The richest painter in the world died yesterday, April 6th, 2012. He was young too – only 54. When you’ve crossed a Rubicon or two, you look at ages like that and swallow hard. His wife Nanette apparently said it was natural causes, and there’s no reason to doubt her. There’s nothing so natural as getting your switch flicked out of the blue by the big man these days. Getting plucked out of thin fucking air.
I met him once, almost exactly 10 years ago. It was a story for the Times magazine. Kinkade was already the most collected painter in America and was turning over half a billion a year at the time in revenue – he’d managed to parlay a somewhat hokey art style into a massive brand. When I met him, he had a line of furniture, haberdashery, garden goods, mousepads… He even had Kinkade houses. He was a one-stop shop. An astonishing success story, and at the very top of his game, making fortunes. But the art world couldn’t stand him. They hated his brazen commercialism, his mass appeal, the consistency of his product (they were loathe to call Kinkade’s work “art”).
So I pitched it, and the Times said yes, great, top idea. Just like that. This was back in the days when they still had budgets enough to send you on a short haul flight, and stick you in a hotel maybe – a vestige of the magazine life of yore that would soon be ravaged by the internet and the recession. We made a trip of it, me and the Mrs. We flew into San Jose, picked up a rental and met a couple there, friends of the artist, who we could follow back to Thomas’ enormous ranch. I remember they wore matching outfits – matching red, white and blue sweaters and pale blue jeans. We weren’t in the city anymore.
Kinkade was an interesting character. He had the confidence and swagger of a wealthy man, combined with the eagerness of a true believer. Christ, he said, was his inspiration; his art was a vehicle for the Good News. And yet, he was defensive – about his faith, his art. He had the indignation of a country boy who’d been denied entry to the club. He’d been shunned by the gatekeepers of the New York art world, and it had left a wound that even his colossal commercial success couldn’t heal.
A month later, the coroner’s report revealed a tortured man. He’d killed himself, essentially, with an overdose of valium and booze, or “acute ethanol and Diazepam intoxication”. It was the end of a spiral. A drunk driving conviction, separation from his wife and on top of all that, financial troubles. Turns out his commercial success was on the slide, and my guess, only a guess, is that he overextended himself, reaching for that financial validation where artistic validation was missing. I suspect it was this core wound that killed him.
As a journalist, you’re naturally supplicant to your subjects – it’s them you’re interested in, their enviable lives of achievement, while you’re just a cog in the delivery system. So when they die, these people, and the cog persists, you wonder – about how suddenly people disappear and what’s left of them when they’re gone. You wonder what it is we’re meant to be chasing. Dennis Hopper was another one. And David Hans Schmidt, the troubled “pornbroker” who hanged himself. And every time, it always turns me back to the article, that day our arcs intersected.
I remember that trip to his ranch. The horses he kept. The daffodil picture he was painting that day. It would have that same idyllic look to it, the twee bucolic fairyland that his critics so loathed, but that he painted hundreds, if not thousands of times. Thomas Kinkade was always consciously reaching for a kind perfection, a heaven on earth, a place to escape to. And now, his escape is complete.
The Times never ran my piece in the end for some reason – probably “not sexy enough” or “too American”. So no one has read it. And it’s a decade out of date. But I’ve decided to publish it in my archive all the same, as another tiny addition to his vast legacy.
Rest in peace Thomas Kinkade.