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Museum in Paris Shows Works by Artists Aware that Death was Imminent
Hans Hartung, T1989-R45, 1989. Acrylique sur toile, 154 x 250 cm. Fondation Hans Hartung et Anna-Eva Bergman, Antibes © ADAGP

PARIS.- This exhibition is devoted to the late work of twelve international artists who, aware that death was imminent, brought to their work a sense of urgency and self-transcendence.

Since the publication in 1970 of Gaëtan Picon's Admirable tremblement du temps and the exhibition L'œuvre ultime at the Fondation Maeght in 1989, the question of artists' last works has rarely been looked into transversely. The realisation of impending death conditions our relationship with existence. In particular, the appearance of HIV-Aids in the late 20th century radically changed the perception of life. DEADLINE looks at a number of artists who have died over the last twenty years: very much aware of the approach of death through old age or illness, they imbued their work – paintings, photographs, installations, sculptures, videos – with a fresh intensity that sometimes resulted in unexpected plenitude.

• Some of these artists pursued lines of investigation already begun: Absalon (1964-1993) continued his experiments with 'cells' in videos of which he himself is the violent protagonist. Joan Mitchell (1926-1992) stressed the lyrical aspect of her painting, using deliberately limited means and formal simplification to produce coloured bouquets. Willem De Kooning (1904-1997) worked in solitude on free, pared-down paintings that brought a fresh economy of means to the vocabulary of his preceding period.

An explorer of transition, the ephemeral and the vanishing, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) is represented by works from throughout his career.

• Other artists changed more radically in terms of subject matter, form and rhythm: Gilles Aillaud (1928-2005), who had often painted animals in captivity, opted for silence and the occasional painting of birds lost in vast, empty spaces. Hans Hartung (1904-1989) began painting big pictures in an explosively new range of colours.

• A third group dealt explicitly with the tragic reality of ongoing illness: With the help of assistants, Jőrg Immendorff (1945-2007) found in Renaissance painting a way of continuing his oeuvre. Suffering from an incurable disease, Chen Zhen (1955-2000) approached the body as landscape, inviting the viewer to examine its organs and life's cycles in relationship to different forms of medicine. After initially producing photographic blow-ups of her naked body, Hannah Villiger (1951-1997) tended to conceal its emaciation under shrouds.

• A last group made death visible in their works: Referencing sculpture and the vanitas, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) photographed busts and skulls. Quoting Géricault, Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997) portrayed himself in the posed of the survivors of the Raft of the Medusa. James Lee Byars (1932-1997) conjured up an ideal of eternity in a staging of his own death.

Artists: Absalon, Gilles Aillaud, James Lee Byars, Chen Zhen, Willem de Kooning, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Hans Hartung, Jőrg Immendorff, Martin Kippenberger, Robert Mapplethorpe, Joan Mitchell, Hannah Villiger.

Musee d'Art Moderne | Fondation Maeght | Gaëtan Picon | DEADLINE | Felix Gonzalez-Torres | Gilles Aillaud | Willem De Kooning |

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