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Not Gone, But Forgotten: The Hidden World Of Damaged Fine Art

The Salvage Art Institute collects pieces of ruined art deemed "total losses" by insurance companies.

Not Gone, But Forgotten: The Hidden World Of Damaged Fine Art
Courtesy of the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery

An errant sneeze—in any other context—would be cause for a blessing. But sometime in the late '90s, a sniffly visitor sneezed while standing in front of a minimalist painting by the painter Ad Reinhardt. It caused irreparable damage, and the company who had insured the piece assigned the kiss of death: "total loss," making it devoid of any value on the market. Today, the piece lives at the Guggenheim Museum Study Collection, helping conservators learn more about repairing such unfortunate accidents.

Courtesy of James Ewing Photography

So what does it mean that a work of art can be brimming with meaning and value one second and completely void the next? This month, an exhibition at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation parses the point at which art becomes non-art. No Longer Art is the first public exhibit of a research organization called the Salvage Art Institute, founded by Polish artist Elka Krajewska in 2009. The exhibition was curated by Krajewska along with GSAPP professor Mark Wasiuta, while the exhibition design was a collaborative effort between Krajewska, Wasiuta and GSAPP Exhibitions Coordinator Adam Bandler.

Once a simple research project, the SAI became a reality in April, when a leading art insurance company called AXA (which insured the Reinhardt piece, actually) gifted Krajewska with an inventory of artworks that the company had declared "total losses" over the years—among them, a partially crushed Jeff Koons Balloon Dog sculpture from 2005. "Left in the limbo of warehouse storage, these objects belong to an odd nether world, no longer alive in terms of the market, gallery or museum system, but often still relatively intact," the curators explain.

Courtesy of the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery

The art world, with its attendant auction earnings, valuations, and market fluctuations, is like a living organism. And when an insurer like AXA declares a work a total loss, it effectively kills it in the greater market. But, as AXA president and CEO Christiane Fischer asked in a recent discussion on the exhibit, does removing a piece of art from the art market also void its status as art? "As an object, this work still represents part of our cultural history," she argues. "Just imagine all the damaged art from Roman and Greek times. The Met would be completely empty." At AXA, Fischer instituted a new policy, where "total loss" art has an afterlife, whether as a testing ground for aspiring art restoration students, or even as part of the Salvage Art Institute.

The canon of Modern Art recognizes artists who have turned trash into art, but the cannibal hunger of the market reverses that logic when a work of art becomes trash. "[I’ve] become absorbed in trying to articulate my thoughts around these cadavers, the material that lives in limbo, in secret, as invisible, petrified "art-no-longer" that is scrupulously databased and stored all around the country, all over the world perhaps," Krajewska writes. "What I imagine for the future is not simply one more gallery show, but rather the development of an arena of discussion centered on the subject of 'total loss art’ condition exhaling behind warehouse walls, shut off from the world of commerce and consciousness." Her project is nothing short of radical: She wants to separate art from the market, and in doing so, force us to assess its worth on our own.

No Longer Art is on view through December 21.