Four artists’ obituaries, torn from the pages of The New York Times, all published within a few weeks of each other in 2009:
Robert Delford Brown, a painter, sculpture, performance artist and avant-garde philosopher whose exuberantly provocative works challenged orthodoxies of both the art world and the world at large, usually with a big wink, was found dead on March 24 in the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, S.C.
According to his obituary, Brown created public performance pieces known as “happenings,” Dada-inspired artistry which might, as was the case in one memorable show, feature slowly decaying raw meat. As the main attraction in another happening, Brown wore, according to The Times, “a suit appropriate for coping with hazardous materials with what seemed to be a giant cleaner tube attached like a monstrous phallus.” He was survived by the religion he founded, “The First National Church of the Exquisite Panic.”
John Michell, a self-styled Merlin of the 1960s’ English counterculture who inspired disciples like the Rolling Stones with a deluge of writings about UFOs, prehistoric architecture and fairies – when he wasn’t describing fascinating eccentricities or the perils of the metric system – died on April 24 in Poole, England. He was 76.
Michell’s 40 books, favored by countercuture-surfing hippies, explored sacred sites, people who believed the earth was flat, the sacred geometry of pyramids, Hitler colloquialisms, ghosts and crop circles. “My own chosen attitude is total confusion,” he wrote of himself, leading to this wonderfully sly comment from The Times: “Mr. Michell – who incessantly rolled his own cigarettes, sometimes using tobacco….”
Michael Cox, an authority on the Victorian ghost story who, five years ago spurred by the threat of blindness, sat down and wrote the vast Gothic novel that had been haunting him for three decades, “The Meaning of Night,” a widely praised narrative of intrigue and murder, died on March 31 in Kettering, England. He was 60 and lived in the Northamptonshire region of England.
Cox lived a life so full that, by my count, that opening sentence of his obit required eight clauses. Cox died of hemangiopericytoma, a rare vascular cancer that he believed was brought on by the treatment he received as a child for a chronic ear infection: radium rods inserted in his ears.
Harry Patch, the last British Army veteran of World War I, died Saturday at 111.
Seriously wounded in the fighting, Patch did not speak of the War to End All Wars for 80 years. But when he finally did, as was the case in 2007, the words were quietly heroic. “I met someone from the German side and we both shared the same opinion,” he said. “We fought, we finished, and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it.”
Patch was not an artist, it might be argued. He was a plumber. But any man can live his life as art. If Patch’s comment could be rendered in oils, it would look like a 1918 piece by F.H. Varley, of Canada’s Group of Seven. The Group of Seven is primarily known for its mystical, impressionistic landscapes, but during World War I several members were a part of the Canadian War Memorials program, charged with creating art from the business of death. Some pieces, such as A.Y. Jackson’s snow-covered gun emplacement “The Old Gun, Haifax” and Arthur Lismer’s warship steaming into a harbor, “Winter Camouflage,” do not stray far from their peacetime work. Varley’s does. Death litters his landscapes. The piece in question is a battered, bleak, muddy terraine with two rows of crosses. Two men – gravediggers, probably – stare at a wagon in the foreground, piled high with yet more bodies. It is titled, “For What?”
Questions and Answers with Jeff
Q: Is a picture worth one thousand words?
A: No. Erich Maria Remarque demonstrated this in the unearthly battle scene of Chapter Four from All Quiet on the Western Front, the single-most riviting chapter I have ever read. Desperately trying to find shelter, terrified German soldiers seek safety in a cemetery, where the war has loosened the earth’s grip on the dead, and the living take their place: “But the shelling is stronger than everything. It wipes out the sensibilities, I merely crawl still farther under the coffin, it shall protect me, though death himself lies in it….” When he shelling ends, and the deadly gas clears, they gather their wounded. “The graveyard is a mass of wreckage Coffins and corpses lie strewn about. They have been killed once again; but each of them that was flung up saved one of us.”