Bob Flanagan (1952-1996)

Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997, dir. Kirby Dick)

Bob Flanagan, 43, Performer Who Fashioned Art From His Pain
By Roberta Smith
New York Times
Jan. 6, 1996

Bob Flanagan, a performance artist and poet whose writing and bizarre, sadomasochistic performances centered on his lifelong battle with an incurable illness, died on Thursday at Long Beach Memorial Hospital in Long Beach. He was 43 and lived in Los Angeles.

The cause was cystic fibrosis, said his companion and collaborator, Sheree Rose. Mr. Flanagan was said by doctors to be one of the longest-living survivors of cystic fibrosis, which is genetic and usually kills before adulthood. An older sister, Patricia, died of cystic fibrosis in 1979 at the age of 21.

A former cystic fibrosis poster boy, Mr. Flanagan recalled that he grew up being told that he had only a few years to live. And he attributed his longevity in part to his ability to "fight pain with pain," by which he meant that he took control of his suffering through the ritualized pain of sadomasochism. In time, he made his art out of this proclivity. His work related to the often painful performances of such early 1970's body artists as Chris Burden, Arnold Schwarzkogler and Carolee Schneemann. Mr. Flanagan's work was the subject of a disturbing exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo in the fall of 1994.

Mr. Flanagan was born in New York City on Dec. 26, 1952, and grew up in Glendora, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. He had little formal art training but began painting as a teen-ager and then switched to poetry. He studied literature at California State University, Long Beach, and at the University of California at Irvine. After moving to Los Angeles in 1976, he became involved with Beyond Baroque, an alternative literary center in Los Angeles, where he gave readings of autobiographical poems about his illness and his sex life.

In 1978 he published the first of five books of poetry and prose, "The Kid Is a Man." He also worked as a stand-up comic with the Groundlings, an improvisational theater group that included Pee-wee Herman. His readings and comedy routines gradually evolved into performances involving masochistic acts in which Ms. Rose, a video artist and dominatrix with whom he worked for the last 15 years, participated.

The New Museum show, first organized by the Santa Monica Museum of Art, was Mr. Flanagan's only exhibition and it generated widespread debate about its claim to be art. In it, he displayed sculptures, videos and also spent time in a hospital bed in the middle of the gallery, talking to visitors.

In addition to Ms. Rose, he is survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Flanagan, who live in Arizona, and a brother, John.