An Astronomer Without Stars: An Art Critic Takes the Measure of Those We’ve Lost
Along with more than 1.77 million lives (and counting), COVID-19 has taken the lives of some of the world’s greatest cultural figures. How will these larger-than-life characters be remembered? Christian considers the deaths of Egyptian actress Ragaa el-Gedawy, Italian curator and critic Germano Celant, Russian art historian Irina Antonova, American artist and art historian David Driskell and Chilean art critic and teacher Guillermo Machuca.
The eulogy is the most autobiographical of forms.Richard Howard
It was spring in South America; it was warm; the studio was as neat as a Chinese laundry. Somewhere out of sight, a fan gyrated slowly to clear paint fumes. The artist I was visiting, a close friend, ducked his head dither and yon like Topo Gigio1 as he pulled out framed photographs, a small sculpture, a large collage of an office building obscured by marble colored wallpaper. Suddenly, my cell phone rang.
I’d been in Santiago for less than 24 hours, but was actively looking to avoid work and 212 area codes, though not in that order. Could be a bill collector, I thought, or worse, an anxious editor. I hesitated, running quickly through a mental list of possible callers, pressed the green button, and heard a familiar voice on the other end that made my eyes go wide.
“Hello! Hello!”, the voice boomed in a loud Antipodean burr before flying off in a confused ramble. I listened, then spoke slowly, reminding the voice that we’d made arrangements to meet a month later in New York. The voice repeated the information it had delivered just seconds before, but louder. I spoke again, calmly—like nurses speak to their charges—without evidently allaying the panic on the other side. I heard the sound of a chair scraping, the audible rummaging of papers, the closing of a book (a scheduler?). A minute later the voice quieted down, dampening to a burble. The last words I said before pocketing my phone were these: “You meant to call someone else,” “Not a problem,” “Looking forward to seeing you in New York.” A second passed before the family photo that is my iPhone wallpaper stared blankly back at me.
“Who was that?,” my friend the artist asked after seeing the confusion on my face. “Robert Hughes”, I answered.
“Robert Hughes the art critic?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, “and I don’t think he’s doing very well.”
Two weeks later I read that the man I would subsequently call “a giant” and “an epic voice” in a Village Voice obituary was dead2. The cause, according to the New York Times, was “a long illness.” Bizarrely, in those few minutes that constituted our brief contact, I’d glimpsed one of the more frightening aspects of Hughes’ “long illness”—nearly as if I’d put my eye to 5,125 miles of submarine cable reaching directly into his brain. If terror has a voice, I thought, it is the sound of a great mind realising it has lost its marbles. That jarring thought and the stricken sound of Hughes’ voice has stayed with me ever since.
The meeting in New York with Robert Hughes—the interview was designed as an opportunity to talk about his book Rome but also as a colloquy between a pup critic (myself) and a literary lion (the author of American Visions and Goya)—of course, never materialised. Perverse as it may seem, though, I can’t help but feel that it did somehow, albeit abbreviated and in micro-miniature. Hughes’ illness hollowed out a lifetime of hard-won authority prematurely at 74 (life expectancy for white males in the U.S. is 78.6 years; 80.7 in Australia). Even so, I wish our phone call had lasted a lifetime. My paranoid avoidance of hero-worship notwithstanding, I’m convinced I would have absorbed the equivalent of ten national libraries across latitudes and longitudes, no matter the great critic’s mental state.
If you want to avoid disappointment, never meet your heroes. That’s standard advice. Depending on who you are and, of course, who you’re meeting, it may even turn out to be sage counsel. But what about meeting your heroes after they’re dead? What if you realise you admire, even love, perfect strangers after reading their obituaries? Is it wrong to comb through newspapers and blogs in search of what amounts to catastrophic news for others? Can one, in good conscience, pine for encounters with men and women whom one has only met in black and white through their death notices?
In a time of plague the answer is a resounding Yes. “No one should have to die alone,” is a phrase doctors increasingly repeat when they talk about the world’s 1.7 million dead (and counting) from coronavirus. The disease demands strict infection and control measures. As a result, people die alone in hospitals, in nursing homes, in lonely unattended bedrooms. A distinguishing feature of this global pandemic is that it disappears people from view3, much as dictatorships in Russia and Venezuela and Saudi Arabia snatch bodies off the street, never to be seen again. As the disease advances, our worlds shrink to households, rendering its victims even more abstract. At times like these, it becomes increasingly important to put names, faces, and lived stories to the era’s mounting death toll.
I recently read that, in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, frightened men in cities like New York, San Francisco, Paris, Athens, and Havana routinely sat down to breakfast to ask an overwhelming question, one that guaranteed that they were counted: “Who have we lost today?” At the peak of yet another Everest of global contagion, shouldn’t we be doing the same?
The following is a tiny, formalised, Google-aided snippet of my own personal accounting4: an extremely short list of cultural workers who have lost their lives to COVID-19 during the grindingly tragic annus horribilis that is 2020. Some of these cultural figures are well known, others less so, at least to readers of English in the U.S. and the U.K.—language and geography being, like money and fame, bitchily fickle variables on par with skin color and left-handedness5. One thing is clear as we look ahead to 2021: losing these people means losing a cultural moment. They and more than a million and half other unrepeatable humans embodied a time before the disease. Now they’re gone.
Ragaa el-Gedawy, Actress (September 6, 1934 – July 5, 2020)
Born Nagaat Aly Hassan el-Gedawy in Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, Ragaa el-Gedawy had a prolific career that spanned six decades, from the golden age of Egyptian cinema in the 1950s until her death at 85. She had roles in more than 300 plays, films, and television series. Noted for her combination of grace, naturalism, and comic skill, as well as for her relentless work ethic, she became a star in Egypt and a favorite to millions of viewers from successive generations across the Arab world.
The daughter of divorced parents, she was sent to Cairo as a child to live with her aunt, a famous belly dancer. While there, she learned English, French, and Italian at a school run by Franciscan nuns. In 1958, she entered a beauty pageant and was crowned Miss Cotton Egypt. When show business opened its arms, el-Gedawy embraced it back with youthful gusto.
In 1959 el-Gedawy had a role in the movie The Nightingale’s Prayer, which Egypt selected as its entry in the foreign-language category at the Academy Awards the same year. She worked briefly as a model in France before returning home to star alongside Omar Sharif and Soad Hosny in the comedy A Rumor of Love (1960). After the birth of her daughter in 1971, she took a hiatus from acting in order to travel with her husband, a professional football player. Later, in the 1990s, she appeared in several plays with Adel Imam, one of Egypt’s most celebrated comic actors, leading to a flood of matronly roles. In recent years, she mostly starred in popular TV series. Aired during Ramadan6, these dramas sustained her immense popularity: for a full month she proved a trusted evening companion for millions of Arab families awaiting the day’s only meal.
El-Gedawy tested positive for the novel coronavirus in late May and was kept in isolation at a hospital in her hometown of Ismailia. After initially responding well to convalescent plasma therapy—leading to accusations that she was receiving preferential treatment at a time when ordinary Egyptians were struggling to find emergency care—the actress was placed on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. She died a few days later.
According to the Egyptian Actors Union, “No public funeral was arranged for health reasons.” Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country with a population of nearly 100 million, had recently loosened virus-related restrictions with a view to boosting its economy. At the time of el-Gedawy’s death, local health authorities reported 74,035 coronavirus cases and 3,280 related deaths.
El-Gedawy is survived by a daughter and a granddaughter.
Germano Celant, Curator and Critic (September 11, 1940 – April 29, 2020)
Here are three words obituarists used to describe the curator and critic Germano Celant: “passionate”7, “influential”8, “towering”9. Widely acknowledged as the inventor of the term “Arte Povera,” or “Poor Art”10), his catchy coinage captured an attitude rather than a school of art—one reliant on modest stuff like hay, wax, twigs, and soil, and a spirit that emphasized things in the world over mass manufactured materials. Among the artists he championed were Jannis Kounellis11, Luciano Fabro12, and Alighiero Boetti13. Together, they proposed an accessible if unfinished visual project developed in stark contrast to American Pop art’s richly priced objects14.
Celant was born in Genoa. After studying art history in that city, he became an editor at the journal Marcatré15. His work took him to Milan, Rome, and Turin, the epicenter of what was then the new Italian art. There he befriended artists like Kounellis and Michelangelo Pistoletto, and art dealers like Gian Enzo Sperone, the first to show American artists in Italy. One the first curators to embrace the role of international impresario, he also devoted himself to new art and its novel forms. At the 1976 Venice Biennale16 he created a display of what he called “ambient art”:17 consisting of works by artists such as Dan Graham18, Mario Merz19, and Bruce Nauman20, and precursors like El Lissitsky21, Celant’s grouping and coinage got a jump on the now canonical understanding of the term “installation”22.
After working independently for decades, Celant was named senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1988. In 1993, he became artistic director of the Fondazione Prada. Yet for all his books (more than 200) and exhibitions (countless), he never worked full-time for any single institution. In retrospect, the rebel-turned-establishment-figure appeared to prefer avoiding the levers (and temptations) of authority. “I don’t feel like a man of power,” he told one interviewer. “I’ve always been interested in the power of art. Artists know that: that’s why they trust me.”23
Among Celant’s best known exhibitions were the first display of “Arte Povera,” titled “Im Spazio,” at Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa in 1967; the 1997 Venice Biennale, where he served as director (it was roundly panned); the 2013 Venice restaging of Harald Szeemann’s 1969 landmark conceptual show “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form”; and “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943,” a 2018 exhibition that matched hundreds of artworks with contemporary and historical documents to illustrate the enduring connections between Italian art and politics.
The curator’s death, which was widely reported upon inside and outside the art world, followed his sudden hospitalization at Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital. According to the Italian publication Artribune, Celant first exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus after visiting New York´s Armory Show in March, making him one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people infected after traveling to an international art fair. Similar events were held in, among other major world cities, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Dubai, Bologna, Mexico City, and Madrid, during the months of February and March.
Celant is survived by his wife, Paris Murray, and his son, Argento.
Irina Antonova, Director of the Pushkin Museum (March 20, 1922 – November 20, 2020)
In 2002, as war in Chechnya raged and Vladimir Putin tightened his grip on power in Russia, a New York Times reporter wrote the following: “Communism fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, but some things in Moscow never change”. At the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Irina A. Antonova is still the director.”24
Born in Moscow, Irina Antonova spent her formative years as a child in Germany, where her father was employed at the Soviet embassy in Berlin. After war broke out, she worked as a nurse in Russia, then enrolled at Moscow State University to study art history. In 1945, weeks after Soviet troops entered Berlin and months before Stalin announced the fourth of his disastrous five-year plans, she joined the Pushkin. In 1961, Nikita Kurschev, appointed her director. She held the job until 2013, when she assumed the ceremonial post of president, making her 52-year tenure at the institution the world’s longest at any major art museum.
An institutional infighter, Antonova specialized in smoothly coercing even the most recalcitrant apparatchiks25. Throughout, she proved a disciplined realist who hewed the party line—on Socialist Realism, among other absurdities. She made the best of a compromised situation and patiently awaited the moment she could unveil her museum’s legendary modernist holdings. In 1974 she saw an opportunity and pressed forward: she threatened to resign if she was not allowed to exhibit the paintings of Henri Matisse. The same year she arranged for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to travel from the Louvre; it was exhibited at the Pushkin behind bulletproof glass. Years later, she gave the German magazine Der Spiegel her account of the official Soviet attitude to Western art: “For so many years, we weren’t allowed to exhibit what we had in our collections. Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne were considered formalistic and bourgeois artists.”26
Equally controversial was Antonova’s 1995 exhibition of artworks seized from Germany by the Soviet Army’s “Trophy Brigades”27. Among the works brought back from Germany after the war were masterpieces by Goya, Renoir, and El Greco. Antonova’s position on these and other treasures squared with that of the Kremlin. They were seized as reparations for the damage inflicted on the nation, she argued, especially the looting of Russian museums by the Nazis. In defending her decision not to return the artworks in question, she claimed the objects should “remain [in Russia] as a deposit, the price paid for remembering”28.
President Vladimir Putin, with whom she had tangled shortly before being named to her ceremonial post, sent his condolences. Russian intellectuals reposted quotes from her 2017 Moscow Biennale lecture as a dire warning about art before and after COVID-19: “I think that in the first decades of the 20th century, a huge historical period in art ended, including the one that began with the Renaissance. We are witnessing a truly great crisis of the system of art. And this crisis can last more than a century. This has happened at various stages: from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. And now, having seized almost the entire 20th century, this crisis is likely to last the entire 21st century.”
Antonova is survived by her son, Boris, who has been severely disabled since childhood.
David Driskell, Artist and Art Historian (June 7, 1931 – April 1, 2020)
By most accounts, David Driskell was not just a guide but a guidepost. A groundbreaking artist, art historian, and curator, he was pivotal in gaining recognition for Black artists in the U.S. and abroad. He died from complications from COVID-19 at a hospital near his home in Hyattsville, Maryland. He was 88.
Born in Eatonton, Georgia, Driskell grew up in North Carolina and attended Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1953. As a sophomore studying art at Howard University in 1952, he was encouraged by the art historian James A. Porter29 to switch tracks and focus on art history. “You can’t afford to just be an artist,” Driskell recalls his mentor telling him, “You have to show people what we’ve contributed.”
Driskell took that thread of advice and spun it into a whole field of study. Much of his original scholarship was channeled into a single watershed show. Titled “Two Centuries of Black American Art”30, the encyclopedic effort debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, the year of the U.S. bicentennial. A sweeping exhibition featuring more than 200 works by 63 historically recognised artists as well as anonymous craftspeople, it was initially misjudged as “scattershot” by various heavyweights in the American art establishment.
Driskell’s response was withering in its upending of standard white curatorial norms: “I was not looking for a unified theme,” he told the New York Times31.“And this, of course, usually upsets the critics because they want to see a continuous kind of thing. I was looking for a body of work which showed first of all that blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years, and by stable participants I simply mean that in many cases they had been the backbone.”
Besides that groundbreaking contribution, Driskell wrote five books on the subject of Black art in America, co-authored four, and published more than 40 catalogs from exhibitions he curated. He served on the art faculties of several historically black colleges in the U.S., but was best known for his affiliation with the University of Maryland. The university’s Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora, founded in 2001, was named in his honor.
He is survived by his wife, Thelma Grace, two daughters, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Guillermo Machuca, Art Critic and Teacher (May 4, 1961 – June 8, 2020)
On the morning of what would, in a normal year, be a regular working Monday, Chilean police found the lifeless body of the art critic Guillermo Machuca inside his Santiago home. Alerted by students from the University of Chile’s art department, officers converged on his doorstep after responding to a missing persons report. It had been days, the students said, since their favorite professor had not shown up for his Zoom classes.
A prolific writer who, in his own telling, entered the world of the visual arts through literature, Machuca was widely admired for writing about contemporary art while expertly sizing up developments in other cultural areas, such as film, music, poetry, and television. “One of the problems I see with the visual arts is that it’s hermetically sealed,” he told an interviewer in 2017. “In the 1980s you’d see actors, sociologists, political scientists, and writers at openings. Today literature and visuality have split. As you know, I entered the visual arts through literature.”
Born in Punta Arenas, an hour’s flight from the South Pole, Machuca arrived in Santiago in the late ‘80s to experience the first blush of springtime after the long winter that was the Pinochet dictatorship. Students and colleagues remember him as an eccentric character whose generosity and intellectual gifts far outweighed his flaws. In class, he was prone to mixing lectures on Lacan with tall tales of the Argentine boxer Carlos Monzón’s right cross; at office hours, which he held regularly at the local bar, he was notorious for cadging drinks or, more directly, skipping out on the tab. Among his other eccentricities were his penchant for wearing the same dark overcoat and his habit of reciting lines from Ecce Homo32and The Birth of Tragedy33. This last earned him a nickname he secretly relished: el Nietzsche.
Aside from writing limpidly, Machuca also had an undeniable talent for titling books. Among his best-known volumes are After Duchamp (2004), Shaking the Pope (2006), Leaden Wings (2008), The Emperor’s Suit (2011), and Astronomers Without Stars (2018). Along with the countless columns he penned for the Santiago weekly The Clinic, his three decades of critical output straddle a transformational era in Chile. In his cutting prose Chilean visual art consistently enters into conversation with other national art forms, but also with the universe of ideas and things that flooded the country after it shed its pariah status in 1990.
I met Machuca in 2011 through a mutual friend, the Chilean artist Patrick Hamilton34. I respected him immensely but we were never close—our drinking careers passed like ships in the night: mine to increasingly arid ports, his to an endless G&T happy hour at the dive bar equivalent of Mawsynram, India, the wettest place on earth. Nonetheless, I can, I believe, add something to the many eulogies penned on his behalf. Machuca was, without a doubt, among Latin America’s best writers on art, perhaps the best. He was also a beloved friend to several of my beloved friends. As the pandemic rolls on—from New York to Milan to Moscow to Ismaili to Santiago and to other places around the world like a Passover plague—I find I cannot personally bestow a greater honor on a human being than to say he gave love and received it, with room to spare.
As a remarkably lucid commentator on the rewards and costs of learning, Guillermo Machuca probably defined himself best of all. In 2018 he told an interviewer: “I don’t identify with intellectuals who are out to make careers for themselves, but with the bunch that read more widely, the bohemians. I also identify with their errors.
Machuca is survived by a son, Gabriel, and an ex-wife, Hyde, both estranged. He will be missed by thousands, maybe millions, so long as his books remain in print.
Star Maps for Future Astronomers: A COVID-19 Reading (and Viewing) List
Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays On Art and Artists, Penguin Random House, 1992.
The Nightingale’s Prayer, Directed by Henry Barakat, performances by Faten Hamama, Ahmed Mazhar, Zahrat El-Ola, Ragaa Al-Gidawy, Barakat Pictures, 1959.
Germano Celant, The Story of (MY) Exhibitions, Silvana Editoriale, Feb 21, 2021.
Irina Antonova, Masterpieces From the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Sovetsky Khudozhnik Publishers, 1982.
David Driskell, Two Centuries of Black American Art, Random House, 1976.
Guillermo Machuca, Astrónomo Sin Estrellas, Ediciones Departamento de Artes Visuales Facultad de Arte Universidad de Chile, 2018.
The portraits were drawn by our Creative Director, Adonis Archontides. Check out his website here.
- Topo Gigio was the lead character of a children’s puppet show on Italian television in the early 1960s. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topo_Gigio↩
- “Australian art critic Robert Hughes dies aged 74” via BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-19158897?print=true↩
- See following links for more information on ‘enforced disappearances’:https://humanrightscommission.house.gov/events/hearings/enforced-disappearance-latin-america-taking-stock or https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2016/8/30/in-latin-america-people-disappear-but-crimes-remain.↩
- These accounts rely heavily on brief biographies published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Independent, El País and La Tercera.↩
- See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/09/22/the-surprising-geography-of-american-left-handedness/↩
- Ramadan, also spelled Ramazan, Ramzan, Ramadhan or Ramathan, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community. See more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramadan↩
- Artnews news obituary for Germano Celant: https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/germano-celant-arte-povera-dead-1202685181/↩
- The New York Times obituary for Germano Celant: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/arts/germano-celant-curator-behind-italys-arte-povera-dies-at-79.html↩
- Artnet obituary for Germano Celant: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/germano-celant-death-1847856↩
- Information on Arte Povera art movement: https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/arte-povera/m04_d7p?hl=en↩
- For more information about Jannis Kounnelis see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jannis_Kounellis↩
- For more information about Luciano Fabro see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luciano_Fabro↩
- For more information on Alighiero Boetti see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alighiero_Boetti↩
- Information on Pop Art: https://artsandculture.google.com/usergallery/WgKiSXmX7bsVJQ↩
- Marcatré. Contemporary culture magazine was a magazine of contemporary art, literature, architecture and music, founded and directed by Eugenio Battisti, active from 1963 to 1970. It was published by Vitone of Genoa and, since 1965, by Lerici of Milan. See more: https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/g1214g7x7↩
- More about the Venice Biennale here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venice_Biennale↩
- Information on the 1976 Venice Biennale via The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1976/07/25/archives/the-biennale-a-show-of-compromises.html↩
- See more about Dan Graham: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Graham↩
- See more about Mario Merz: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mario_Merz↩
- See more about Brude Nauman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Nauman↩
- See more about El Lissitzky: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Lissitzky↩
- Information on ‘installation art’: https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/installation-art/m012z_m?hl=en↩
- This is mentioned here via Artforum: https://www.artforum.com/print/202006/daniel-birnbaum-on-germano-celant-83280↩
- Washington Post obituary for Irina Antonova: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/irina-antonova-dead/2020/12/03/2309b444-34b9-11eb-8d38-6aea1adb3839_story.html↩
- An apparatchik was a full-time, professional functionary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union or the Soviet government apparat, someone who held any position of bureaucratic or political responsibility, with the exception of the higher ranks of management called nomenklatura. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apparatchik↩
- See more at: https://pushkinmuseum.art/museum/structure/adminisration/president/index.php?lang=en↩
- More information for the Trophy Brigades: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gosfond↩
- See more via Deutsche Welle: https://www.dw.com/en/irina-antonova-looted-art-is-the-price-paid-for-remembering/a-19102055↩
- James Amos Porter was an African-American art historian, artist and teacher. He is best known for establishing the field of African-American art history and was influential in the African American Art movement. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_A._Porter↩
- See more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_Centuries_of_Black_American_Art↩
- See more via The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1977/06/29/archives/black-art-label-disputed-by-curator.html↩
- See more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecce_homo↩
- See more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_Tragedy↩
- See more: https://www.rgrart.com/artists/patrick-hamilton↩