In addition to Fred Baldwin, Wayne Thiebaud, Dan Phillips, and Eve Babitz, a lot of other creative people died this year. Here are a few who I admired greatly. I thought about different ways to organize this; I could have done it by date of death or alphabetical order. But I decided that the only way if makes sense is to arrange them biographically, in the order of when I encountered each of them and when their lives affected mine. We start with Norton Juster, whose work I encountered as a child.
Norton Juster was 91 when he died in March of this year. According to his obituary, he lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. I lived there in the 90s—I wonder if I ever passed him on the street. Sometime in my childhood, I was given a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, which Juster wrote and a very young Jules Feiffer illustrated. I loved this book. It was designed to flatter bookish children like me—the apathetic hero Milo travels to Dictionopolis and Digitopolis and gets jazzed about learning. I loved it. I didn’t identify with Milo because I loved learning—I didn’t have to be convinced. But I loved his adventures and Feiffer’s drawings, which I laboriously copied.
Frank Thorne was a comics artist who was 90 years old when he died. I became aware of his work when I was in junior high and was an avid collector of comic books. This was the 70s and at the time, Thorne was best known for his work on Red Sonja, a spin-off comic from Conan the Barbarian. The selling point was that Sonja, a hard-fighting barbarian woman, was a stacked blonde who wore a revealing chainmail bikini. For some reason, this appealed greatly to my 12-year-old self. The sexy girl genre became his thing—he did tons of similar work in Heavy Metal and Playboy. His drawing style was loose and brushy and included lots of dramatic chiaroscuro. I consider him a descendant from Milton Caniff stylistically, and would lump him in with artists like Frank Robbins and Alex Toth. I was an avid comic book convention attendee in those halcyon days, and he was a frequent guest at big conventions in Houston. He played up the “dirty old man” image, wearing a long white beard and dressing like a fantasy wizard. He was super-entertaining and gave great slideshows. Perfect entertainment for the horny-but-sexless 12-year-old boy I was. His work has been reprinted in some beautiful editions, reproduced from his original art.
Richard Rush was 91 when he died in April of this year. Rush was a filmmaker: he came out of the Roger Corman finishing school, making biker films like Hells Angels on Wheels for American International Pictures. But the Richard Rush movie that really affected me was The Stunt Man (1980), which I saw when I was in high school. The way it switched between “real life” and “artifice” filled me with thoughts about postmodernism, which affected me the same way it affected anyone in the early 80s. Soon I was reading Charles Jencks, Frederic Jameson, Hal Foster, Roland Barthes and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Postmodernism was kind of dead end (who talks about it now?), but it was a big deal to me and The Stunt Man was where it started for me.
Dusty Hill was only 72 when he died in July. When I was in high school, I somewhat tooked down my nose at ZZ Top. I mentally lumped them in with other jock-rock bands like Foghat, Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, Styx, Journey, and REO Speedwagon. Not that they were stylistically similar—they just seemed dumb and the people who liked them seemed dumb. In other words, I was a fucking snob. But for some reason, my attitude toward Hill’s band softened as soon as I left high school. I saw them play in the Astrodome, opening for the Rolling Stones. The Astrodome was a terrible venue to watch music, but it is a great memory. “Easin' down the highway in a new Cadillac,
I had a fine fox in front, I had three more in the back.
They sportin' short dresses, wearin' spike-heeled shoes,
They smokin' Lucky Strikes, wearing nylons too.”
A month after Dusty Hill kicked it, Charlie Watts died at the age of 80. Interesting to think that two men I saw performing on the same night in the same venue in 1982 or thereabouts died so close together. (If I examined actuarial tables and did the stats, it is reasonably likely that two band members would die at more-or-less the same time 40 years after the concert.) The Rolling Stones contained multitudes. I still find new things when I listen to them. I remember watching Sympathy for the Devil, the unclassifiable film documentary by Jean-Luc Goddard of the band coming up with the song of that name. As they tightened the song, you realize that Charlie Watts is not playing the congas that open the song. He apparently only like drumming with drum sticks.
Larry McMurtry died in March at the age of 84. I first became aware of McMurtrey through his Houston novels, particularly All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, which I read as a Rice University undergrad. I was intrigued because McMurtrey wrote about Rice and the neighborhood around Rice. I was also proud because he’d gone to Rice. If you went to, say, Columbia or Yale, you had a deep bench of great writers who have passed through your doors. Not so much at Rice, so I latched onto McMurtry. (I suffered from what Robert Hughes once described as “cultural cringe”. Hughes wrote “Cultural cringe is the assumption that whatever you do in the field of writing, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, dance, or theater is of unknown value until it is judged by people outside your own society.”) Because the literary world had lauded McMurtry, I felt it was OK for me to as well. (It helped that I really enjoyed his books.)
Karl Wirsum died in May at the age of 81. He was a painter who was part of the influential group the Hairy Who. Like Larry McMurtry, I became aware of his work as an undergraduate at Rice University. I was taking a class from art historian William Camfield on art since the 1940s. Wirsum’s work (and that of fellow Hairy Who member, Jim Nutt) flashed by. Camfield was showing slides—electronic projected media hadn’t been invented yet—art history departments had huge slide libraries back then. I wonder what happened to all those slides. Anyway, those two slides prompted me to dig deeper. I wrote a fairly half-assed paper on the Hairy Who and made a point of keeping track of the artists, including Wirsum. Wirsum’s cartoonish images had bold colors, jagged, somewhat nervous design, and felt like the 60s. (The image above is Back when I was an undergrad, it was hard to learn much about these artists, but since then, they’ve had retrospectives, monographs, and an excellent documentary, Hairy Who and The Chicago Imagists.
Chuck Close died in August of this year at age 81. I have often wondered if his style of art was predetermined by his name. Close has had his reputation damaged in recent years by accusations of sexual harassment. But since for most of my life, I didn’t know about that side of him, my experience of him was that his gigantic, photorealistic portraits were postmodern statements about what was real and what was an image. I found them exciting. Then, in 1988, a spinal artery collapsed. leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. That seems like it would end most artists careers, but he developed ways to continue producing gigantic portraits despite this disability. I heard him speak in the early 90s at the University of Washington. He was in his wheelchair, and spoke eloquently and with good humor. He was in the process of doing portraits where he’d grid off the enormous canvas, put a splotch of paint in each grid, then overlay the splotch with a smaller splotch on top, then a small splotch. The three colors combined would more-or-less match the color of the image he was trying to create. But he described how he chose the colors using a golf metaphor. He explained that in golf, you first stroke gets you near the hole, and that each subsequent stroke gets you closer. He said his own technique was as if he hit his first stroke in the opposite direction from the hole, so each subsequent “stroke” was a desperate attempt to correct course. I saw him in person maybe 20 years later at the Frieze art fair in New York. He was riding a segway wheelchair—it balanced on two wheels and set him higher up than a normal wheelchair, so he was closer to eye-level with other people. I’ve never seen such a wheelchair again.
Louis Andriessen is last on my list. He died in June at the age of 82. I only became aware of his music in the past month. I had heard it before, but I’m current researching the new music organization Bang on a Can, and he is a composer than they like to perform. Andriessen was a Dutch post-minimalist composer. The work is a little difficult but pretty accessible. It’s hard for me to place him in the firmament of contemporary composers. It is far easier for me to feel like I have authority to say who are important contemporary artists or writers, but with composers, I am at a loss. It seems like new music doesn’t have as much of an impact on contemporary culture as other art forms. I’m trying to correct that on a personal level. Hence Andriessen’s inclusion here.
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