Ulay, Pioneer of Polaroid and Performance Art, Has Died at 76

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Ulay Marina Abramovic Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Ulay, S’he, 1973–74Copyright The Artist, Courtesy of Ulay Foundation, via Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

The acclaimed artist, who made his name in 1970s Amsterdam and through his artistic partnership with Marina Abramovic, had previously battled with cancer

The performance artist Ulay has died at the age of 76 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, it was announced this morning by his eponymous art foundation. Diagnosed with cancer in 2011 – and his journey through treatment documented in the 2013 film Project Cancer: Ulay's journal from November to November – the artist had recovered in 2014, but it is reported today that his death comes after complications caused by cancer treatment. 

Born Frank Uwe Laysiepen in Germany, Ulay made a name for himself as a photographer and performance artist in 1970s Amsterdam, where he would create experimental photo-collages using Polaroid cameras. Ulay pushed traditional gender boundaries in his early photographic work, often appearing in self-portraits with half of his face made up, exploring the masculine and feminine in his character.

It was also in Amsterdam that Ulay met Marina Abramovic, their 12-year partnership in art and life beginning in 1976, and culminating with a 90-day performance piece in 1988 in which the pair walked towards each other from separate ends of the Great Wall of China, eventually meeting to say goodbye. Ulay and Abramovic would become pioneers of performance art through their partnership; in 2010 the pair were reunited in The Artist is Present, part of Abramovic’s MoMA retrospective, when Ulay surprised her by taking part in an extended performance that relied on public participants. Their spontaneous reunion for the piece is one of the most-watched – and perhaps most moving – moments from recent contemporary art. 

“It is with great sadness I learned about my friend and former partner Ulay’s death today,” Abramovic writes on Instagram. “He was an exceptional artist and human being, who will be deeply missed. On this day, it is comforting to know that his art and legacy will live on forever.” It was reported last year that, after a tumultuous period in the 2010s and legal issues pertaining to their collaborative works, Ulay and Abramovic were to reunite on a joint memoir of their artistic partnership. 

Ulay’s work was in the spotlight in recent years, with exhibitions in London and New York celebrating his early Polaroid work. Later this year, a major retrospective of his work will open at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, detailing his extraordinary career and his unique relationship with the Dutch city’s art world. The Ulay Foundation Project Space quotes the late artist in a statement: “Everyone gets somewhere. It’s not just me. Everyone eventually gets somewhere. Death is the ultimate answer. But life is absolute.”