Big Death: A Top Five List
by Jacquelyn Gleisner

“It was autumn, the springtime of death. Rain spattered the rotting leaves, and a wild wind wailed. Death was singing in the shower. Death was happy to be alive.” ― Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker

RIP Lou. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty.

Fall is Mother Nature’s seasonal pass to indulge in the morbid and today, November 1st, is the Day of the Dead – a holiday recognized across different cultures that honors the deceased. This year there have been heaping piles of big death. Lou Reed died. Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney passed away at age 74. Songwriter J.J. Cale, also aged 74, had a fatal heart attack. At age 31, Canadian TV star Cory Monteith overdosed on a toxic heroin-alcohol cocktail in a Vancouver hotel room. Months later, the death of “Glee” was announced.

Many have died. Many have come close, too. Jackie Chan, Rihanna and Adam Sandler all went belly up – temporarily – via various social media channels online. The United States Government was dormant for sixteen days this past October. Thankfully, it rose from the dead and the debt limit was suspended until next February.

The art world has also had many memorable brushes with death, and here are my top five:

Diego Binetti Spring 2012 collection. Source.

1. Nail Art

The ancient Chinese began using enamel on their nails around 3000 BCE, but the recent wave of nail decorations far exceeds a splash of color around the cuticles. Contemporary nail technicians have mastered flamboyant decals, intricate floral patterning and innovations in paint surfaces such as matte and iridescent finishes. But this trend, spotted on runways and around Chelsea galleries, may be finally wearing off.

In 2012, Women’s Wear Daily reported that nail-polish sales had peaked at $768 million in the United States. But by the end of this past July, WWD noted that these numbers had been trimmed in two from the previous year.1 Nude was the new nail de rigueur, claimed Marc Jacobs. An upcoming reality show about burgeoning nail artists for Oxygen – the television network that brought us “Too Young to Marry” and “Find Me My Man” – is further proof that nail art is no longer cool, but commonplace. Nail art is inherently a dead art, but the new trend of nails gone wild may finally be dying.

Artist Andrew Masullo Source.

2. Gallery Shows

On March 30 in the Vulture, Jerry Saltz decried the death of the gallery show.2 The business of selling art has been slowly migrating from gallery revenues to a constellation of art fairs and auction houses across the globe. Moreover, online collector apps and sites like Paddle8 and Artsy are practically encouraging patrons to buy work without viewing it in person. As a result, fewer and fewer people are visiting gallery shows, and fewer people are seeing art in person, in general.

If the collective appetite is shrinking for art’s unique presence – Benjamin’s “aura” described in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” – then artists might focus on strengthening what can be translated across a screen – the content. Not a bad idea.

Nicole Eisenman, The Breakup, 2011, 56" x 43"Source.

3. Painting

Jerry Saltz strikes again! On October 10, Saltz was ready to pull the trigger on painting, writing in the Vulture, “I'm this close to that old Carter-administration-era croak of ‘Painting is dead.’ Again.” Saltz continued, “Anemically boring, totally safe artistic clichés [are] squeezing the life out of the art world right now.”3 This scab on the art world, labeled “Neo-Mannerism,” has been taking the form of reprocessed, collaged photos of photos, tacky, ill-considered sculpture and stately, abstract paintings, modest in both size and ambition. Photography and sculpture have become lifeless. Painting is nearly dead, too.

Saltz’s rant – from a warm place, I presume – does not provide specific examples of these bland paintings hazing the art world, but let’s use the work of Andrew Masullo as a placeholder. Describing his paintings to the New York Times, Masullo said, “It’s not totally backed up by a lot of theory or a conceptual practice. It’s pure painting. And it looks fantastic.”4 It’s popular, too. Masullo’s brightly-colored, smallish, ‘pure’ paintings were included in over twenty gallery shows from 2010 to 2012 and more importantly, in last year’s Whitney Biennial. Still I believe there’s no reason to despair. Every Masullo is checked by a painter like Nicole Eisenman (also included in the 2012 Biennial and recently awarded the 2013 Carnegie Prize).

Jay-Z and Marina AbramovićSource.

4. Performance Art
On July 10, Jay-Z (AKA Hova, or Shawn Carter) made his debut at Pace’s Chelsea gallery. Over the course of six hours, Mr. Carter repeatedly performed “Picasso Baby,” the second track of his new album “Magna Carta… Holy Grail,” to a crowd of art world darlings including gallerist Bill Powers and artists Lawrence Weiner and Marcel Dzama. Jay-Z was thus rebranded and reborn as a performance artist.5

The Artist Marina Abramović was present. Abramović, draped in a black, billowing dress with her signature Serbian death-stare, mirrored Jay-Z’s slow movements on his invisible stage. A few times they bumped foreheads, pressing third eyes together. Twitter exploded. The online art magazine Hyperallergic posted a piece about the encounter with the headline: “The Day Performance Art Died.” Prone to intermittent embarrassment, performance art, like painting, is not dead.

5. Marina Abramović
Just kidding! The New York-based performance artist will turn 67 on the 30th day of this month. But when she does croak, there will be three funerals and three coffins in three cities: Belgrade, Amsterdam and New York. Only one of these coffins will contain her true remains.6

In the meantime, fans of Abramović, already the subject of a biography, a documentary, an opera and a video game, can celebrate her work and other time-based works (especially those of long-duration) at the forthcoming Marina Abramović Institute in Hudson, New York. In a recent Times article, Abramović said that the 33,000-square-foot center will not only applaud her accomplishments and nod to her peers, but also offer body and mind-cleansing exercises, per the Abramović method. MAI will be a “culture spa” in the words of the artist.7

On a related note, The Thinking Skills and Creativity Journal released a report that linked artists with narcissism.8 The Abramović –Jay-Z dance-off gives off more than a whiff of these findings. At the other end of the spectrum, Vito Acconci, the conceptual artist who forsook performance art for architecture said, “What I loved about performance was the contract. You say you are going to do something and you carry it out. What I hated about it was the display of self—the personality cult.”9 The performance artist of yore is being out-performed by the art world’s contemporary celebrity personas – the nexus of narcissism and artistic expression – but Marina Abramović lives!

1 Allison P. Davis, “Nail Art is (Finally?) Dead,” NY Magazine Online, July 26, 2013. (

2 Jerry Saltz, “Saltz on the Death of the Gallery Show,” The Vulture, March 30, 2013. (

3 Jerry Saltz, “Jerry Saltz on Art’s Insidious New Cliché: Neo-Mannerism,” The Vulture, October 10, 2013. (

4 Carol Kino, “Painting by Numbers, to Whitney Biennial,” The New York Times, March 22, 2012. (

5 Emma Allen, “The Rapper is Present,” The New Yorker Online, July 11, 2013. (

6 Andrew Goldman, “The Devil in Marina,” The New York Times Magazine Online, June 13, 2013. (

7 Sarah Lyall, “For Her Next Piece, a Performance Artist Will Build an Institute,” The New York Times Online, October 19, 2013. (

8 Jillian Steinhauer, “Want to Be an Artist? Try a Little Narcissism,” Hyperallergic, October 9, 2013. (

9 Judith Thurman, “Walking Through Walls: Marina Abramović’s performance art,” The New Yorker Online, March 8, 2010. (