Death: Just Another Phase of an Artist’s Career

More needs to be said and written about what happens when artists die.

Not that the subject is entirely neglected in academic circles: a friend of mine is five years into researching her PhD on the causes of mortality in Modernist sculptors, while a weighty tome investigating the burial practices of Abstract Expressionists in Arizona & New Mexico, 1956–59, dropped through the Elephant letterbox just last week.

But, looking beyond the formalities of death certificate and funeral arrangements, what else happens when an artist dies? Output inevitably trails off. Typically a dead artist will stop making work entirely, although if in life they have stood at the head of a Factory-style production line or have editioned sculptures or photographs left mid-production, work may continue to flow out of the studio for some time.

The related question under discussion at the ‘Keeping the Legacy Alive’ conference, staged by the Institute for Artists’ Estates in Berlin earlier this week, was in essence: ‘How can an artist’s friends and family help to keep his or her work vital and visible posthumously?’

Some of the sessions had workaday titles but the insights offered regularly transcended the purely practical. You might think that as a formulation ‘Facing Different Challenges in Different Phases of an Artist’s Estate’ lacks poetry but it proved positively revelatory on the afterlives of Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Arp. A number of lawyer jokes were aired but the imaginatively titled ‘“All Fathers Die, Not These!” Artists’ Estate Management as a Family Affair’ suggested that artists’ children might have as much need for a psychoanalyst as for a legal expert.

An artist whose estate mismanages their legacy risks falling from view, while a place in the art-history canon can be secured or maintained by the vigorous and well-targeted interventions of an artist’s foundation. How much do you know about the work of Philippe Vandenberg? You may soon know a lot more owing to the focused and imaginative work done by his three children since the artist’s untimely death in 2009. (An exhibition opens at the Drawing Room in London this week.)

I’m minded to encourage someone to create a comprehensive chart correlating the waxing or waning of artists’ posthumous reputations with the publication of a key academic study or the opening of an exhibition engineered by the efforts of a deceased maker’s estate. It would certainly be illuminating. But, let’s face it, life’s too short.

artists-estates.com

Hans Arp with Charlotte Weidler in his studio, Meudon 1957 Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin Rolandswerth (IV-139) © VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2016
Portrait of Hélène Vandenberghe, advisor to The Institute for Artists' Estates © Joke Floreal

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