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Five Tales of Scandal, Conspiracy, and Murder in the Art World


Cath Whitefield in "Adler & Gibb" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

At the heart of Adler & Gibb, Tim Crouch’s newest head-puzzler onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through January 29, 2017, lies a mystery. Janet Adler was a "once in a generation" artist whose contributions to the art world were only overshadowed by her mysterious disappearance and subsequent unexplained death. Was she murdered by her long-time partner, Margaret Gibb? Did she take her own life? Is she even really dead? You’ll have to see the play to find out, but in honor of this art world mystery, we’ve put together a list of five artists whose sudden exits created more questions than they answered.

  1. Bas Jan Ader

    In Search of the Miraculous by Bas Jan Ader.

    Bas Jan Ader was a conceptual artist in the second half of the 20th century known for work that was both intensely personal and dangerously whimsical. In one set of videos, he recorded himself struggling against gravity, only to eventually fall with both comedy and actual pain. In another, he mined his own tragic past, calling forth images of his father’s death in World War II and the unexpressed grief he experienced as a result. However, what Ader is probably most famous for is his final work. The plan was to sail solo across the Atlantic in a 13-foot craft, sandwiching the journey between two concerts of sea shanties sung by children. But three weeks after he set sail, Ader's empty boat was found off the coast of Portugal. Ader himself was nowhere to be found. In the years since, many theories have been put forth. From the mundane (Ader was simply swept overboard in crossing) to the tragic (he planned to commit suicide as a part of the work itself), and even the conspiratorial (he still lives in hiding).

  2. Mark Lombardi

    Gerry Bull, Space Research Corporation and Armscor of Pretoria, South Africa, c. 1972-80 (5th version) by Mark Lombardi

    Mark Lombardi has been called the first great artist of the 21st century because his work was as informational as it was artistic. Those in the accounting world may be familiar with "interlocks"—diagrams used to illustrate connections between different elements in complex systems. Lombardi elevated these utilitarian diagrams to the status of high art by creating interlocks that highlighted illicit connections between the now-defunct Bank of Credit and Commercial International (BCCI), The World Finance Corporation, President George W. Bush, and other American federal agencies. In the spring of 2000, Lombardi was finally finding success. His work was starting to be widely exhibited, he was making money, and he was just days away from an opening that was set to feature his largest interlock yet. But in March, just one day before his birthday, he allegedly hanged himself from a pipe in his apartment. The fact that many of his most sensitive interlocks (especially those dealing with President George W. Bush) have since disappeared has raised more than a few eyebrows in subsequent years.

  3. Ana Mendieta

    Alma Silueta en Fuego by Ana Mendieta.

    If you’ve ever taken a performance art course, chances are that you are quite familiar with the work of this late Cuban artist. Mendieta, the daughter of a Cuban revolutionary, remembered finding firearms hidden everywhere in her father’s house. During this time, he was even imprisoned by Fidel Castro on the charge of treason. Mendieta’s work was thought by many to be deeply informed by this trauma. She often incorporated the human body, pagan rituals, and violence to create a controversial and uncompromising aesthetic. In 1985, she married her long-time partner, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. The two had a famously rocky relationship, and during one of their frequent spats Mendieta fell (or was pushed) out the window of their 34th-floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Andre was subsequently tried and acquitted of Mendieta’s murder, maintaining to this day that his wife committed suicide.

  4. Mary Pinchot Meyer

    Mary Pinchot Meyer

    The life and death of artist Mary Pinchot Meyer sounds like something out of a spy novel. This one-time mistress of John F. Kennedy stood at the very top of the 1960s D.C. social scene. Harvard intellectual and psychedelic drug researcher Timothy Leary claimed in his autobiography Flashbacks that Meyer was using drugs to convince the D.C. elite to de-escalate the Cold War. Sadly, one of the lesser known facts of Meyer’s life is that she was a celebrated abstract painter of the Washington Color School. Her work often melded bright bold colors with abstract shapes to create images that were at once flat and vibrant. In 1964—while taking a walk after her morning painting session—Meyer was gunned down by a man in a Georgetown park. A man named Ray Crump was originally accused of the crime, but lack of evidence and motive eventually led to his acquittal. However, the Leary rumor, the lack of convincing motive, and the tardiness with which first responders arrived on the scene has caused some to believe that Meyer was not the victim of a random act of violence—but a CIA assassination.

  5. Vincent Van Gogh

    Self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh

    The Dutch post-impressionist lived a life that has become the stuff of legend. As the traditional narrative goes, Van Gogh—a depressive at the best of times—was fed up. He (famously) sold only two paintings in his lifetime, cut off his ear after a failed love affair, had little to no friends, and—after completing one last unappreciated masterpiece—shot himself in the stomach to end it all. It is a narrative made famous by the 1956 film Lust For Life, in which a young Kirk Douglas portrays the heroically underappreciated genius. It is also a narrative that a pair of historians challenged in their 2011 biography of the artist. According to their research Van Gogh did not commit suicide but was accidentally shot by a young man named Rene Secretan. Sixteen-year-old Rene was the son of a wealthy community member. Van Gogh was a tramp the community tolerated as best they could. According to the historians, Rene took a shine to the artist, pranking him at every turn like an adolescent punk. According to them, Van Gogh’s murder was a prank gone horribly wrong—a fact the late artist allegedly covered up in order to protect the teenager. If this tale sounds far-fetched to you, then you are not alone. Far from being the definitive account of Van Gogh’s death, this theory has spurred deep debate about who the artist really was as well as the motives of the historians in question.

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