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Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol with his ”Invisible Sculpture“, 1985Photos by Eric & Jennifer Goode

Eight ‘invisible’ artworks you should see for yourself

From Andy Warhol’s haunted plinth to Hito Steyerl’s guide on how to go undetected in the digital age, Basquiat isn’t the only artist to explore invisibility in his work

Last week, drawings made in invisible ink were discovered on one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, “Untitled” (1981), by New York art conservator Emily Macdonald-Korth. Macdonald-Korth described shining a UV light over the painting when an arrow appeared, explaining that she had to turn the lights on and off again to check she wasn’t seeing things. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she recalled. “He basically did a totally secret part of this painting.” While Basquiat was known for his use of codes, symbols, and secret meanings throughout his work, often alluding to themes of erasure and invisibility by using crossed-out words and layers of colour which were continuously scraped and reapplied, the use of invisible ink is an exciting discovery in his story.

But Basquiat wasn’t the first artist to explore the unseen. Andy Warhol was also known to use undetectable inks, while David Hammons approached it from a conceptual standpoint, and others, such as Kerry James Marshall and Tania Bruguera, have employed invisibility in a metaphorical sense to represent the cultural erasure caused by oppression.

Below, we look at eight artists who have explored the relationship between the seen and unseen.

ANDY WARHOL’S “DOUBLE TORSO” (1966) AND “INVISIBLE SCULPTURE” (1985)

Andy Warhol created a number of “pornographic” paintings during the mid-1960s using fluorescent inks only visible under UV light. One of these works was “Double Torso” (1966), which was made as a statement against censorship laws banning pornography at the time. It formed part of a larger series called Sex Parts and Torsos which debuted at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1977 when Warhol was nearly 50. The images, which were celebratory in their depiction of male sexuality, are believed to be a final affirmation of Warhol's long-hidden homosexuality. 

It’s possible that Basquiat was influenced by Warhol’s use of UV materials as the two were close friends for a period of time in the 1980s, with Warhol acting as a kind of a mentor to Basquiat. Invisibility is a recurring theme throughout Warhol’s oeuvre, an interest that was perhaps born out of his own experience of overexposure as a celebrity. In 1985, Warhol produced and installed “Invisible Sculpture” at famed nightclub Area in downtown New York City. The concept of which was to show that the absence of something could be art. This performance piece saw him stand on a plinth briefly, leaving with it a small wall reading and a declaration that his aura would remain with the pedestal.

KERRY JAMES MARSHALL’S “A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A SHADOW OF HIS FORMER SELF” (1980)

Over the course of his career, masterly painter Kerry James Marshall has created a number of portraits inspired by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 book Invisible Man. These paintings, like the book, expose the paradoxical visibility of blackness versus the systemic ways in which black identities have been rendered invisible throughout American history. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” is the first of his invisible series and remains one of Marshall’s landmark works. The 63-year-old painter has described the self-portrait, with its ghostly blackface caricature, as a presentation of “the simultaneity of presence and absence” – in other words, what it means to be real but unseen. Two diptychs, titled “Two Invisible Men (Lost Portraits)” (1985) and “Two Invisible Men Naked” (1985), contrast the familiar default of a white canvas, against a strange black, almost mythical, shadowy figure. Through the use of colour and suggestion, Marshall reinforces the political and aesthetic idea that visibility is power.

DAVID HAMMOND’S “UNTITLED SHOW” (1995)

Another artist who has built a career around the politics of visibility, with works that question who has the right to authority and why is David Hammons. The New York-based artist, now 72, is famously elusive. Despite being one of the most influential and in-demand artists of his time, he has never had gallery representation, often sells work directly from his studio and rarely agrees to interviews or shows. It makes sense, seeing as Hammons has made continuous digs at the pretensions and elitism of the art world throughout his career.

For “Untitled Show”, Hammons held an untitled and unadvertised exhibition in a New York shop. In typical Hammons style, the piece overstepped, and, in some ways, mocked the art world. The artist’s unlabeled sculptures were displayed side by side with the African and Asian artefacts sold in the store, with many of his pieces also incorporating items from the shop. Hammons, like Basquiat, has a fondness for symbols and hidden meanings – here he plays with issues of boundary and camouflage in a more conceptual way. The artworks presented achieve their invisibility by blending in with a myriad of everyday objects. The most invisible part of all... we couldn’t actually find any documentation of it to show you. 

YVES KLEIN’S “IMMATERIAL PICTORIAL SENSIBILITY” (1985)

Yves Klein claims that he made his first work of art on a beach with two friends at age 19 when he declared he was “signing the sky” with his finger. This was the beginning of a conceptual line of thought that would eventually become an artistic career dedicated to dematerialising the art object. Like Warhol, Klein was interested in the idea that a lack of presence could be art too. In 1958, the artist staged an exhibition completely devoid of physical content, apart from one single cabinet. He invited thousands to this empty, white-washed room, and claimed that the space was saturated with a force field so tangible that some people were unable to enter the exhibition as if an invisible wall prevented them.

MAURIZIO CATTELAN’S “UNTITLED (DENUNZIA)” (1991)

In 1991, Maurizio Cattelan was faced with an artistic dilemma; he had yet to produce an artwork for a forthcoming exhibition. In a classic “my dog ate my homework” moment, Cattelan went to the police and reported the theft of his non-existent artwork. He then presented this police report in the exhibition. Cattelan’s work is often humorous, and this piece – or lack thereof – is no exception. Besides providing a good laugh, it’s likely the invisibility of the stolen art piece is referencing earlier conceptual works such as Robert Rauschenberg’s ”Erased de Kooning”(1953), or one of Yves Klein’s many experimentations with the void, as mentioned above.

HITO STEYERL’S “HOW NOT TO BE SEEN: A FUCKING DIDACTIC” (2013)

Hito Steyerl is known for her whacky but deeply rigorous writing practice, film, and performative lectures, in which she considers pressing themes of globalisation, neoliberalism, and corporate interference. In this 14 minute satire that is anything but didactic, the German artist and theorist educates her viewers on how to achieve invisibility in the digital age of ubiquitous surveillance. Some pointed advice on how not to be seen includes, being “a woman over 50”, and wearing a burqa. At one point, a computer generated voice narrating the piece states dryly: “Today most important things want to remain invisible: love is invisible, war is invisible, capital is invisible.”

TANIA BRUGUERA’S “10,148,451” (2018)

In this prescient piece, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera invites viewers to work together to activate the artwork placed on the floor of the Turbine Hall. The ground of the institution is painted with heat-sensitive paint which allows spectators to leave a temporary imprint of a body on the ground before it fades back to grey. Of course, there is a deeper meaning at play. If enough people heat up the floor at the same time, a large-scale image appears of a portrait of a young asylum seeker who arrived from Syria in 2011. The message here is loud and clear: we the people have the power, when we come together, to give those who don’t have a voice the visibility they need.

JEPPE HEIN’S “INVISIBLE LABYRINTH” (2005)

Using infrared technology Jeppe Hein transformed an art gallery into an invisible labyrinth, by providing visitors with digital headphones that vibrate whenever they knocked into one of the maze’s invisible walls. The result was a mind-boggling, disorientating experience, which saw visitors trying to navigate indeterminable routes, bumping into unseen barriers, and trying to decipher their surroundings. Hein devised seven different labyrinths in total, and, just for added creepiness, one of them was based on Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 psychological thriller film, The Shining.