Post-Mortem on an Undead Exhibition: “Art That Kills”

Calder, Five Disks

Alexander Calder, “Five Discs, One Empty,” 1970, painted steel. The Art Museum, Princeton University.

Once, while we were both in college, I went to visit my best friend from high school at Princeton University. Knowing I loved art, and loving it himself, Scott walked with me around campus to look at the first-rate sculpture collection there. All the sculpture-park biggies are there: Moore, Serra, Lipschitz, Smith, Nevelson, and the other Smith. And Calder. As we were looking at that one, Scott told me he had heard that two workers had died during the installation of the sculpture.

“And they kept it?” I asked, suddenly feeling a bit wary around the thing.

“Of course they did,” replied Scott, somewhat bemused. “It’s a Calder!”

“Still…” I answered. “Bad mojo.”

Serra, House of Cards

Richard Serra, “House of Cards (One Ton Prop),” 1968-69, lead. Museum of Modern Art

Not long after that I learned about another art-related tragedy. During Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installation of large umbrellas in California and Japan, one of them came unmoored in a windstorm and crushed a woman. Not long after, I came across Richard Serra’s House of Cards, which killed an art handler when one of the lead plates comprising the sculpture fell on an art handler, due to a gaffer’s error.

I became somewhat obsessed with the idea of artworks that had killed people. Part of it must have been the disillusionment of realizing that not all art was always transcendent and uplifting (I was, remember, an undergraduate). Also, accustomed as I was to seeing works of art in reproduction, I think the brute physicality of these tragedies also fascinated me. These works of art were also massive things, which could be dangerous if mishandled.

Arneson, Chemo 1

Robert Arneson, “Chemo 1,” 1992, glazed ceramic. SFMOMA

Arneson, Chemo 2

Robert Arneson, “Chemo 2,” 1992, glazed ceramic. SFMOMA

Over the next few years, I kept my eyes open for other stories of artworks that had played a role in someone’s death. While I initially had been thinking about blunt sculptural trauma, I gradually came to realize that a lot of artworks were poison, too. As our own Nancy Thompson pointed out to me, the 19th-century glass artist Giuseppe Francisci apparently died from exposure to toxic gasses in his studio; perhaps there were others. A sculpture professor told me of widespread suspicions that Eva Hesse’s early death from cancer could be traced to her working with polyester resin and fiberglass without adequate protective gear and ventilation. A ceramist said the same worries had come up around Robert Arneson’s long struggle and eventual death from cancer. I remember vividly standing before Arneson’s harrowing Chemo I and II self-portraits and wondering if the sculptures before me–particularly their sickly, toxic glazes–hadn’t hastened his demise just as they were communicating his humanity.

And then of course there’s Vincent van Gogh, who has long been suspected of having suffered from lead poisoning from his paints, among other ailments. That poisoning has been both credited for influencing his palette and technique and also blamed for causing the psychosis that may have led to his suicide. Caravaggio and Goya have also been picked out as possible sufferers from lead poisoning, though of course this is all modern speculation, much of it tied up in popular romantic notions of the tragic genius.

Still, imagine for a second walking into a room filled with paintings and sculptures–one that didn’t look too much unlike any other gallery (save perhaps for a curious mixing of genres and time periods)–and then slowly realizing that every object you were looking had killed, or at least aided and abetted in a death. How would that feel? People tend to give Richard Serra’s pieces a wide berth (the one time I saw House of Cards, it was roped off so that you couldn’t get within six feet of it), but would they similarly avoid Sunflowers?

I considered seriously pursuing this topic for my Master’s thesis, but was talked out of it by a classmate (“C’mon, man. What’re you going to waste your time with that for?”). Which was probably for the best; I couldn’t have done justice to the topic at the time. I hadn’t yet encountered Alfred Gell, Bruno Latour, Ian Hodder, or the many other thinkers who would have helped me bring the idea to life. Later, while I was working as a curator, I realized that the exhibition could never be staged anyway: there’s no way people would lend the works. And in my mind it has to be an exhibition. We have to encounter the real things, not some mug shots in a book.

And I’ve come to realize that there’s a bigger problem. Even though now I’m familiar with concepts like object agency, reception, the medieval law of the deodand, and object history, I really don’t understand death. Granted, no one does. Over the years since I first thought of this idea, I’ve lost several people close to me, so, yes, I’m starting to know what that’s like to lose someone. But I don’t think I have it in me yet to do justice to the memory of the people killed by these works. How could I stage this exhibition without sensationalizing or diminishing their deaths? How could I talk about this topic without perpetuating the myth of the tragic artist, or, perhaps just as unfortunately, explaining that myth away through forensic pathology?

Though I do think there’s a lot to be got out of it, I’ve come to accept that this is a project I’ll probably never pursue. At the same time, I don’t think I’ll ever let it go. So I’ll let it stay undead for a while, and maybe someday I’ll bring it back to life.

Or maybe it’ll just eat my brain.

20 Responses to “Post-Mortem on an Undead Exhibition: “Art That Kills””

  1. Martha Easton November 3, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    And then there’s the arsenic used in manuscript production. And that, of course, makes me remember Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose,” where a manuscript kills everyone who reads it.

    Fascinating topic; wish you hadn’t been talked out of pursuing it by your colleague.

    Just last night my teenage son, a lover of classic rock from the 60’s and 70’s, was listening to a song I had never heard before. Turns out it was by Charles Manson. Yes, THAT Charles Manson. I was not aware that some music of his had been released. I was rather upset that my son was listening to it, but then we talked about how we evaluate the artistic products of people that are problematic, artists who even murdered others — can we separate the art from the artist (Leni Riefenstahl, Carl Andre, Caravaggio)? In your examples, it’s the art that kills people. If we now give objects agency, can we also give them blame?

    • Ben Tilghman November 4, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

      The concept of the deodand (where a thing that caused accidental death was surrendered to the crown to be sold off) is kind of close to assigning blame, although mostly it was a means of offering restitution to the departed’s family. I think also sometimes the survivors were given the thing. Imagine that!

    • Ben Tilghman November 4, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

      The question of how we treat “evil” artists seems to come up all the time, but I don’t know if anyone has ever sat down and thought through it. If nothing else, it would be interesting to do a meta-analysis looking at how historians and critics address it.

      (I should add that I’ve referred to Carl Andre as a murderer in the past and been forcefully corrected by some people whom I trust to know about the situation. Apparently it’s not so clear-cut as it might seem.)

      • Martha Easton November 9, 2013 at 7:59 am #

        Who knows about Andre — no eyewitnesses. I guess my impression of him is colored by my previous turn as a feminist activist. If you read the first paragraph of this piece on Ana Mendieta, I was in that crowd of feminists that protested at the opening of the Soho Guggenheim:

        • Ben Tilghman November 10, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

          Well, and you all were right to, considering all that was wrong with that show.

          But I think this highlights another part of my trepidation about this show: people are, understandably, very touchy about claims of responsibility. Serra, I’ve heard, will terminate an interview on the spot if the death comes up, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude similarly avoided discussing the umbrellas. The curator of this show would have to have a spine of steel.

  2. Asa Mittman November 3, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Caravaggio apparently killed someone, too, the ref of a tennis match or some such. There is a French novelist who was also a multiple murderer — can’t remember the name off the top of my head.

    Anyway, though, what about just walking around downtown Manhattan (or, probably, most cities with old skyscrapers)? The gorgeous buildings all around you were responsible for the deaths of many workers. 5 died making the Empire State Building (none, apparently, during the much lovelier Chrysler’s construction).

  3. Jennifer Borland November 3, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    Terrific post! I can’t help but add to your list Luis Jiménez, who was killed in his studio by a piece of the Blue Mustang (which now greets you at the Denver airport with its horrible red eyes) when it was being fabricated…

    • Asa Mittman November 4, 2013 at 12:10 am #

      Oh, yeah, I was there a few weeks ago, and that is a CREEPY sculpture. And a very odd airport, for that matter.

    • Ben Tilghman November 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

      Oh, wow. That thing is creepy. Or, creepiER.

  4. Rachel Dressler November 4, 2013 at 6:26 am #

    And then there is the early nineteenth-century Royal Academy artist and antiquarian Charles Stothard, author of _Monumental Effigies of Great Britain_. He was examining a stained glass window in Bere Ferrers Church when he fell off the ladder and hit his head on the slab of a knight’s tomb, dying a few days later. Great post, Ben.

  5. Ashby Kinch November 4, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    This was a great post, Ben. Thanks for sharing it. I wish, perversely, that I had another dead person to add to this bede roll: I feel like a guest at a banquet who did not bring a bottle of wine. The one local example I have has very much to do with your caveat about the importance of letting the death side unfold. Two construction workers were killed during the re-modelling of a local theater when they fell off a poorly-secured scaffold about 18 years ago. The building was recently re-named in honor of the outgoing President, and the widow of one of the dead workers appeared at the dedication to lament her husband and complain that he had been forgotten despite giving his life for the building. They gave him a plaque.

  6. Alexa Sand November 4, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    As a child, I was particularly fascinated by stories about buildings in which the builders themselves are interred, usually for some gruesome reason, in the structures they built. I think I can trace this to a fifth- or sixth-grade field trip to Hoover Dam where some irresponsible guide told us that the dam was haunted by the over 100 workers who died from industrial accidents during its construction (that they died is documented), some of whom were entombed in the dam’s concrete (never been proven). Then there is the (more plausible) story that the million-plus laborers who died building the Great Wall were routinely buried in its structure… Buildings that both murder and consume their builders: a subset of killer art-works that definitely crosses over the border into zombie-land.

  7. Jan Marquardt November 4, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    Hey Ben, Really loved this post as I’ve been thinking about the death of artworks for years–specifically architectural monuments but so much more has been destroyed than saved…anyway, like Asa, I immediately thought of buildings that caused deaths (add the palace at Versailles to the Great Wall for the life-is-cheap labor theory) but not just when built–also when they were being demolished. Sort of the ultimate irony. Give one’s life as a martyr for the Revolution so that a symbol of oppression, say the Bastille or the Abbey Church of Cluny, can be destroyed? Or another odd take–when the Louvre works were hid in private chateaux during WWII, owners had to agree not to hide people so as not to endanger the art?

  8. Ellen Shortell November 4, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Great post and discussion. I can’t help but add the miracle stories of people NOT being killed by medieval buildings, one of my favorites being four women who were buried when the foundation ditch they were digging at Notre-Dame-en-Vaux in Chalons collapsed. It seems that there must have been an understanding when a major construction project was started that there was a good chance it would kill someone. Obvious, maybe, but I’ve never really looked at it in quite that way.

    • Asa Mittman November 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

      This is such a great point — the base assumption that building a building will result in deaths.

  9. Ben Tilghman November 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    It’s so funny – I don’t think I ever had thought about buildings in this way. I think it was always “fine” art in my mind. But, obviously, there are so many stories that it’s become a trope. The Golden Gate Bridge comes to mind (especially since it’s commonly said to be the most popular site for suicide in the country). And also, doubly depressingly, the 1997 Assisi earthquake that destroyed many of the frescoes in the basilica.

  10. Rachel Hooper November 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    I was just reading an article about how Blake’s unique printing processes were likely the cause of his death via exposure to copper and noxious fumes

    • Ben Tilghman November 4, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

      Oooh! Excellent one, Rachel. Thanks!

  11. Mac Mackenzie November 4, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    I’d like to add to this fascinating topic and discussion that there’s another dimension to this story: labor and our generally jumbled notions of the status of the artist, class, and industrial production. Artists work at manual labor all day long with industrial materials (including the materials of the medieval manuscript industry and the oil-painting industry). Modern artists have exposed themselves to even more toxic materials (just think of all those daguerreotypists, poisoned by mercury vapors!). But as standards of industrial and workplace safety rose, and knowledge was increased of how to protect the laboring body from the dangers of the labor it was sold into, artists have historically tended not to pay much attention. Part of the reason for this, it seems to me, is that they don’t think of themselves as engaged in THAT kind of labor. Even the most industrial materials aren’t toxic or dangerous to artists or artworkers, so the thinking seems to go, because they are being used for cultural, even spiritual reasons, not industrial ones. I’m not usually one to cry “false consciousness!” But if ever there was a ground where such a consciousness could flourish, it’s surely the place where the artist subject with all its preconceived ideas and the material realities of industrial labor meet. I assume, though, that today’s contemporary artists, who are generally skeptical about the persona of the artist, and more sophisticated about the labor conditions under which artworkers are employed, follow OSHA standards!

    • Ben Tilghman November 5, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

      Mac, that’s a fascinating point, and one I hadn’t really considered. It has so much texture. It makes me think of Serra (again) casting lead at Castelli’s gallery (you can see an image here: There, his facemask and protective clothing feel very much a part of the performance. But with Hesse and especially Arneson (the “laid-back California artist”), I can picture them just not bothering with the protection. With Blake and Francisci, they probably just didn’t realize what they had to worry about, but then that was the 19th century. There’s a lot to chew on here… thanks!

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