Arts & Culture

This new exhibit at The Modern has a common theme: obsession with disappearing

Giant KAWS sculpture comes to the Modern

After a two year process, a 21-foot-tall KAWS sculpture has been installed at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The bronze sculpture, titled "Clean Slate," overlooks the museum's pond and will be open to the public on Dec. 9, 2018.
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After a two year process, a 21-foot-tall KAWS sculpture has been installed at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The bronze sculpture, titled "Clean Slate," overlooks the museum's pond and will be open to the public on Dec. 9, 2018.

Disappearing—California c. 1970: Bas Jan Adler, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein, the Modern’s new exhibit running from May 10 to August 11, examines unconscious echoes among three 1970’s artists who influenced performance art, conceptual art, postmodernism, radicalism and public art. The common theme here is disappearing. In 1975, Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader actually disappeared.

After buying a used sailboat for a transatlantic voyage, Ader set sail from Massachusetts in July, but never arrived at his destination in Holland. Nearly a year later, his boat was found capsized off the coast of Ireland, but his body was never found. Interestingly, the sailboat Ader named Ocean Wave would also disappear just weeks after being drydocked.

In 1976, Canadian artist Jack Goldstein created a suite of nine 45 rpm records with sound effects. One of them was called “The Lost Ocean Liner” and another was “Swimming Against the Tide.”

In the early ‘90s, American artist Chris Burden had three small sailboats designed with solar charging, modified electronic and mechanical gear, and global positioning satellite systems to make them automatic. All three of the sailboats are featured in this exhibit and Burden called the project Three Ghost Ships. He intended for the ships to sail, unmanned, from Charleston, South Carolina to Plymouth, England.

“These three conceptual artists were obsessed with disappearing and it was the core of their practice,” said guest curator Phillip Kaiser. “It’s remarkable that they all rehearsed disappearances at the same time.”

There are many other strange parallels throughout this exhibit. In 1971, Burden named an empty case “Disappearing,” with the explanation that he had “disappeared for three days without prior notice to anyone” and his “whereabouts were unknown.” A few years later, Burden’s “Survival Kit” is a case that includes matches, a candle, utensils, a toothbrush, and mirror.

Ader may have needed that survival kit. His 1969 work, “Please don’t leave me,” is particularly poignant. A few years before he was lost at sea, Ader painted these words on a wall with huge letters in all caps. He added light bulbs to make the words even harder to miss. It’s enough to make one wonder if he may have washed ashore on a deserted coast and tried to signal aircraft with similar methods.

Surprisingly, Burden traveled by kayak from San Felipe, Mexico to a remote beach in 1973. With an average daily temperature of 120 degrees, he survived on the beach alone for 11 days before paddling back to San Felipe. Burden’s diary of this adventure, a seashell, and stone are presented here as “B.C. Mexico.”

In 1980, Burden even sat in his kayak three miles out into the ocean. Invisible to the naked eye from the Santa Monica bluffs, viewers used a powerful telescope to see Burden. In the glare of the setting sun, he appeared to be floating.

Disappearing is again referenced in some of Burden’s other performance art. From 1971, “Five Day Locker Piece” is a combination padlock offered as a relic from the five consecutive days Burden spent inside a locker at the University of California, Irvine with only a few gallons of water.

That same year, Burden also spent three days in Kansas City. In a gallery, he sat motionless behind a panel that concealed his neck and head. For good measure, Burden wore a ski mask at all times during his time in Missouri. That ski mask is offered as a relic for “You’ll Never See My Face in Kansas City.”

For “White Light/White Heat,” a one-man show in New York, Burden even managed to hide himself in a gallery. For twenty-two days, he saw no one and no one saw him. A photograph of the gallery and a section of a board removed from the space are presented as relics from this performance art.

In 1972, Burden even laid down on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles and covered his body with a canvas tarpaulin. Flares were placed nearby to alert cars and photographs capture the scene of the crowd that gathered and the arrival of police, who arrested Burden for causing a false emergency. Presented here as a relic from this performance, the canvas is titled “Deadman.”

Ader’s 1971 photograph, “Farewell to faraway friends,” now seems like an especially creepy forerunner of an approaching truth. At dusk on a beach, the shadow of a man, presumably Ader, stands facing the camera. And in various photo series of Ader sitting on the roof of a house, in a chair, or standing near a canal in Amsterdam, the artist always seem to disappear from the setting.

Disappearing—California c. 1970 Bas Jan Ader, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein runs from May 10 thru August 11 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. For more info: