Stolen Art Goes Public

Eva and Franco Mattes have long been making high art of hijinks. The couple’s latest coup features pieces they pilfered from some prized works of art. Now that the statute of limitations has run out on their potential crimes, the Matteses are revealing the steals.

06.11.10 8:36 PM ET

After 14 years, Eva and Franco Mattes (a.k.a. the mischievous Brooklyn-based artists known as are finally coming clean. The crime: theft. The goods: fragments plucked from modern and contemporary artworks on view at some of the most prestigious (not to mention high security) museums around the world.

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The big reveal is part of the couple’s exhibition, Reality Is Overrated, at the Postmasters Gallery in New York (on view through June 19)—and one that feels all too timely given the major art heists that rocked France last month. But unlike their fugitive counterparts, Eva and Franco had something different in mind: an homage, if you will, to the very boundary-pushing artists they were targeting, in a piece titled Stolen Pieces.

The Matteses carried out these somewhat petty thefts between 1995 and 1997 in what they consider to be a two-year piece of performance art. The artists hold that these were not random acts of larceny and vandalism (nor a product of that sort of existential rationale: “We’re doing it because we can”) but rather an active way to address Duchampian theories of authorship and authenticity in art.

“Our idea was that if [Marcel] Duchamp said, ‘the spectator makes the art,’ we thought, ‘well, then he can also change it,’” Franco says. “We saw Stolen Pieces as a natural consequence of collage and appropriation art, as the next step to Rauschenberg's Erased De Kooning Drawing,” in which Rauschenberg asked the famed artist to sketch him an image then promptly erased it, thus claiming final authorship for himself. “We thought that stealing a piece of a work would bring it back to life again, back to its original destabilizing power. We wanted it to let it escape from the museum, which, to us, looked like nothing but a jail.”

The Matteses started with the easy stuff—bits and pieces that likely wouldn’t be missed from the sprawling, multi-faceted installations on which they often set their sights (a single bottle cap, for example, snatched from an Edward Kienholz piece containing several, or a tiny limestone fragment plucked from a Robert Smithson piece comprised of hundreds). And while the loot remained small—its absence imperceptible, in most cases, to even the trained curatorial eye—the duo continued to take their habit to the next level.

The way they saw it, nothing was off limits. They lifted single threads from Warhol canvases (“I always carry around a Swiss knife with me, since I was a kid,” Franco notes); a splinter of wood from George Segal’s La Caissiére du Cinéma (1966–7); and a small plaque once affixed to Jeff Koons’ Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985). They even hit Duchamp himself, removing a ceramic fragment from one of the artist’s famed Fountain urinals/sculptures. The couple documented some of their offenses before and after the act, enlisting a museum security guard, at times, as their oblivious photographer and unwitting accomplice. Everything—the fragments, the photos, and other forms of documentation—is on view, for the first time, at the gallery.

“We wanted it to let the art escape from the museum, which, to us, looked like nothing but a jail.”

For the couple, getting caught was never a major concern. “I have to admit that we only considered other artists’ opinions,” Franco says. Still, he and Eva seem to have taken some precautions. They are mum on many of the specific works they hit, sharing particulars only in the case of pieces like Jeff Koons’s Equilibrium Tank, of which there are several. (Though the Postmasters exhibition does include video documentation of the couple plucking a fragment from an Alberto Burri painting at the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna). And realistically, much of this would be fairly difficult to prosecute—many of the artists they targeted are dead and it’s rather unlikely that museums still have security footage from the mid-1990s. Plus, under the Visual Artists Rights Act, any plaintiffs would need to determine whether or not the thefts significantly impacted the overall integrity of the work (which, in most cases, would be difficult to prove). There is also the distinct possibility that this is all an elaborate hoax, though the evidence certainly suggests otherwise and the couple staunchly stands behind the “work.”

Stolen Pieces does, indeed, raise some interesting questions about authorship and the avant-garde—how can an artist object to such alterations of their work if their entire practice has been predicated upon similarly subversive riffs on the establishment? Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if one of these little heists went wrong. What if Franco was too brazen when he yanked at that Warhol thread and substantially damaged the painting? What if they got busted? What if they got sued? What if they inspire less diligent, less tactful copycats?

The Postmasters show also includes documentation of several online performances, the most recent being Franco’s “suicide.” The Matteses make their comment on virtual living via performance-based interventions on interactive computer programs like Second Life, Counter Strike, and the ChatRoulette site. For a piece titled No Fun, performed earlier this year on ChatRoulette, a site that randomly pairs users for video chats, Franco faked his own death. Remaining online after hanging himself from an impressively rigged noose, the artist collected the reactions of various video chatters thrown his way. Some cuss, some feign shock, some immediately accuse him of faking it, but the most pervasive reaction seems to be laughter—nervous laughter, mostly, but laughter nonetheless. It doesn’t feel as shocking as it’s supposed to be (and I’m sure that’s part of the point) but something about the provocation is off. It’s inauthentic, it’s a stunt, and it raises far less interesting questions than something like Stolen Pieces. Here’s hoping it isn’t the only super-secret/definitely-illegal project the Matteses have stashed up their sleeves.

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.