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The artists we lost in 2021, in their words


Cicely Tyson

By Gabe Cohn


This year, as pandemic deaths ebbed and flowed, a distinctive, eternal beat — that of artists’ deaths — played on as usual, bringing its own waves of collective grief. Some, such as Cicely Tyson and Stephen Sondheim, held the spotlight for generations. Others, like Michael K. Williams and Nai-Ni Chen, left us lamenting careers cut short. Here is a tribute to just a small number of them, in their own words.


Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist, born 1930

“Life is unpredictable. It is. There is no form. And making forms gives you solidity. I think that’s why people paint paintings and take photographs and write music and tell stories that have beginning, middles and ends — even when the middle is at the beginning and the beginning is at the end.”


Cicely Tyson, actress, born 1924

“I’m not scared of death. I don’t know what it is. How could I be afraid of something I don’t know anything about?”


Nai-Ni Chen, choreographer and dancer, born 1959

“My thirst for expressing myself, both East and West, could only happen through creating my own company.”


Michael K. Williams, actor, born 1966

“The characters that mean the most to me are the ones that damn near kill me. It’s a sacrifice I’ve chosen to make.”


Melvin Van Peebles, filmmaker, born 1932

“I want people to be empowered and also have a damn good time.”


Liam Scarlett, choreographer, born 1986

“I want my steps to speak.”


Nelson Freire, pianist, born 1944

“I remember my childhood often. I remember a lot of the past. But when it comes to music, I always look forward.”


Bob Avian, choreographer, born 1937

“When my parents went out, I would push back the furniture, clear an open space, turn on the record player and leap around the apartment.”


Carla Fracci, dancer, born 1936

“School was a crashing bore and a terrible chore, until one day when I was cast as the girl with the mandolin in ‘Sleeping Beauty.’”


Emi Wada, costume designer, born 1937

“As I grew up in Kyoto, the wood of the Buddhist statues, trees, the grain of the wooden pillars, the patterns on the floor, the stones in the gardens, the bamboo, trees and plants in Kyoto are all a part of me — and as I read a script, I borrow from all these things.”


Joan Didion, writer, born 1934

“There’s a lot of landscape that I never would have described if I hadn’t been homesick. If I hadn’t wanted to remember.”


Larry McMurtry, novelist, born 1936

“I still feel sky-deprived when in the forested places. Many, many people born to the skies of the plains feel that way.”


Ed Asner, actor, born 1929

“My father told me, ‘You didn’t make a success as a student, you’re not going to make a success as an actor.’ I said, ‘I’ll be the judge of that.’”


Olympia Dukakis, actress, born 1931

“I came to New York with $57 in my pocket.”


Jacques D’Amboise, dancer, born 1934

“Spread me in Times Square or the Belasco Theatre.”


Charles Grodin, actor, born 1935

“I don’t assume an audience’s interest. I assume the opposite.”


Charlie Watts, drummer, born 1941

“When I first went to New York with the Stones, the first thing I did was to go to Birdland. And that was it. I’d seen America. I mean, I didn’t want to see anywhere else.”


Robert Downey Sr., filmmaker, born 1936

“If you have a leading character, they should be in a hurry. You can slow it down when you’re shooting, but it helps in the writing: Even if they’re not moving, they’re thinking about moving on, or getting away from the scene they’re in.”


Joe Allen, theater district restaurateur, born 1933

“I always said I lacked ambition — but that does not mean I was lazy.”


Jerry Pinkney, children’s book illustrator, born 1939

“I solve problems — visual problems.”


Larry King, TV host, born 1933

‘‘If you’re combative, you never learn.”


Anna Halprin, choreographer, born 1920

“I started to teach people how the body actually works. I looked at the skeleton. I did human dissection. I did all these things to understand the nature of movement, not just my movement.”


Dave Hickey, art critic, born 1938

“I’m not interested in the intentions of artists; I’m interested in consequences.”


Virgil Abloh, designer, born 1980

“When I studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, it was the humanities classes that I had put to the side that ultimately started me on this path of thinking about creativity in a much more cultural context — not designing for design’s sake, but connecting design to the rhythm of what’s happening in the world.”


Yolanda López, artist, born 1942

“Those of us who make images must always be very conscious about the power of images — about how they function — especially in a society where we are not taught our own history.”


Helen McCrory, actress, born 1968

“You’re more anarchic onstage than you are anywhere else.”


bell hooks, writer and scholar, born 1952

“We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor.”


Norm Macdonald, comedian, born 1959

“Making people laugh is a gift. Preaching to them is not a gift. There are people who can do that better. Preachers.”


Elizabeth McCann, theater producer, born 1931

“The thing that everybody thinks is going to work will not. The thing that nobody thinks will work will.”


Eric Carle, author and artist, born 1929

“The success of my books is not in the characters or the words or the colors, but in the simple, simple feelings.”


Beverly Cleary, author, born 1916

“I think children want to read about normal, everyday kids.”


Young Dolph, rapper, born 1985

“My whole thing is about giving these folks the real.”


Carlisle Floyd, composer, born 1926

“I try to use words that fit a pattern, that are musical and expressive, but do not sound mechanical. Above all it should have a speech rhythm that is like the rhythms that the audience would speak.”


Louis Andriessen, composer, born 1939

“Birds were the first composers. They like to sing in spring. Purely serving of the beauty — that’s what we try to do.”


Cloris Leachman, actress, born 1926

“I don’t have a lot of trappings, I think, in my personality. I’m just a simple person, with a silly bone.”


Hung Liu, artist, born 1948

“I’m a witness of my time, you know, of a history.”


Michael Nesmith, musician, born 1942

“We’re a couple of old men, but we sound the same when we play this music — and it nourishes us the way it nourishes you.”


Christopher Plummer, actor, born 1929

“I’ve made over 100 motion pictures, and some of them were even good. It’s nice to be reborn every few decades.”


Lisa Banes, actress, born 1955

“After you see your work, you always want to go right back and do it all over again.”


Kaari Upson, artist, born 1970

“I think of the art as dead when it leaves my studio. I don’t even own it anymore. Installing in a museum or a show that’s coming up, I’m not allowed to touch my own work ever. It just seems strange to me. If somebody puts me in front of my drawings, I’d put more text in it. It’s never finished, but none of my work is ever finished.”


Sophie, pop producer and performer, born 1986

“I don’t have the need to bring any more clutter into the physical world. And I like the fact that musical data is weightless and spaceless in that way.”


Etel Adnan, author and artist, born 1925

“My paintings are not usually titled. Art should make people dream, and when you have a title, you condition the vision.”


Art Gensler, architect, born 1935

“Technology is changing the way people work. With electronic mail, the internet, teleconferencing, people are starting to ask, ‘What is a headquarters or office environment?’”


Dottie Dodgion, drummer, born 1929

“We always put music first and marriage second. One night after dinner, for instance, I was going to do the dishes and Jerry said, ‘Forget the dishes. Let’s practice. I’ll do the dishes later.’”


Jessica Walter, actress, born 1941

“Even my ‘leading ladies’— you know, in air quotes — were characters. They were not Miss Vanilla Ice Cream. They weren’t holding the horse while John Wayne galloped into the sunset.”


Edita Gruberova, soprano, born 1946

“The last note, the high last note — it must say something.”


DMX, rapper, born 1970

“I’m going to look back on my life, just before I go, and thank God for every moment.”

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