Tell the average American, or even more so the average person on the Internet, that Lucian Freud passed away, and they will shrug and ask who that was. Moreover, when someone dies at the age of 88, like Freud did, and nobody asks why. Or, as Louis Black put it: “What did he die of?” “Sixty.” Anything past that is just borrowed time, I guess. But when a young pop star dies, everybody’s got an opinion. Amy Winehouse passed away early this morning, at the age of 27, just like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison, and more recently Curt Kobain and Jean-Michel Basquiat. She joins them as a member of the so-called 27 Club. This "just-right age to die too young" inspired a recent exhibition at Noble and Superior Projects, called Younger Than Janis.
The series of tubes is abuzz with speculation, mourning, and some really mean-spirited remarks to the effect of, and I’m basically quoting one right now, “the bitch deserved to die.” The official jury is still out on the cause and manner of death, but that doesn’t stop the peanut gallery from musing out loud.
Whether one regards dying as a result of drug addiction as succumbing to a disease, facing the consequences of a selfish personal choice, or even just too much of a good thing, the fact is that drugs and alcohol kill a lot of people, and adversely affect the lives of many more. I’ve got one friend who drank herself to death (I think it was pancreatitis that finally did her in, caused by alcoholism), and another who blinded himself by stabbing out his eyes with a fork while under the influence of hallucinogens. I’m sure we’ve all got stories like this. It’s a stereotype based on quite a lot of fact that rock stars die from drug overdoses, writers from alcoholism, and plenty of actors, athletes, and porn stars go the same way. But what about artists?
While I was a graduate student at MICA, artist Banks Violette was scheduled to give an artist’s lecture, which I was eager to attend. Unfortunately, I found out from a student who was modeling for me that the lecture had been cancelled; the rumored reason was that Violette was strung out in his hotel room or had overdosed or some such thing. (If it was an overdose, it didn’t kill him.) While this particular incident may or may not have been drug-related, Violette has certainly had his problems with drugs in the past.
Violette survived that incident (if anything happened at all), but others haven’t been so fortunate. Drugs and alcohol have claimed the lives, directly or indirectly, of many prominent personages. In some cases the connection is somewhat difficult to draw: Vincent van Gogh’s suicide by gunshot was the conclusion to a lifelong mental illness, which could have been aggravated by his drinking (especially of absinthe), but could as easily have been affected by insomnia, overworking, malnutrition, or a physical or mental ailment such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, syphilis, poisoning from eating paint, epilepsy, or the rare metabolic disorder AIP.
In a case like Van Gogh’s, it’s impossible to lay the blame clearly at the feet of a substance. In other cases, however, drugs or alcohol played a more direct role. Diane Arbus took barbiturates and then slit her wrists; it was ruled a suicide. Arbus had suffered from depression as had her mother, and may have been made worse by hepatitis. In 1968 she wrote, “I go up and down a lot.” Her ex-husband noted her violent mood swings. Her suicide took place on July 26, 1971, while she was living at Westbeth Artists Community in New York City. She took barbiturates and slashed her wrists in the bathtub. Her body was found two days later by her friend, artist Marvin Israel. Arbus was 48 years old.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), painter, died of a heroin overdose. On August 12, 1988, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose. He was 27 years old. Basquiat was the subject of an eponymous film by Julian Schnabel, in which he is portrayed brilliantly by Jeffrey Wright. David Bowie makes a pretty kick-ass Andy Warhol, as well.
Jackson Pollock (January 28, 1912 – August 11, 1956), abstract expressionist painter, died while driving under the influence of alcohol. His last two paintings, Scent and Search, were completed in 1955, and he hadn’t painted at all in1956. Pollack had struggled with alcoholism for most of his life, and was drunk at the time of his death.
According to Grace Hartigan, my mentor in graduate school, however, Pollack’s problem wasn’t so much that he drove drunk (which he did) but that he had a particular love for driving fast. There was something about flooring it on a long stretch of road that soothed him, however unsafe it might have been. Of course, being blind drunk probably didn’t make it any easier. Pollock had two passengers in the car with him at the time: Edith Metzger, who was also killed, and his mistress Ruth Kligman, who survived. They were less than a mile from Pollock’s home. (Less one make too much of the “most accidents happen within a mile of home” statistic that is so frequently bandied about, let’s not forget, most DRIVING occurs within one mile of home. After all, no matter how far you’re going, the first and last mile are within a mile of home.) Kligman was an artist herself, and continued painting abstractions until her death on March 1, 2010.
In the 2000 Ed Harris film Pollock she was portrayed by Jennifer Connelly. Edith Metzger was 25 years old, a friend of Kligman’s, who had escaped Nazi Germany and who had once met Herman Göring. Her youth, innocence, and the tragedy of her death in the accident Pollock caused have made her into a sort of unsung underdog heroine, and have given rise to several tributes. Pop Songs for Edith Metzger is a musical compilation in her honor, while Stefan Sultzer’s Edith is a 2007-8 video in which an actress portrays a living, present-day Edith Metzger telling the “unremarkable” story of her life after recovering from the crash, alternating with a second video in which a similarly-aged woman recalls her memories of the real, now-deceased Metzger.
Howard Arkley (pictured above), an Australian airbrush painter of houses, architecture, and suburbia, died of an accidental heroin overdose. I had never heard of him before, but in researching this article I found out that he painted a portrait of musician Nick Cave for the Australian National Portrait Gallery. Arkley died of a heroin overdose on July 22, 1999, in his Oakleigh studio. He had been married to Alison Burton for only a few days.
Numerous other artists have succumbed to drugs and alcohol, and far, far more have had their lives touched by them and survived. Some of the other artists who have died as a direct result of drugs or alcohol include cartoonist James Thurber, photographer Kevin Aucoin, rock photographer Michael Cooper, performance artist Sebastian Horseley (best known for having undergone a voluntary crucifixion), Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, (died of a laudanum overdose in 1862; as well as being a painter she’s the model for many Pre-Raphaelite paintings including Ophelia), Dash Snow (1981-2009, died of a heroin overdose), artist and Marilyn Manson performer Gidget Gein (born Bradley Stewart, September 11, 1969 – October 8, 2008 and Australian painter Brett Whiteley (1939-1992.