Ulay, the pioneering artist best known for his collaborations with Marina Abramović, died at age 76.

Justin Kamp
Mar 2, 2020 5:58PM, via The Art Newspaper

Ulay in November 2018. Photo by Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images.

Ulay, the performance artist best known for his provocative “relation works” with his then-partner Marina Abramović, died in Ljubljana, Slovenia on Monday morning from complications caused by his battle with lymphatic cancer. He was 76.

Ulay’s longtime dealer in London, Richard Saltoun, said in a statement:

Ulay was the freest of spirits—a pioneer and provocateur with a radically and historically unique oeuvre, operating at the intersection of photography and the conceptually-oriented approaches of Performance and Body art. His passing leaves a momentous gap in the world—one that will not be so easily be replaced. We hold his family, friends and colleagues close in our hearts during this time.

Ulay, born Frank Uwe Laysiepen, first rose to prominence as a photographer in the 1970s. His work, most often shot on a Polaroid camera, focused on the various expressions of his identity. He is perhaps best known for his work with Abramović, who he met in Amsterdam in 1976. Over the next 12 years, the lovers and collaborators would become renowned for a series of 14 “relation works,” performances in which the pair engaged in dangerous or physically taxing activity with the goal of merging into a single artistic mind.

Marina Abramović
Abramović & Ulay, Aaa-aaa, 1978-2010
Lia Rumma

In Light/Dark (1977), Ulay and Abramović knelt opposite each other and traded slaps across the face with increasing intensity. In 1980, the performance Rest Energy saw Abramović hold a bow opposite Ulay while he drew an arrow aimed at her chest. Their final work together, The Lovers (1988), doubled as a commemoration for the end of their relationship. In April of that year, the artists started at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China—Ulay in the Gobi Desert and Abramović by the Yellow Sea—and began walking towards each other. They met in the middle and, after walking more than 1,500 miles each, silently said goodbye. The pair reunited in 2010 when Ulay surprised Abramović by taking a seat opposite her during the performance piece The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite not speaking for decades, the artists held hands and cried.

Abramović responded to Ulay’s death in an Instagram post:

It is with great sadness I learned about my friend and former partner Ulay’s death today. He was an exceptional artist and human being, who will be deeply missed. On this day, it is comforting to know that his art and legacy will live on forever.

After their split, Ulay returned to photography. His series Berlin Afterimages (1994–95) focused on the realities of life in the German city after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He also experimented with a giant camera that produced “Polagram” photos that were taller than the artist himself.

Ulay was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 2011. In 2015, he sued Abramović, claiming she had violated a contract about their shared work. She was ordered to pay more than €250,000 ($279,000) in royalties, in addition to legal costs. The two reconciled in the following years, according to The Story of Marina Abramović and Ulay, a 2017 documentary about the couple’s life and work. “Everything naughty, nasty disagreements or whatever from the past, we dropped,” Ulay said. “We became good friends again.” Last November, on his 76th birthday, he opened a Foundation and Project Space in Ljubljana.

In a bedside interview with Dazed last year, Ulay laid out his artistic philosophy:

It’s through art that people exchange interpretation and meaning and love. You can be without solid food for 40 days, you can be without water for four days, you can be without air for four minutes, but you can be only four seconds without impressions… that’s why art is so important.

In November 2020, a major retrospective of Ulay’s work is due to open at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Justin Kamp