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Ted Kliman’s Dance of Death

Ted Kliman – Dance of Death III

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It’s rare that images I see on the Internet truly stir me. Images on the Internet are usually extremely mediated simulations: photos of physical objects, but reduced in resolution for the web, then filtered through the idiosyncrasies of every computer monitor. (Sound through the Internet works similarly.) Much as I dislike museums for their artificiality of context, they are usually the only settings for seeing art in person.

It’s important to see art in person. The effect is often very different from seeing photos online. The only experience in my life I’d call “religious” was the Mark Rothko room at the Tate Modern. I truly felt possessed. LACMA has a painting by Jay DeFeo called The Jewel that I love revisiting. You can see a photo here, but that does not compare to the live show, so to speak. The painting has a violence that scares and thrills me each time I approach it.

So it’s unusual that my latest obsession is paintings I’ll probably never see in person. The painter, Ted Kliman, died in 2009, and it seems that much of his work resides in private and corporate collections. (Why corporations would want to collect his work is another matter.) I learned of Kliman through a story by his son Todd in the May ’11 issue of Men’s Health. (I don’t usually recommend Men’s Health for anything, but this story was poignant, about father and son’s last meal together.) You can read Kliman’s obituary here. He picked up painting at age 45, and practiced it until he died at 79, leaving behind tremendous proof of the power of self-reinvention.

Kliman’s work has haunted me since I discovered it. To put it bluntly, it’s very metal – not in the armor and leather way, but in the totality of religious experience that orthodox black metal so often promises but fails to deliver. My reference point is Timo Ketola’s cover for Deathspell Omega’s Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum. That image perfectly captures the terror of religious ecstasy, if that makes any sense.

Kliman’s work is almost the inverse, since he does not show human bodies. He implies their form through wrappings around them. But as with Ketola, he uses the shape of cloth to convey not only motion, but also emotion. See Lamentation I, of which Kliman said, “The standing figure bows its head, and with a languid gesture of the right arm, laments the passing of 6 million souls”. Kliman was Jewish, and his work incorporated – so to speak – Jewish and Christian themes. The depth of feeling is undeniable.

A good example is Dance of Death III (see up top). I’m not sure what’s going on – but whatever it is, it is powerful. (I don’t know if this is related, but evidently Jewish weddings have a custom called “the dance of death” – see here and here for interpretations.) The composition has enormous momentum, that of collapsing to the left. The more I look at it, the more it unnerves me; I get that caving in feeling in my chest when I feel sad or scared. In an artist’s statement for an exhibition, Kliman said, “I didn’t set out to make these paintings; I arrived at them”. Compare with yesterday’s interview with Adam Smith, in which he said about music, “I’m just a vessel through which it leads, just like any other spirit”. The best artists don’t make art; they channel it.

Below are examples of Kliman’s work. You can see more here, here, here, and here. I doubt you’ll forget it quickly.

— Cosmo Lee

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Redemption I

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Abjection I

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Agoniste II

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