“All that blood and not a paintbrush in sight” – Some such thought must have drifted through the dark chambers of Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s mind at one point, perhaps shortly before he began incorporating human blood into his oil paintings.
There couldn’t be a more suitable medium for the creations of the man dubbed “Dr. Death” and “Jack the Dripper” by the press. In the 1990s Kevorkian became the biggest euthanasia celebrity since Himmler and Margaret Sanger (see “Croaking with the Stars”). The official oracle of death was proud of his titles and loved all publicity, although his medical license was actually yanked decades ago via a murder charge in Michigan.
Most people familiar with the notorious Kevorkian aren’t aware that he spent 12 years unsuccessfully painting, writing, composing music and creating a film based on Handel’s “Messiah.” It wasn’t until he began “helping” people die that his art and music attracted a great deal of attention.
Now a year after his own demise, a war quietly brews between the Armenian Library and Museum of America, or ALMA, in Watertown, Mass., and Kevorkian’s estate. Several paintings were left to the museum as either loans or gifts, depending on the source. The doctor’s sole heir and niece Ava Janus of Troy, Mich., wants them all returned and even included the disputed artworks symbolically in a New York auction of his effects last fall.
The honors bestowed on Kevorkian’s paintings stem from a variety of causes, and none of them are the quality, at least that’s my take. Kevorkian acknowledged as much himself when he critiqued his own work at the show’s opening in 2008: “I think they’d be more affective if they were done by a real artist.”
But the cult of personality swells America’s obsession for all things celebrity, like an actor’s motorbike – particularly if he died on it.
Executive Director Mariam Stepanyan said the museum won’t be taking a position on Kevorkian’s murder conviction or apparently the whole death and euthanasia cult thing either. I admit the background of the man and his gruesome life’s work does prejudice me a bit on his art. Bad art can be so much easier to take if you can make your own interpretations, but here you already know the whole story and its unhappy endings.
Kevorkian shows at ALMA because his parents were Armenian survivors. This could possibly explain the dreariness, violence, fear and the almost palpable stench of death permeating most paintings, but not really. His mother’s great will to live prevailed over armies of men trying to murder her in Armenia. Kevorkian’s scenario would have her leaping off the nearest cliff rather than face possible torture or rape, the pain he would help us all avoid with his poisons and potions.
When he deals with this theme in his painting “1915 – Genocide – 1945,” Kevorkian hits a sympathetic nerve for once. This is one of the paintings where he claimed to use a pint of his own blood mixed into the paints. You’ll have to put aside issues of health, religion and the longevity of blood as a painting medium for a moment. It depicts a decapitated woman’s head clutched by Nazis and Ottoman soldiers. Because of Kevorkian’s family history, his bizarre choice of ingredients seems more authentic and almost tender. It feels historically right even as it is still horrific to view.
The doctor actually sounded quite sane in his remarks over the “inhuman gall and depravity” inherent in planning campaigns of racial extermination. Kevorkian also called for the need for a “hereditary memory” to avoid the recurrence of genocide.
Not all his paintings deal with suicide, death and destruction. The ALMA exhibition is divided into three categories: medical themes, political themes and musical themes.
Kevorkian’s interest wandered at least slightly into a little portraiture. A stolid Johan Sebastian Bach, one of his favorite musicians, fills a canvas. He produced a few other portraits with a primitive but meticulously detailed and finished look, somewhat like old colonial portraits.
The outsider feeling expresses his entire life, not just his paintings. Kevorkian was abrasive and contentious in his beliefs and with authorities. It was an expression of his contempt for any type of constraints to personal freedom, including a God with rules.
Christianity and Christ are openly ridiculed in a few especially vicious pieces such as “For He is Raised.” Here Easter bunnies manipulate a wounded and impotent, puppet Jesus with strings.
Blatantly offensive, Kevorkian didn’t have the nerve to defend his obvious contempt, but gave a more politically correct rationale: “‘For He Is Raised’ depicts how religion has become distorted by pagan symbols of fertility to further manipulate the meaning of Easter.”
Why would he possibly care about the distortion of a religion with (as he claimed) a made-up God?
Kevorkian’s “god” was J.S. Bach, his favorite composer/genius whom he admired above all beings. Ironically Bach was a devout Christian, dedicating all his works to the glory of God. For that matter, so was Handel and his “Messiah,” another of Kevorkian’s muses. I wonder how Kevorkian rationalized this disconnect.
Medical subjects, injury and disease make up other series in his work such as “Paralysis,” trying to depict a chained spinal cord and brain. The image of this fractured man holding his arm and turning to “stone” lies somewhere between cubism and a bad acid trip. As in all of Kevorkian’s work there is only raw agony, with no comfort or answers implied.
His graphic interpretations of mutilation and pain aren’t for the squeamish or weak-stomached. In fact I can’t think of a reason anyone would want art that almost hurts their eyes, but there is a market. Ariana Gallery (Detroit) sells signed and numbered lithographs of his work at $500 apiece and feels the demand will go up.
A spokesman is estimating the collection of Kevorkian paintings at $2.5-$3.5 million if they can get their hands on them. That will be up to the courts, as it is still being disputed and neither side appears to be willing to budge.
Kevorkian’s famed “Thanatron” (Greek for “death-machine”) was also offered up at auction – unfortunately, used. Before his trial for a publicly filmed suicide that Kevorkian administered, it was redubbed the “Mercitron” by his clever lawyer. That’s what they pay them for. To help buyers feel more inclined, part of the auction proceeds goes to “Kicking Cancer for Kids,” where they are presumably treated and not euthanized.
The witty slogan resulting from Kevorkian’s campaign “right to die” makes perfect sense if your address is Mount Olympus, otherwise it’s a bit of a redundancy. Unfortunately Kevorkian’s intent to affect public policy on euthanasia has been wildly successful with Oregon and other states now legalizing physician-assisted suicide.
The eventual effects of Kevorkian’s ghastly art and philosophy may yet be seen. What he deemed the “realm of pure human reason” seems to be reflected in parts of the Obama health bill. Hopefully talk of “death panels” and restricted care is just speculation and will remain as unacceptable now as it was 20 years ago.
But if the Obama bill is to health care what Kevorkian is to art, it wouldn’t surprise me to find “Paralysis” hanging in the White House.