Just over a week ago, we were celebrating the arrival of new David Bowie album Blackstar (on his birthday no less) and its accompanying music videos. Now, Bowie is no longer with us, having passed away on January 10, 2015. To the public, his death came as a devastating shock, as Bowie and those close to him chose to keep his cancer diagnosis private. We now see, of course, that Blackstar and the video for “Lazarus” were a colossally well-choreographed and composure-destroying farewell gift. Bowie wowed us one final time, in the way he has always done best, with equal parts ambition, compassion, and sheer talent.
How can we adequately express our thanks for the gifts David Bowie has given us? One answer is to appreciate the work that he made toward the end of his life. This is something fans around the world have had no trouble doing. On Monday, January 11, Bowie’s music videos were viewed a record-shattering 51 million times, with “Lazarus” alone racking up 11.1 million views. Blackstar has since gone on to debut at Number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
No doubt many of us have listened to Bowie’s final songs with a keener ear, hoping to learn something about his state of mind as he approached the end of his life. What can we see in “Lazarus”? What can we hear on Blackstar? Where can we draw out meanings? It makes sense to be comforted and intrigued by what Bowie produced in his final months, and to continue searching for artistic insights into the frightening but inevitable process of dying.
In memory of an icon who made art until the end, we’re sharing a list of other artists who, when faced with declining health and terminal illnesses, responded by continuing to create art that would live beyond them. – Kayleigh Hughes
Warren Zevon, The Wind (album)
Shortly after learning he had an an inoperable form of a cancer known as mesothelioma, rock icon and unparallelled songwriter Warren Zevon, best known for “Werewolves of London” (though much of his work includes ruminations on death), went into the studio to record what would be his last album, The Wind. Zevon refused treatment for his disease so that he could continue making and performing music–he appeared for a full hour on The Late Show With David Letterman to play and speak about his illness–and the resulting album, both beautiful and heartbreaking, contains such affecting tracks as “Keep Me in Your Heart” and a meditative rendition of “Knockin on Heaven’s Door.” Zevon would survive long enough to see The Wind’s release and the praise it garnered, but passed on September 7, 2003, before the album received its five Grammy Award nominations, of which it won two.
Alex Sichel, A Woman Like Me (film)
Part documentary and part fictional story, A Woman Like Me is what happened after director Alex Sichel (All Over Me) was struck by the need to write a film about a woman receiving the same news she herself had recently heard–that she would soon die from terminal breast cancer–but who responds in very different and opposite ways. The raw and exploratory film, made in collaboration with Elizabeth Giamatti, documents Sichel’s creative process as she writes and directs the fictional story, with Lili Taylor as the star, as well as her very physical and emotional process of coping with a terminal diagnosis. It’s a devastating but in many ways uplifting viewing experience and Sichel, who died on June 23, 2014 before the film’s release, provides an honest and compelling perspective on what it’s like to realistically face your final stage of life and remain a creator all the while.
Keith Haring, “Once Upon a Time,” “Tuttomondo (The Whole World)” (murals)
One of the most passionate and vibrant artists of the twentieth century, Keith Haring was notorious for his hardworking ethos, colorful bold public murals and commitment to the idea that art can have a positive political and social impact. Openly gay and heavily involved with social activism, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, in his late twenties, and founded the Keith Haring Foundation soon after, which provides funding and artistic imagery to AIDS organizations, children’s groups, and other nonprofits. His later work comments heavily on the AIDS crisis, sex-positive ideals, and gay identity, and one of his final and most acclaimed pieces, “Once Upon A Time” painted on the walls of the second floor men’s room of the LBGT Community Center in New York City sees him celebrating gay sex in a historically significant venue. His final work, painted in 1989, is the mural “Tuttomondo (The Whole World),” a bright and compassionate portrayal of 30 classic Haring figures, each representing a different element of peace. Haring died on February 16, 1990, but you can still see “Tuttomondo” in Pisa.
John Grabski III, of Teeth, The Strain (album)
Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (novel)
The New York Times described 2666, the manuscript Roberto Bolaño strived to finish in the last five years of life, during which time he suffered from increasingly severe health problems as a result of the liver failure that would eventually lead to his death, as “not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world.” By contrast, The New Yorker calls it “a desert of negative space,” the result of which “is neither horror nor sympathy. It is exhaustion.” Above all, though, the over 1,100-page, five-part novel was a monumentally ambitious undertaking from a monumental and ambitious writer, who worked tenaciously to the end to finish this culmination of his artistic mission but expressed before his death on July 15, 2003 that it was in need of heavy revision.
Rebecca Nassauer, Safekeepers (visual art exhibition)
Visitors to London’s Josh Lilley Gallery during the spring of 2010 would have been gifted with the opportunity to see Safekeepers, a solo show by jewelry, costume, mixed media and sculpture artist Rebecca Nassauer. Nassauer had been battling breast cancer for twelve years at that point. In this exhibition, a collection of Nassauer’s work from the two years prior, the artist sculpted heads and figures of varying sizes, with a number of different mediums, exploring elements of the body and our physical condition; the exhibition as a whole can ultimately be described as a “narrative for staying alive,” as noted on the website for the gallery, which is owned by Nassauer’s son. Rebecca Nassauer died on December 12, 2010 and this moving obituary explores her artistic legacy.
Oliver Sacks, “My Own Life,” and others (series of essays)
Though Oliver Sacks’ primary career was as a neurologist, the many written works–fascinating accounts of those with a variety of neurological conditions and his experiences studying these conditions–that made him famous are without a doubt artful reflections on humanity as well as valuable scientific contributions. In The Mind’s Eye, he discusses the partial loss of vision that resulted from treatment for ocular melanoma, and later, after learning the melanoma had metastacized to his liver and being given a terminal diagnosis, he began publishing a series of essays in the New York Times Opinion section (“My Own Life,” “My Periodic Table,” “Sabbath”) reflecting on his impending death. These pieces are remarkable in their honest and contemplative tone, their graceful humor, their effortless but astounding wisdom. Sacks died on August 30, 2015, and his warm and open documentation of the journey toward that day has helped millions to consider and confront death more realistically and with less fear.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem (musical composition)
Joseph Heller, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, (novel)
Robert Jordan, The Gathering Storm (Wheel of Time Series #12) (novel)
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Loser City, Kayleigh has written for Pitchfork, Ovrld and xoJane. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.