In Memoriam: From Mike Kelley to Herb Vogel, the Luminaries We Lost in 2012

Clockwise from left: Mike Kelley, Robert Hughes, Dorothea Tanning, and Thomas Kinkade
(Clockwise from left: Cameron Wittig and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Wikipedia; Peter Ross; Gallery One, Ohio)

Some of the biggest art stories of 2012 were obituaries, as the passing of many leading figures from the corners of art, design, architecture, and criticism were met with eloquent eulogies and ardent words of tribute. Here is a short list of some of the most notable figures we lost (to see a gallery of images with quotes from critics about these figures, click on the slideshow):

* Robert Hughes (1938 - 2012), perhaps the most influential art critic of his time, was the official art critic for TIME magazine before his foray into television, later lauded for his work on “The Shock of the New” for the BBC and “American Visions” for PBS.


* Mike Kelley (1954-2012), whose work with collage, installation, and found objects put the Los Angeles art scene on the map in the 1980s and 1990s, died in January. A few days later, a spontaneous memorial to the artist was built from stuffed toys, wax candles, afghans, and dried corn appeared in a parking lot in the Highland Park neighborhood of L.A., which contributors described as an attempt to rebuild his work “MORE LOVE HOURS THAN CAN EVER BE REPAID AND THE WAGES OF SIN” from 1987.

* One half of the postwar art world’s most famous couples (she was married to Max Ernst for 30 years), Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) asserted her gifts across almost every field of art and design, excelling as a painter, sculptor, and printmaker, creating sets for the theater, and fashioning costumes for ballet dancers.

* A mainstay of the right-of-center cultural review the New Criterion, critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was respected by artists and writers both right and left, but best-known for his critique of Pop, his stern predictions about the “giggles and sneers” of Postmodern art, and his salvos against the NEA.

* Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012) was an emphatically radical architect who inspired generations of students with his ideas on design as a means of political change. Though surprisingly few of his plans ever came into fruition, Woods left behind an immense legacy as a writer, draftsman, and, of course, educator, having served for years as one of the most beloved instructors of the architecture school at Cooper Union.

* Ken Price (1935-2012) spent his life investigating the amorphous quality of clay, applying a color-laden playfulness to a would-be terrestrial medium. His work has since become inseparable from the aesthetic timbre of the American Southwest.

* Though panned by critics for what they saw as a crass self-promotion and a a sugary, pseudo-spiritual approach of painting, Thomas Kinkade (1958-2012) nevertheless succeeded at establishing one of the most successful franchises ever devoted to a single living artist, producing prints and original paintings that were bought and hung in homes across the United States and around the world.

* After serving as an RAF in India and Sri Lanka, William Turnbull (1922-2012) pursued a vigorously Romantic course as a sculptor of stainless steel, fashioning some of the most tremblingly understated works in 20th century art.

* In addition to his work as a collector, Herb Vogel (1922-2012) was a commanding autodidact who educated himself in the world of art with discernment, intuition, and keen foresight. Acquiring works from Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, John Chamberlain, Robert Mangold, and Richard Tuttle, the Vogels regularly bought art directly from the artist, eventually furnishing a web of friendships and institutional connections that placed them at the center of New York life.

* Among the most recognizable popular painters of the 20th century, Leroy Neiman (1921-2012) created illustrations for every great event in American sports, painting memorable portraits of the Super Bowl, the Master’s golf tournament, baseball’s World Series, the Kentucky Derby, and championship boxing.

* Franz West (1947-2012) was best known for his works in synthetic materials, including plastic, plaster, polyester, and aluminum. West’s experiments with sculptural “environments” foreshadowed his later sojourn into his works of furniture as well as his later “Fitting Pieces,” sculptures meant to be worn on the head or face, works which seemed to blur the lines between art, craft, and design out of intelligibility. “It doesn't matter what the art looks like,” West once wrote, “but how it's used.”

* Will Barnet (1911-2012) experienced and partook in an immense range of movements and confrontations across the history of 20th-century art. Initially setting his sights on Social Realism, Barnet soon moved to abstract painting and printmaking, creating portraits from bold blocks of color and elegant, sparing shapes and lines. As an instructor at the Arts Students League, Barnet was a mentor to a range of artists whose own work would be eventually be entered into the canons of Abstract Expressionism and Pop, including Cy Twombly and James Rosenquist.