Tom Sanford Honors ‘100 Little Deaths’ at BravinLee Programs [Gallery]

By Emily Colucci

For New York artist Tom Sanford, 2012 was a year completely devoted to death. Beginning in January, Sanford completed a series of monochromatic ink drawings of 100 celebrity and other deaths of 2012, ranging from Whitney Houston and Donna Summer to artists Mike Kelley and Will Barnet to Sylvia Woods from Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem.

Entitled 100 Little Deathsplaying on the French phrase “le petit mort,” Sanford’s ambitious and exciting exhibition at BravinLee programs, on view until February 9, democratically displays these 100 portraits together one one wall, allowing the viewer to both contemplate each figure individually and the losses of 2012 as a whole. 100 Little Deaths also features Sanford’s monumental and hysterical painting that places these 100 personalities in their own type of purgatory – an airport bar, as well as a small group show of artists Sanford invited to create one portrait of a 2012 death.

We spoke with Sanford about his idea for 100 Little Deaths, his criteria for choosing the 100 individuals and the importance of celebrity culture.

In 100 Little Deaths you drew 100 people who died in 2012, as well as placed them in your painting. How did you get the idea for a series on notable deaths?
Tom Sanford: I went into the year knowing I was going to do these type of drawings. I had the idea doing the series a few years ago after the death of Michael Jackson. I did a couple of paintings of him after that event. Farrah Fawcett died the same day and she got shorted because of the timing. It occurred to me there are people of true significance that are dying all the time. I’ve been interested in death in my work for a long time. Death is always an important event in someone’s life and interesting for a painting. After the Jackson death, I started thinking about the project but I didn’t have a set period of time for it. About a year an half ago, I talked to John Lee at BravinLee programs about doing a drawing project for the gallery. Immediately, I got this great idea and I started it for 2012. It’s a perfect year because of the added pressure of the Mayan calendar. Death was on people’s minds.

It seems like choosing the 100 most notable deaths would be a difficult process. With drawings ranging from Rodney King to art dealer Ivan Karp, how did you select the 100 people ?
My criteria was that I had to be aware of the person before they died. Because of the nature of my criteria, it skews toward the entertainment industry. I did break my criteria for a couple of important deaths like J. Christopher Stevens [the U.S. Ambassador to Libya]. He became famous in death and you couldn’t really talk about death in 2012 without him. I also put Victoria Soto in to represent the horrifying crisis in Newtown, Connecticut. That was the most difficult to work how to handle. I didn’t want to touch the children aspect. She seemed to be the most heroic figure, not that they weren’t all heroic in their own way, but she saved so many lives. I tried to honor her.

What inspired you about notable death?
My work has always dealt with celebrity or notable characters. I’m sort of a populist in my artistic agenda. Certainly, there are plenty of artists who deal with celebrity and popular culture. I’m by no means unique in that. However, I do find that fine art, as a whole, is dismissive and distrustful of conventional fame. It treats this stuff as if its trivial. I was talking to John Lee and he made a great point that even those of us who have some sort of disdain about pop culture know more about this stuff than anything else. They are our common experience. When you live in such a huge country as the United States, life in New York has very little in common with life in Alabama. We have a common group of celebrities and they serve as a way to communicate. It’s a useful thing. You can’t communicate without commonality.

In addition to your own drawings and painting, you invited other artists to participate in a small show in the BravinLee programs’s project room. What led you to curate a show of other artists responding to the deaths of 2012?
It started with the space of BravinLee Programs. The galley said I could either show other work or do a group show. Since my idea in this show is that these celebrities are a common language and our common family culturally, I thought it would be cool if I asked a bunch of other artists. My interest in celebrities is not idiosyncratic, but my choice in who I drew does reflect my bias. The nice thing about being a young artist in New York is that you happen to know the people who are, in my opinion, the vanguard of American painting. At least, painters who are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. So I asked these people to look at my list and pick one person who meant the most to them. If you notice, there’s more than one Mike Kelley, two Donna Summers and four Neil Armstrongs.

All images are courtesy BravinLee programs