There are more joyful prospects than spending the afternoon at an exhibition dedicated to artists’ pre-mortem work—”Deadline,” at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris is surprisingly, aggressively alive. Each piece is accompanied by critical analysis, and photographs of the artists—a contextualization that could be facile, but here reminder that the work’s reception is often, and not un-productively, conflated with biography.
The show brings together 12 artists who have little in common but for the fact that they all died in the past 20 years and were very much aware of their close departure. Naturally one perceives morbid undertones in every piece; yet the exhibition doesn’t focus on death, per se: rather they focus on the notion of any “deadline” as a constraint endemic to every artist’s condition.
James Lee Byars (1932–1997) died of cancer at age 65. His long-term diagnosis of the illness inspired the artist to act out death in a theatrical manner. The installation here, The Death of James Lee Byars (1994), consists of a room covered in gold leaf, in the center of which he built a coffin. When presenting the piece during his lifetime, Byars lay in the middle, dressed in a gold lamé suit and top hat. Referencing Da Vinci’s biological, geometrically perfect rendering of the human form, the Vitruvian Man, Byars used five diamonds to emphasize his head, legs and arms. It’s a winkingly clinical look at the ritual of death and the possibility of eternity.
Diagnosed with AIDS, Robert Mapplethorpe took self-portraits holding a cane topped with a skull. The artist’s youthful face contrasts with the bejeweled skull; the Dandyish aesthetic references Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Grey to suggest that death is something hidden he carries within. Other of Mapplethorpe’s late photographic works featured here borrowed from the genres of still-life, but marble figures, and a statuesque feel to the bones. The black and white, heavily contrasted, Baroque style is closer to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast than to the shocking fashion photography he once made a name; these still lives are subtle, elegant discussion about eternity.
This urge to symbolically protest by creating is visible in Hans Hartung’s final “Action Paintings” in the last year of his life, 1989. These consist of large abstract paintings, where large bright colors like foggy landscapes contrast with black dripping of paint. This deployment of abstraction is an illustration of death: the drug haze-like atmosphere inspired by Hartung’s medication; it also reflects an inventive practice the vine-spraying machine he used to paint.
Joan Mitchell’s last painting are marked by her inability to move: the canvas is covered where the paintbrush could reach, appearing as a childlike, finger-painted sun floating in an intermediary state. In the words of so many horror films, death is just the beginning.
Deadline is on view through January 10. Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris is located at 11, Avenue du Président Wilson.