It’s Sunday evening and I’ve just heard about the death of Ellsworth Kelly.

Seeing his work at art fairs and museums always brought a smile to my face.  His bold, colorful, geometric abstracts are so much fun to bathe in.

The great news is that he lived a nice, long and productive life. He was 92. We should all hope for that.

But here’s the thing.

When an artist dies, it’s great cause for mourning and celebration.  First off, the Kelly estate should benefit greatly because prices for his work should soar.  Suddenly, everyone will consider his work a scarcity – despite large supply – because his death means he can no longer produce any more work.

Kelly achieved a large measure of success and recognition.  He was certainly one of the greats during his life and this will likely mean his fame will increase in death.  That’s just how it works.

But here’s the greater thing.

When an artist dies, living artists should take note at best and tremble in their boots at worse.  For artists, dying is such a dicey proposition.

Does the artist have a will or a trust?  Who will inherit the works left behind?  Who gets the studio?  Should they turn the studio into a museum of sorts?  Should loved ones sell off the remaining works or create a foundation?  If they sell the works, who profits from the sale?  Does the artist’s gallery have first dibs on even the remaining, uncompleted works?  Where should those works be housed?  Should the works be donated or sold to a museum?  Did the artist like the unseen works that remained in his/her studio or would he/she have preferred that those works be destroyed?

I could go on and on.  I mean, what you really want to avoid are family squabbles or lawsuits with years spent in court fighting over things.  No one really profits from that but the attorneys.  I’m sure that even some of the attorneys would prefer that more artists were prepared for the eventuality of their deaths.

One of the things that I find disturbing about my interviews with artists is that many of them don’t seem to have living wills or trusts or any plans that take their sudden deaths into account.  This is a HUGE concern.

Artists have GOT to get smart about these things.  It’s not good enough to just TELL your spouse or family that THIS is what you want.  Moreso than anyone else, artists really need to have a plan IN WRITING.  This is critical.

Obviously, this is a more urgent issue for mid-to-late career artists. The older we get, the less time we’ve got.  However, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed to anyone so this is also an issue for prolific, young artists too.

Another issue is that SO many artists do not keep journals or blogs or ANY legitimate record of their artistic process.  Big mistake.  This is one of the reasons why I interview artists all the time.  You MUST talk about your work and process for the sake of posterity.  Whether fame comes or not is beside the point.

I mean, let’s face it.  There are few things more tragic than a dead artist who leaves behind a TON of work and yet very little in terms of what inspired and motivated them to create.  To me, it’s almost like visiting cemeteries and seeing those blank tombstones of presumed war heroes.  Problem is … nobody knows who they were.

Isn’t every human life more precious than that?

Artists, you’ve got to take action on this.  Tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone.  When an artist dies, famous or not, it’s a wake-up call for each and every one of you.  Death often determines fame or obscurity.

I don’t know.  I’m guessing that Ellsworth Kelly pretty much had his business in order with Matthew Marks Gallery before he died.  Well, I certainly hope he did.

Look, I know that nobody wants to even think about death let alone prepare for it while they’re busy tending to their lives.  But for artists in particular, preparing for what happens after you die can really put your life into perspective.  Take care of your business.  If you don’t, your business will screw you after you’ve died.  In that scenario, you may even die twice.  Is anything more morbid than that?

Dying is such a dicey thing for an artist.


Dead Artists