Curating The Impossible: 65 Years Of Invisible Art

An expansive new exhibition in London examines art that is invisible, immaterial, or simply not there.

When Yves Klein was only 30, he threw a party that ended up defining his career. In April of 1958, thousands of people lined up outside of the Paris gallery where Klein was unveiling his latest work, The Void. When they were finally allowed inside, they found next to nothing. All the trappings of a gallery opening (waiters even served iconic blue cocktails that turned partygoers’ urine blue), but none of the art. “My paintings are now invisible,” explained Klein, who was far more interested in provocation than, you know, painting. He was originating a trope well-worn by contemporary artists: immaterial, or invisible, works of art.


Klein, along with many other canonical artists of the last half century, is part of a new exhibition at Londons’ Hayward Gallery called Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957 – 2012. The show brings together artists from disparate movements and generations, from Andy Warhol and Lai Chih-Sheng. But they all share an interest in absence, whether that be a framed police report detailing the theft of an invisible painting from the car of Maurizio Cattelan, or Tom Friedman’s empty pedestals, which showcase air that’s been cursed by a practicing witch.

Hayward curator Ralph Rugoff explains that the work on-view falls into a couple of different conceptual silos. “Many of the works re-direct our attention towards the unwritten rules and conventions that shape our understanding of art,” he writes, referring to Klein and Friedman’s work. “Others underscore the limits of our pe[/caption]rceptual capacities or emphasise the role of our imagination,” like Gianni Motti’s Magic Ink paintings, created with invisible ink that’s only visible for a few seconds until it disappears.

“Still others use invisibility as a metaphor for death and the politically sanctioned ‘disappearance’ of certain social groups,” finishes Rugoff, who is no doubt talking about Teresa Margolles’ Air/Aire (2003). In the piece, two air conditioning units fill the gallery space with a superfine mist, created with water used to wash the bodies of unidentified murder victims in Mexico City’s public mortuaries. Not having been to London to see the show, I can only say that even reading a description of Air is chillingly powerful–We Make Money Not Art’s Regine writes that “the installation moved me more than many of the photo series I’ve seen that document crimes committed by drug cartels.”

“Themed” shows can be hit or miss, depending on how heavily the curators reply on that theme. But Invisible Art seems to use “invisibility” more as a suggestion than a rule–anyone in London this summer should go check it out, on view until August 3rd.

[Images courtesy of Linda Nyland and the Hayward Gallery; h/t We Make Money Not Art]

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.