It’s perhaps the most famous art heist in history, and it remains unsolved to this day. The 1990 robbery at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which continues to make headlines over 25 years later, is now the inspiration for a new exhibition by artist Kota Ezawa.
All 13 of the stolen artworks, including canvases by Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and Edgar Degas, have been recreated, in a way, by Ezawa, who has made new, full-scale animation-style illustrations based on the lost works.
“I consider myself as a kind of painter with a digital paintbrush, and felt enticed to update these old masterworks using my tools and methods,” the Japanese-German artist told artnet News in an email.
Set in glowing light boxes, Ezawa’s images have a ghostly appearance, capturing the broad strokes (and not the fine details) of what has been lost.
“He describes it as South Park style,” director and chief curator David Little told artnet News in a phone conversation, likening the artist’s method to a musician mixing and remixing samples from a classic track to create a new hit.
The exhibition is on view in the museum’s 17th century, wood-paneled Rotherwas Room, a setting that adds an extra layer of contrast between the modern-day technology that is breathing new life into the missing Old Masters and the missing originals. The series functions as a memorial both to the theft and to the idea of the canon’s enduring appeal.
“The project really came together when the FBI released surveillance footage from the time of the heist in late summer of 2015,” said Ezawa, who created a black-and-white animated video based on the grainy video recording of the night before the robbery. “[That] gave my project a kind of document film component and a connection to an ongoing investigation.”
Interestingly, the artist has never actually seen any of the original versions of the works in the current show. “My first visit to the museum,” Ezawa admitted, “was actually earlier this year when I visited Massachusetts to install the exhibition.”
Crime has been a recurring theme in his work, however, such as his 2002 animated video The Simpson Verdict, based on courtroom footage from the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial.
The artist also has an “ongoing interest in the way images affect collective memory,” Ezawa said. “The stolen works from the Gardner Museum are a prime example of such images, since they only exist as virtual memories and not as physical artifacts.”
With a show concerning an art heist, theft does become somewhat more of a concern, especially in a museum open until midnight to accommodate students.
“I’m not going to brag about our security, because that would be the kiss of death!” Little joked. “You could see some student wanting to do a prank joke and take one of the pieces!”
“Rotherwas Project 2: Kota Ezawa, Gardner Museum Revisited” is on view at the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, 220 South Pleasant Street, Amherst, Massachusetts, February 9.