Artist Kaufman leaves a lasting legacy in Vail
Aspen, CO Colorado
VAIL – When Steve Kaufman arrived in Vail last week for his show at Masters Gallery, he was in good spirits.
“He was fine and excited,” said Barry Steinberg, his friend and agent. “There were no indications that there was anything wrong.”
Kaufman, the renowned pop artist who studied under Andy Warhol, had prepared an extensive display of Americana for the Vail Village gallery. Not only were his famous Marilyn Monroe silkscreens hanging on the wall, collages of Michael Jackson and Olympic skier Bode Miller added extra relevance to the annual exhibit.
Sadly, this weekend’s show went on without Kaufman.
The artist died of a heart attack Friday morning in his Vail Village hotel room. He was 49. Kaufman had been scheduled for a 9 a.m. interview to talk about his Olympic art, Steinberg said. When the artist failed to pick up his phone, Steinberg started to worry.
Kaufman’s exhibit at Masters Gallery had been set to open later that day, and as the news of his death rippled through the art community, those close to Kaufman decided against canceling his show at Masters Gallery.
“The show would go on because that’s what Steve wanted,” gallery director Rayla Kundolf said.
The artist in a letter requested that life go on after his death.
“I had a great life, so please don’t cry for me, I’ve lived a life of 100 men,” Kaufman wrote.
The artist had suffered a series of debilitating strokes since 2004, including four strokes over the past year. But he never let his health problems stop his traveling to shows.
In an interview with the Vail Daily before a December show at C. Anthony Gallery in Beaver Creek, Steinberg said Kaufman shrugged off concerns about the altitude’s possible impact on his health.
“He said, ‘If I stop doing shows, I might as well stop living. This is what I live for,'” Steinberg recalled.
Kaufman left a mark on Vail. His annual show at Masters Gallery has been a hit over the past five years. Towering above the crowds at 6 feet, 8 inches tall, wearing a white suit jacket adorned with drawings of pop icons, Kaufman had a “pied piper” quality, Kundolf said.
“He was a gentle giant,” she said. “He was bigger than life.”
Adults related to the familiar images of American icons, while children left with free paintings.
“Kids loved to come in because he would always have the giveaways for their little collections,” Kundolf said.
Although Kaufman’s art left an impact on Vail, his generosity was his trademark, Kundolf said.
“He was a true humanitarian,” she said.
Over the past two years, Kaufman and Bode Miller teamed up for two shows at C. Anthony Gallery featuring paintings of the skier who recently won a bronze medal at the Vancouver Games. A portion of the proceeds went to the two men’s charities. Kaufman’s charity, the Give Kids A Break Foundation, offers art programs to troubled kids. The artist hired ex-gang members to work at his Los Angeles studio.
“I’ve had some of them say to me that Steve has saved their lives,” Steinberg said. “They would have been dead out on the streets without him.”
In another act of generosity, Kaufman donated a painting of ski icons Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga to Vail’s Colorado Ski Museum. Kaufman joined the famous skiers for a dedication ceremony at the museum in December.
“It seemed like he had a special place in his heart for the ski industry,” museum Executive Director Susie Tjossem said.
Kaufman painted portraits of a wide variety of celebrities – everyone from Frank Sinatra to former President Bill Clinton.
Kaufman’s death has been felt throughout the international art community.
“It’s a major loss,” said Paul Zueger, owner of Masters and C. Anthony galleries. “In the art world, he was an icon.”
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