Dialogue with death


Kris Martin, I Am Still Alive, 2006, bronze 

Walking the rooms of Cheim and Read’s exhibition, I Am As You Will Be: The Skeleton in Art, I am struck with the thought of the duality of creation: life and death are complementary parts of the whole. Edvard Munch’s etching, Death and Love, captures this quality, with life in all its ripe lushness in the embrace of a harsh and desiccated death.


Edvard Munch, Death and Love, 1894, drypoint etching

To quote from the exhibition Press Release:

The works in this exhibition are inherently connected to a long history of the skeleton’s artistic representation, and are emblematic of human nature’s ongoing and understandably invested interest in mortality. [...] Hidden but intrinsic to all living beings, the revealed skeleton has long been a harbinger of imminent death, directing the destinies of souls. It has appeared in its iconic, nightmarish uniform of black cape and scythe, has danced naked in a medieval jumble of bones (the “danse macabre”), and has waited patiently, skull-only, on the side table of a vanitas painting, with a vase of wilting flowers and a half-empty hour glass. Repeated, abstracted, and stylized through out history, the skeleton indicates the inevitable passing of time and ultimately mocks the fruitless hope for immortality.

The title of the show—I Am As You Will Be—are the opening lines of an uneasy dialogue with Damien Hirst’s dual skeletons. The bones inform us, the living, of the terrible beauty that lies hidden in death. Our living bodies remind the dead of that which they once possessed.   

Damien Hirst, Male and Female Pharmacy Skeleton, 1998/2004


 Andy Warhol, Untitled (Skeletons), 1976-1986

I was captured by the image created by McDermott & McGough: a human skull resting near a stack of comic books. Does the skull’s longing for colorful life lost feed the flames of jealousy? Or do the comic book characters envy the lifeless skull its majestic and vivid reality? 


McDermott & McGough, Flames of Jealousy, 1964., 2007

At a later visit to the Met I was struck by the impact of another of Damien Hirst’s creations. Hirst’s shark suspended in a tank of formaldehye—The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—also addresses issues of life and death.


Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink, Tear Ducts Seem to be a Grief Provision, 1983-1984

Kudos to Cheim & Read for an exhibition well planned, designed and executed.

Further reading: Going the Way of All Flesh, Artistically, by Roberta Smith, The New York Times, October 10, 2007


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