It may not be art, but it’s certainly going to be one of the most macabre objects ever shown in an art gallery: the Thanatron, the intravenous drip device that Dr. Jack Kevorkian invented to shuffle his clients off this mortal coil via assisted suicide, is going on sale next month at Gallerie Sparta in West Hollywood, along with a dozen of Kevorkian’s oil paintings. The show, “Jack `Dr. Death’ Kevorkian,” runs April 3-30.
Instead of classifying Kevorkian’s implement of death as art, Lee Bowers, the gallery’s co-owner, said “we’re just calling it the Thanatron assisted-suicide device. We’ll put it on a pedestal with a Plexiglas cube over it.”
Bids for the Thanatron (which looks a bit like a table-top gallows, with tubes for a lethal mixture of fluids hanging from a scaffold), will start at $25,000, she said. The paintings, about half of them steeped in terror, are priced from $10,000 to $42,000.
Kevorkian, who died in 2011, said he’d helped more than 130 people die from 1990 to 1998. His active career as “Dr. Death” ended with his 1999 conviction for second-degree murder in a case in which he’d personally administered a lethal injection to a patient who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Kevorkian sent a tape of himself giving the fatal shot to CBS’ “60 Minutes,” as part of his campaign to give patients the right to die with a doctor’s help rather than go on suffering. It cost him eight years in prison. He died at 83 of natural causes in a Michigan hospital.
Kevorkian sent most of his paintings to the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Mass., before going to prison. After he died the museum claimed that he’d intended them as a gift, and Kevorkian’s sole heir, niece Ava Janus of Troy, Michigan, sued to recover them.
The result was a 2012 settlement that allowed the museum to keep four of Kevorkian’s more topical paintings. One was “Genocide,” which linked the Armenian genocide with the Holocaust by depicting two hands holding the severed head of a woman by the hair. Uniform sleeves identified the hands as belonging to a Nazi SS trooper in 1945 and a Turkish soldier in 1915. Kevorkian’s parents were Armenian immigrants, and his mother had fled Turkey to escape the ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenians during World War I.
Bowers said that Steve Lee Jones, who produced “You Don’t Know Jack,” a 2010 HBO movie biography that starred Al Pacino as Kevorkian, lives near her gallery and recommended it to Kevorkian’s niece, who’d separately sold two of his 18 known post-1990 paintings to a collector.
Some of the canvases in the West Hollywood show are decidedly ghoulish -- “Paralysis” depicts a man in a dungeon-like space, his body turning to concrete and his cranium a void, with the brain hung in chains nearby.
In “Coma,” a patient slips into a death’s maw that calls to mind a CT scan tube. Some are political, and some more benign, including portraits of his parents and splashily-colored pop art-style pieces relating to his love of music. Kevorkian played the flute and put out a 1990s jazz CD, “Kevorkian Suite: Very Still Life.”
Assessing Kevorkian’s 1999 art show at the Armenian Library and Museum of America, a writer for the Boston Herald said that while “his garish colors and heavy-handed treatment seem less than polished…at their best, these searing images do more than simply confront the viewer with unpleasant scenarios. The paintings of medical symptoms…vividly and empathically capture the nature of these conditions.”
Kevorkian began painting in the 1960s. In a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he recalled having shown his early work in an exhibition decades earlier entitled “Art Is Bunk,” including a version of “Genocide.” He said he was planning to start painting again after a nearly 30-year hiatus.
Kevorkian’s early work apparently has been lost; Bowers of Gallerie Sparta said that only 18 Kevorkian paintings are known -- the dozen her gallery will display, the four at the museum in Massachusetts, and two his niece had sold previously.
As he became famous in the ‘90s, Kevorkian began selling prints and posters of his art to raise funds for pushing the cause of legalizing assisted suicide, and to underwrite his court battles. He was acquitted or had charges dismissed several times before the murder trial that sent him to prison for personally administering that fatal dose of intravenous drugs.