "is a relatively recent phenomenon" and there is, he believes, much to be said for not peeking behind the veil: "We strip something numinous from our texts, reduce and denature them, when we focus too intently on how they came to be, and too little on the fact that they are".

Like laws and sausages, perhaps the process of creating art is best left unseen: would it be possible to read Larkin now without a bad taste in the mouth, if the full force of his racism and misanthropy had been revealed by the survival and publication of his diaries?

And yet, how to square the moral obligation to respect an author's wishes regarding their own work with the Kafkaesque fate that posthumously befell Kafka?

Kafka, who died relatively unknown in 1924, left instructions while wasting away from tuberculosis that all his manuscripts should be destroyed - everything, including his letters, diaries, works in progress and so on, should be "burned unread".

His best friend Max Brod ignored the request and over the next 10 years edited The Trial, The Castle and Amerika for publication.

Brod, says Gekoski, was faced with "a nice, almost classical conflict of duties … should [he] keep his word and honour his friend's wishes, or break his word and honour his friend's genius?".

To Brod, it was a no-brainer and so too it is for Gekoski.

But what about Kafka, the collector of "invisible curiosities"?

The problem, says Gekoski, is that we can't help ourselves: "works of art and literature engage us in profound ways, and when these works are torn from us ... we are affected in complex and unexpected fashion".

Put another way, each of us owns any art that presents or even suggests itself to us, no matter whose wall it is (or is not) hanging on.

As Klein insisted, we impregnate all art with our own history and interpretations - we are the wind sweeping over a freshly painted canvas atop a speeding Citroën, we are Duchamp's collaborating spectators, stood at the shoulder of every artist, composer and writer, contributing to the creative act, and we feel it as the artist might feel it when the work we have so co-produced is lost to us.

How else, perhaps, to explain the curious advert that appeared in The Times on August 31, 1911, 10 days after the Mona Lisa had gone missing?

The Medici Society in Bond Street, London, purveyors of "colour facsimiles of the great masters", announced its regret that "its reproduction of the Monna [sic] Lisa, or La Gioconda of Leonardo da Vinci is, owing to the unprecedented demand, temporarily out of stock" (noting, however, that "In the unhappy event of the permanent loss of the Original, the 'Medici Print' is likely to remain the most authentic replica").

Everyone, it seemed, including many who had never seen the real thing, was drawn to the absence of the painting.

There must, of course, be limits to our empathetic embrace of art that isn't (the lost buildings, never built, designed by the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, under-appreciated in his lifetime), art that has been destroyed (the early poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, burnt by the man himself) or art that never was (what might Dylan Thomas had gone on to produce if his demons hadn't chased him to an early grave?).

If not, we might find ourselves in the hopeless and time-consuming position of grieving for the operas not written by the promising music student who perished on the Titanic, the paintings Picasso might have executed had he not abandoned realism for cubism, the novels not written by the gifted writer who chose instead to pursue a profitable career in banking, or even the sculptor lost to posterity because the couple who could have been his parents never met.

Gekoski reserves an entire chapter for the fate of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in the wake of the 2003 invasion. Here, art disappeared on an industrial scale.

And he offers a challengingly counterintuitive response to the loss of art under such circumstances - a response that takes the invitation to collaborate in art, ancient or modern, to a logical if discomfiting conclusion.

For one thing, many of the looters of Iraq's antiquities could, and did, make the compelling case "that the nation had given them nothing, and cursed its history" - shortly before flogging that history to eager overseas buyers to make ends meet in a country whose economy had been sabotaged by war. Hard to argue with a hungry child.

And for another, whose art, whose culture, is it anyway?

For decades, Britain and other European countries had carted off antiquities from the Middle East and elsewhere by the shipload. Were they wrong to have done so? Not necessarily, according to James Cumo, the director of The Art Institute of Chicago, who entered the stocks in the jousting over Iraq by pointing out that "Whatever it is, Iraqi national culture certainly doesn't include the antiquities of the region's Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian past".

He had a point, says Gekoski; mere ownership of a piece of land - a state of affairs nowhere more transitory than in the Middle East - should not confer automatic ownership of all that lies beneath that land. "Iraq's" culture belongs to all of us. What would have become of King Nebuchadnezzar's 6th-century Babylonion Gate of Ishtar had it been left lying, neglected, in the ground in Iraq instead of having been unearthed by European archaeologists, shipped out and reconstructed in Berlin's Pergamon Museum?

Should it be returned today? Should the Elgin Marbles go back to Greece? Instead, Gekoski muses provocatively, perhaps "The Parthenon ought to be transported to London to be reunited with its great friezes, in tacit acceptance of the fact that a homeland is not always the best place to preserve its own treasures".

Easy to say, of course, if one lives in London or Berlin. To neglect the geography of human existence is to forget the extent to which art is woven into all of our physical and psychological landscapes - and the notion of art lost, or destroyed, stirs us at a far deeper and universal level than mere indignation over perceived sleights of theft or barbarity.

Art, as Gekoski concludes, is more than merely a part of culture - it is culture. It "makes us human. It is how we escape from nature, transcend it and make it ours" and, naturally, "Something so highly valued carries special attachments, resonates with weighty archetypes."

Small wonder, he says, that the loss of works of art and literature touches us so deeply "and awakens primordial fears. It is a natural and sympathetic human reflex to dread loss, and to grieve over the ravages of time. How could it not be?"

Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The National