This year was marked by a number of notable passings in the art world. Spring and summer were particularly rough, with the departure of some of late Modernism’s greatest innovators: the California Minimalist John McCracken (b. 1934), campy stylist Jack Smith (b. 1928), and Dennis Oppenheim (b. 1938), a giant of the Conceptual art and Land art movements. There were other notable passings too in warmer months: John Hoyland (b. 1934), one of the lesser-known painters in the Abstract Expressionist constellation; Stephen De Staebler (b. 1933), the sculptor known for his muted, large scale works in bronze and clay; and Leonora Carrington, the author, surrealist painter, and spouse of Max Ernst, who was 94. Then, in the final days of the year, we saw the passing of Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928), the second-generation Ab-Ex heroine whose poured compositions gave rise to Color Field painting.
One of the year’s most important departures was another painter who came up in the crucible of Abstract Expressionism, the legendary Cy Twombly (b. 1928). At the Museum of Modern Art, in the same year that immense crowds gathered to see a survey of Abstract Expressionism that included paintings by the soft-spoken southerner, the museum staged a much smaller show of Twombly’s white painted sculptures. Installed in May, the one-room exhibition served as an unexpected memorial for the artist when he passed away, quite suddenly, in July.
This was the same month that saw the departure of Lucian Freud (b. 1922), whose portraits typified the cryptically emotional and unshakably frank sensibility of the contemporary nude. Freud’s death would prompt an outpouring of poignant words from art world luminaries including William Feaver, a British critic who organized a Freud retrospective at Tate Britain in 2002: “Freud has generated a life’s worth of genuinely new painting that sits obstinately across the path of those lesser painters who get by on less,” he told reporters on news of his death. “He always pressed to extremes, carrying on further than one would think necessary and rarely letting anything go before it became disconcerting.”
Still, in more recent months, the artists whose obituaries were most likely to spill over in the mainstream press came from the church of Pop. Headlines reverently acknowledged the death of Richard Hamilton (b. 1922), whose collage, “Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?” gave Pop art its name (the word is on the lollipop that's covering the guy's crotch). Fans of Pop and Ab-Ex alike bid farewell to John Chamberlain in the last days of December, just as the sculptor of steel and rumbled auto parts was preparing a retrospective of his work at the Guggenheim.
Two art house filmmakers were also prominent among the year's losses. Less than a week after Hamilton’s death, admirers of the Factory scene bid farewell to the overwhelmingly prolific cult filmmaker George Kuchar (b. 1942), an artist whose dying wish was to put “humpable experiences” on screen. Later in the fall, a similar crowd would mourn the loss of Ken Russell (b. 1927), whose television and film work exemplified the flamboyance of ‘60s and ‘70s culture.
Russell, who co-produced the film “Tommy” with the Who, was one of many people who died in 2011 having contributed equally to art history and to rock and roll. Among these was the photographer Robert Whitaker (b. 1939) – a portraitist of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Cream – as well as Barry Feinstein (b. 1931), who created album covers for Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Janis Joplin. Alex Steinweiss (b. 1917), who passed away in July, is credited for first applying creative graphic design to album covers. Until he was taken on as Columbia Records’ first art director, albums were mostly sold in plain-label sleeves.
Albeit indirectly, Steinweiss can take some measure of credit for the cover art of “The Freewheein’ Bob Dylan.” One of the most recognizable album sleeves of all time, it depicts the young singer-songwriter digging his chin into his jacket to stave off the cold as he walks down the middle of a street in Greenwich Village. While he looks down with both hands in his pockets, a girl clings to Dylan’s arm and looks up towards the camera, smiling. The woman is Suze Rotolo. She passed away this year, too.