For the last twenty years of Marcel Duchamp’s life, when everyone thought he’d given up art to play chess, the Dada Mack Daddy was secretly building a complex, erotic tableau in a Greenwich Village studio. Inside the studio, there was a nude figure sculpted from pig skin, linoleum and glass, a motorized landscape, and a glowing lamp — all this could only be seen through two peep holes in the wooden door. Étant Donnés (1946-1966) or Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas came with a large, 4-ring binder of instructions to disassemble, assemble and display the work… only after the artist’s death.
Gustav Klimt’s secret to expressing women’s maddening erotic desires was revealed after his death when the unfinished paintingThe Bride(1917/18) was found and his subjects were caught sans clothes, writhing in naked glee — he always painted the nude models first and the clothes on last.
Painted in the last weeks of Vincent van Gogh’s life, Wheatfield With Crows (1890) is often dubbed his final work. Although the stormy, crow-filled field is the setting of his final, successful suicide attempt, it’s more likely that the less epic Tree-roots was his last painting.
Claude Monet wanted to by buried like “a local man,” demanding: “Above all, remember I want neither flowers nor wreaths. Those are vain honors. It would be a sacrilege to plunder the flowers of my garden for an occasion such as this.” As his eyesight and health failed, he worked on the Grandes Décorations (1920/26) murals featuring his beloved water lilies in the last years of his life. Exuberant price tags considered, they weren’t precious exclusively to Monet’s flower-loving heart.
Frida Kahlo’s last paintings Self Portrait with Stalin (1954) and Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick (1954) opted against her iconic, self-reflexive surrealism for broad strokes and broad mustaches of Socialist prophets.
Hieronymus Bosch’s last painting Christ Carrying the Cross(1490) isn’t an epic bizarro-a-go-go triptych. Composed like a killer street photography shot of clustered, snarling faces, it deals with mortal nature instead of religious horrors. Clearly, Bosch’s last thought was that people suck.
Like Michelangelo himself, NYC’s iconic pop/graffiti artist Keith Haring alluded to a crucifixion in his final work, Altarpiece: The Life of Christ (1990). He died two weeks after completing the Russian icon-inspired altar piece reflecting on mortality, grief over the death of his friends in the AIDS epidemic, and that most sacred sentiment — love.
It’s been disputed whether or not Riding With Death (1988) was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s final painting before a heroin overdose ended his “vulnerable life,” as Gray bandmate Vincent Gallo called it. Either way, it’s hard not to see the graffiti legend/Neo-expressionist champ’s Leonardo Da Vinci-alluding masterpiece as a premonition of the end.
Gone were the Galas and suggestively warped realities of Surrealist superstar Salvador Dalí! His last series of paintings were enamored with a different muse — dynamic math. Dalí’s very last painting The Swallow’s Tail (1983), specifically contemplated the catastrophe theory dealing with unpredictable sudden changes within mathematical equations.
When Argentinean visual, conceptual and performance artist Alberto Greco was asked in a ’60s survey what he intended to do for his upcoming project, he ambiguously replied: “to commit suicide.” Shockingly, he did just that, turning death into his medium by taking a lethal amount of barbiturates and writing a detailed account of his experience until the very last moment. He is rumored to have also written “FIN” on his outstretched palms.