The Missing Pieces

INTO A contemporary landscape of data mining and information fracking comes Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces, a beautifully absurd accumulation of useless numbers and gravid blankness. This slip of a book—written in French in 2004 and published this year as one of twenty-two volumes in conjunction with the Whitney Biennial—inventories artworks that “are either unfinished, lost, forgotten, destroyed, or that were never even made” in fragments culled (without footnotes) from ghostly references in biographies, newspapers, and the like. What are we to do with the fact that “ninety percent of the bronzes of Greek antiquity have been lost” or that—allegedly—only one photograph of van Gogh as an adult exists, and it doesn’t show his face? (In fact, the book is a rich writing and research prompt.)

A lost whole shimmers through prismatic reflections. Lefebvre, a Parisian poet and publisher, even allows the ambiguity of his relationship to the famous philosopher whose name he shares to haunt several anecdotes. Among the catalogued missing are works of productive rupture (Robert Rauschenberg’s erased Willem de Kooning drawing); intentional ephemerality (chalk sketches by Francis Picabia); surprising obscurity (Caesar’s play Oedipus, an oboe concerto by Beethoven); and outrageous misappropriation (“The sixteen drawings offered by Amadeo Modigliani to his lover Anna Akhmatova were ’smoked’ by the Red Guards, who used them as cigarette paper”). The book charts unimaginable loss (“For the 4% of the population afflicted with a congenital inability to perceive music, Mozart no longer exists”), often with abrupt simplicity (“The pregnancies of Frida Kahlo”). Throughout history, manuscripts, scores, and canvases burn, are forgotten on trains and buses, are abandoned in media res or orphaned at their creators’ deaths. The entries become epitaphs for fragile civilization and its lost contents: War leaves sculptures buried in unknown spots, a deaf photographer loses his negatives in “a bombardment he does not hear”; Jean Fouquet’s astonishing Melun Diptych, ca. 1450, which survives, makes the loss of almost all his other portraits that much more painful; one note bluntly cites “indigenous art of all epochs destroyed by missionaries.”

Jean Fouquet, Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels (detail), ca. 1450, tempera on wood, 36 1/2 × 33 1/2". Right panel from the Melun Diptych.

Here the senses, particularly vision, are ever in search of restoration. Entries are separated by floating bullets (there are no syntactical full stops), so the compendium moves along as one continuous strip. And despite its terseness, The Missing Pieces momentarily swings open doors to startlingly detailed scenes, such as: “Lost, the rope given to Marina Tsvetaeva by Boris Pasternak to tie up an overstuffed valise; in 1941, the rope was used by Tsvetaeva to hang herself.” Like history’s own compacted narrative, Lefebvre’s economy of restraint holds countless events suspended in a semicolon.