Jessica Baldanza on Dr. Death: the Renaissance Man


Special thanks to the Aremenian Musuem of America for locating these works for us.

Historically, the concept of the “Renaissance Man” has been as ill-bequeathed as it has been gendered, and the aspiration to it may or may not be responsible—consider any number of “celebrity crossovers” from George Bush’s dog paintings to James Franco’s (unfortunate) homages to Cindy Sherman. Amongst such ranks are the various works of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Also referred to as “Dr. Death,” Kevorkian was a self-proclaimed renaissance man, and possessor of a different kind of fame.

Seven years after Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted, four years after the infamous O.J. Simpson trial, and 8 years before the Phil Spector spectacle, Dr. Jack Kevorkian entered public life in another famous murder trial. But unlike his televisual contemporaries, his motives were, at least allegedly, sacrosanct. Obstinate in his belief that no man, God, or government has any business telling individuals when and in what manner they are permitted to die, Kevorkian performed and recorded an assisted suicide in which he himself administered the lethal injection. He submitted the tape to be broadcast on 60 Minutes with the hope of sparking a national debate, bringing the outlawed case of euthanasia to the Supreme Court, and bringing himself a little fame. 

Kevorkian’s case only made it to District Court, where despite the desperate admonition of more or less everyone around him, he represented himself. Confident in his natural charisma and obvious intelligence, Dr. K stood before the jury and asked plainly, “Do I look like a murderer?” Well, yes, actually. The bone-thin, hunched and crooked Kevorkian did look like a murderer, and he was swiftly sentenced to 10-25 years in prison on a second degree charge.

His innate morbidity and stubborn conviction for individualism would manifest in more or less every facet of his life, not least of which in his various creative pursuits. By the time of his conviction, Kevorkian had taught himself German and Japanese, hosted a public access TV show on the mysteries of life, written several books (including Slimmericks, a book of diet-themed poetry and drawings), and produced a catastrophic theatrical rendition of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”  Kevorkian also played the flute and organ in a jazz group, releasing an album of “anesthetic jazz” titled: The Kevorkian Suite: A Very Still Life. The album was described by Entertainment Weekly (Pitchfork had launched only the year before) as “weird” yet “rife with Kenny-G style noodling.”

Kevorkian’s perhaps most beguiling side-hustle was his life-long practice of oil-painting. More thoughtful and technically proficient than the absinthe-infused watercolors of fellow celebrity goth Marilyn Manson, Kevorkian’s works can be described as painfully literal—the kind of gory nihilistic scenes one might find scrawled in the notebooks of the kid who killed the class gerbil. As one would expect, the brutal works shed an unflattering light on his career as administrator of the big sleep, and were received by critics with “alarmed” reviews. While Manson notoriously dips his paintbrush in absinthe, Kevorkian (ever the martyr) used his own blood.

Released from prison after 8 and a half of his 10-25 year prison sentence for “good behavior,” Kevorkian was welcomed back into society with newly-minted martyr status. Fawned over by Barbara Walters and 60 Minutes, he was a more recognizable symbol than ever before, even inspiring HBO to produce both a documentary and a made-for-TV docudrama starring none other than a spitting, proselytizing, Al Pacino as the doctor himself.

Despite this new tenor of celebrity, Kevorkian was dissatisfied with the quiet nothingness of citizen life. He felt there was still work to be done, though he was obligated by parole to neither advise on nor participate in any more suicides.

Not one to be discouraged, Kevorkian ran as an independent for a seat in congress in 2008. His platform was one of socialist, anarchical, anti-establishment rhetoric, delivered with the kind of mania typically associated with your local fanatic (think Bernie Sanders if he collected Nazi memorabilia). Having learned nothing from his catastrophic court appearances, Kevorkian had yet to accept that he did not possess what one might call a “camera-friendly face.” Appearing wide-eyed and wiry, Kevorkian’s crazed ranting apocalypticism made for a very unsuccessful campaign.

Dr. K died a couple years later from an aggravated case of Hepatitis C, a virus he’d contracted in the 60s while experimenting with blood transfusions on himself. Godless, penniless, and single, Kevorkian passed into the great unknown listening to classical music in the style of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge. Where Alex is partial to the ol’ Ludwig Van, Kevorkian settled on Johann Sebastian Bach—also the subject of one of his paintings.

Kevorkian may have made his name laying others to rest, but he lived his life by the belief in constant revival of the self. While his legacy can be found in the eventual decriminalization or legalization of euthanasia in various jurisdictions across North America, his participation in the movement was polarizing (an unfortunate side effect of having conducted euthanasia in the back of a ’68 VW using a homemade “Mercitron”). Meanwhile, his various artistic pursuits remain in relative obscurity. Only his paintings are part of an official collection—nestled amongst the genocide memorabilia of the Armenian Museum of America, which according to the doctor while he was still alive is “just fine.”