10 Unforgettable Artists Who Died in 2019

Scott Indrisek
Dec 27, 2019 1:00PM

Portrait of Ed Clark by Chester Higgins Jr / The New York Times / Redux. © Ed Clark. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

The art community mourned many of its icons and leading lights in 2019. We lost painters Thomas Nozkowski and Joe Overstreet; mixed-media artist Monir Farmanfarmaian; experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer; and photographer Peter Lindbergh. Some, including Huguette Caland and Wendell Dayton, reaped critical appreciationlate in life. Others, like Carlos Cruz-Diez and Agnès Varda, had long cemented their place in the art-historical canon. While it’s impossible to do justice to the talent that was lost this year, we take a closer look below at 10 diverse artists who died over the past 12 months.

Robert Frank

Died September 9th, age 94


In these divisive times, it’s almost impossible to think of a single photographer attempting to journey out into the world and document what “America” means. Yet Robert Frank did just that in the mid-1950s, thanks to a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. His rambling cross-country travels would result in “The Americans” (1955–57), a series of 83 black-and-white images, collected in book form and published in 1958, that would help redefine how the country saw itself. Frank was aware of the enormity of his task: “‘The photographing of America’ is a large order,” he wrote in his Guggenheim application, “read at all literally, the phrase would be an absurdity.”

Following that creative watershed, Frank refused to rest on his laurels. He went on to co-direct experimental films like the short Beatnik favorite Pull My Daisy (1959)—its stars included poet Allen Ginsberg and painter Larry Rivers, while Jack Kerouac provided narration—as well as the cult-classic Rolling Stones tour documentary Cocksucker Blues (1972).

Carolee Schneemann

Died March 6th, age 79

Unrelenting, radical, and fearless, Carolee Schneemann made her name in the 1960s with performance works that shocked and confused certain audiences. “If you want to run around naked, run around naked but don’t say you’re painting. This isn’t really feminism, it’s some hypnotic erotic,” she told Artsy’s Alexxa Gotthardt in 2016, channeling some of her early, misguided feedback.

It’s no wonder that critics were rankled—and maybe a bit uncomfortable—when confronted by bold, feminist statements like Meat Joy (1964) and Interior Scroll (1975). The former combined the spirit of dance, wrestling, and a hippie love-in; the latter found the artist stripping nude, then reading a text that she carefully removed from her vagina. Through film, assemblage, photography, and other media, the artist investigated sexuality and identity (and, occasionally, her own voracious love of cats). Lest her legacy be overshadowed by such indelible early pieces, a retrospective of Schneemann’s work traveled to MoMA PS1 late in 2017, shedding light on her broader practice. That same year, she was also awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale.

Joyce Pensato

Died June 13th, age 77

This brashly confident artist was always happy to make a mess. Joyce Pensato’s almost violently splashy paintings borrowed familiar images from pop culture—Donald Duck, Homer Simpson—repurposing them to exciting effect. Her techniques and tactics live on in the work of everyone from Katherine Bernhardt to KAWS.

Pensato was notorious for having a studio jam-packed with sheer stuff, including paint-spattered stuffed animals; she’d incorporate some of her hoardings as assemblages for white-cube exhibitions, bringing a chaotic energy to normally quiet spaces. The uniquely stylish artist—a fixture of the New York scene—was also a walking advertisement for her own fashionable, offbeat aesthetic. In 2012, she scored the coveted Robert De Niro, Sr. Prize. It wasn’t until 2014 that Pensato enjoyed her first museum survey with “I Killed Kenny” at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; doubtlessly, future posthumous exhibitions will continue to share her work with a younger generation.

Marisa Merz

Died July 19th, age 93

Pioneering sculptor Marisa Merz was a highlight of the Arte Povera movement. With a focus on the human face—as seen in unnerving busts and pared-down drawings and paintings—she communicated intense emotion through simple means. A groundswell of recognition came Merz’s way later in life, from her receipt of the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013 to a sweeping solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017.

Like her Arte Povera peers, Merz was adept at conjuring magic from common things: industrial metal vents, draped from the ceiling; unfired clay, formed into expressive features; copper thread, gently woven into tiny shoes. The artist was fairly press-shy—interviews are few and far between, and the ones that do exist find her almost comically reluctant to weigh in on what her art means. Until the end, she preferred to let the work speak for itself.

John Giorno

Died October 11th, age 82

Words mattered to John Giorno. A poet at heart, he launched the long-running “Dial-A-Poem” in the late 1960s, a project in which anyone could use their telephone to hear luminaries like Kathy Acker and Patti Smith read verse. His visual art practice comprised sculptures, paintings, and watercolors that underscored impactful and sometimes enigmatic phrases: “A Hurricane in a Drop of Cum,” or “Space Forgets You.” Creative communities and collaborations have always been vital to Giorno, so it’s fitting that his 2015 retrospective at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris—curated by his partner Ugo Rondinone, and titled “Ugo Rondinone: I ♥ John Giorno”—presented his work alongside that of peers like Anne Collier, Matthew Higgs, and Andy Warhol. (Giorno dated Warhol in the 1960s, and appears in his classic film Sleep.)

In 2019, Giorno presented an exhibition at Sperone Westwater in New York—his first with the gallery—that included eye-popping, rainbow-tinted text paintings and enormous rock sculptures with phrases carved into their faces. The show’s title would become accidentally sweetly elegiac in light of his death, not long after the opening: “Do the Undone.”

Claude Lalanne

Died April 10th, age 93

This artist was anything but sheepish. Along with her husband, François-Xavier, Claude Lalanne was part of an art powerhouse known as “Les Lalanne.” Beginning in the 1960s, the married duo made their name with large-scale sculptures of animals that were lighthearted and slightly surreal. Claude’s own output ranged from deconstructed chairs to wooly “sheep” benches, crocodile banquettes, and sculptures of noble rabbits. “Claude was a visionary whose imagination seemingly knew no bounds,” her London dealer Ben Brown said in a statement following her passing, “and the sensitivity and sense of humour evident in her works has enamoured all that encounter it.”

Les Lalanne’s inventive spirit seems like an obvious influence for a younger generation of offbeat designer-artists, like the Haas Brothers. And Claude’s cheeky visions continue to inspire: In conjunction with this year’s Art Basel in Miami Beach, the Raleigh Hotel dedicated a sprawling outdoor exhibition to Les Lalanne, on view through February 2020.

Robert Ryman

Died February 8th, age 88

For those who prefer their painting couched in a heavy dose of conceptual theory, Robert Ryman is a hero. (For anyone confused by how a painting rendered in a single color can be interesting, here is a handy primer.) A friend of Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, and other New York–based artists who rose to prominence in the 1960s, Ryman made his career with tireless interrogations of the color white. That’s a simple categorization he would have disagreed with: Back in 1971, when Artforum asked him if he made “white paintings,” Ryman replied that “it may seem that way superficially, but there are a lot of nuances and there’s color involved.” Nuance indeed—few other artists demand such careful, slow looking as Ryman does. If you’ve got the time, Dia:Beacon is a terrific place to absorb the late artist’s spare, minimalist masterpieces.

Matthew Wong

Died October 2nd, age 35

The tragic suicide of this young Canadian artist reverberated through the art world this year. Wong’s rise to acclaim was the stuff of legend: The at-the-time unknown artist was discovered via Facebook, later introduced to Matthew Higgs of White Columns, and eventually represented by cutting-edge New York gallery Karma.

The artist’s brightly colored interiors and paintings of mysterious landscapes were buoyant and energetic; upon his death, the painter Jonas Wood went so far as to dub Wong “the modern day Van Gogh.” To commemorate Wong’s life and work, Karma staged a posthumous exhibition, “Blue,” on view in New York through January 5, 2020; it collects a series of moody, almost elegiac works by the artist, all centered around the titular color.

Ed Clark

Died October 18th, age 93

In an art world where there’s seemingly “nothing new under the sun,” every innovation is zealously guarded. Abstract painter Ed Clark had two firsts under his belt (though, like many such claims, his have doubtlessly been challenged over the years). In 1956, he was the first to consider moving paint around on canvas using a push broom; in 1957, he debuted a series of paintings on shaped canvases, a now-familiar technique that Clark said he invented. Beyond those technical facets, though, this legendary African American painter’s works are marvels of form and color, both expressive and emotional.

Proper acclaim was slow to arrive throughout his career, but he still lived to see his work properly feted; one month before his death, Clark opened an exhibition at blue-chip gallery Hauser & Wirth. “Overall, this collection of art radiates a sense of contentment,” one critic wrote, “at this moment when his reputation has at last caught up to his achievement.”

Jonas Mekas

Died January 23rd, age 96

“To film is a necessity,” Jonas Mekas once said, “like eating, sleeping, breathing.” The artist was compelled to record the things around him in the form of what he referred to as “film diaries”—unvarnished, unpretentious documents somewhere between arthouse cinema and home movies. These idiosyncratic works captured Mekas’s friends, loved ones, and peers, famous and otherwise.

Since arriving in New York in the late 1940s, he found his eternal muse in the city, which is itself a primary subject of his oeuvre. And Mekas also helped establish an actual framework for experimental film in New York, through publications like Film Culture magazine (which lasted until 1996) and the Anthology Film Archives, which remains an important part of the local cultural scene. The art world embraced him equally, and Mekas was a highlight of major exhibitions, from the 2005 Venice Biennale to Documenta 14. There, he showed works that included Lost Lost Lost (1976), which gives a hint of his singular and highly personal process; the 180-minute epic was filmed between 1949 and 1963, but remained unedited until 1976.

Scott Indrisek