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Deadline Expo at Musée D'Art Moderne

Sarah Moroz writing for VINGT Paris

Image-2 The new expo at Musées d'Art Moderne casts a morbid eye on art with "Deadline", an exhibition examining the last years of productivity of a handful of contemporary artists who have died in the past twenty years. Part graveyard, part gallery: it's a provocative concept. But it's also one that can imbue works of art with unneeded -- and unwarranted -- melodrama. For some, there genuinely did seem to be an overt confrontation of imminent mortality, evident in the work itself and not just tacked on when viewed through the deathly lens imposed by the exhibit's theme. Robert Mapplethorpe's work demonstrates this most unequivocally. Examining the human form via statues of Greek gods and wrestlers, his pictures juxtapose the longevity of the statue with the ultimate deterioration of the human form. His photos call attention to both the skeleton and the flesh. Mapplethorpe himself was diagnosed with HIV in the '80s, and he knew his days were numbered. His enthralling Self-Portrait is a hauntingly self-aware picture: Mapplethorpe's visage faces the viewer head-on, floating against an all-black background while his disconnected right hand clutches a cane topped with a small skull. 

Another artist whose work can be successfully viewed through this mortality lens is Chen Zhen. The Chinese artist struggled with his health well before his death, and his artistic vision really lends itself to the themes of fragility and vulnerability. His sculpture of melted black and white candles creates a kind of abandoned shrine. His Crystal Landscape of Inner Body is a seriously alluring piece: a glass-topped table upon which organs of crystal sit. They shine brilliantly, and yet the very material that makes them so scintillating is precisely what makes them so delicate, so easily shattered.

But: not all of the artists represented genuinely capture the theme of mortality. The vague undulating shapes painted by Willem de Kooning as he suffered from Alzheimer's do not seem particularly deathly. And the brightly splashed "Action paintings" of Hans Hartung, and the colorful scribbles of Joan Mitchell, also seem to really be a stretch of the "Deadline" concept. Others, like James Lee Bryars, who nominally uses his own death as a theme in his work, seems to make this lofty concept cheap and flashy, with little meditative quality.

One of the most moving part of the expo is seeing the portrait photographs of the actual artists hung up in the exhibit. Seeing them as people, divorced from their art, actually reinvigorates their art: it makes the viewer remember that the hands and minds of those people created what the viewer has been absorbing, and that we're still thinking about them even though they are no longer here to represent themselves. The power of creation feels very strong when you realize, for these artists, it is all that is left of them. What one can conclude, whether or not the frightening realization of looming death was something these artists intentionally put into their work, these beings did try to find ways to connect and communicate through art. It's a vital and hopeful message to hold on to.

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Very nice article and commentary. My response to your comments on De Koonig and Alzheimers: Could the "vague and undulating shapes" you describe be reflective of his realization that his mind, slowing moving towards destruction, was attempting to create order out of chaos, and the work, is a visual testament to this process? If so, then I would comment that the paintings, in their "vagueness" are a testament to his inevitable death. Artists when confronted with death, remind us of our own mortality, a gift that continues long after they are gone through their sharing of this profound experience.

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what a profoundly beautiful idea, i agree your commentary is lovely. i can imagine that the inclusion of the artists' portraits would be extremely powerful. i will look out for the catalogue online, not being in Paris :)

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