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The Many Lives of Leonard Nimoy: Artist, Collector, Vulcan

Leonard Nimoy, "163-A8" (2001), silver gelatin print, edition 2/25, 11 x 14 in
Leonard Nimoy, “163-A8” (2001), silver gelatin print, edition 2/25, 11 x 14 in (Leonard Nimoy / courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts)

Leonard Nimoy, the actor whose name and face were synonymous with Star Trek‘s Spock, died this morning at the age of 83. The cause was end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the New York Times reported.

Nimoy was best known and most beloved for his portrayal of Spock in the Star Trek TV show and movies, and his final tweet, which he wrote on Monday, quite poetically signs off with his character’s trademark salutation, “Live long and prosper” (LLAP):

(screenshot via Twitter)
(screenshot via Twitter)

But Nimoy “was almost as famous for wanting to be remembered for other things” besides Spock, Alessandra Stanley wrote today in the New York Times. One of those other things was visual art: Nimoy entered into the field in many ways, as a photographer, art collector, and actor.

In terms of photography, Nimoy, who studied with famed photographer Robert Heinecken, is perhaps best known for his Full Body Project (2007). The series consists of black-and-white nude photos of a group of overweight women, members of a burlesque troupe called the Fat-Bottom Revue. In the pictures, the women dance and show off their bodies and strike poses reminiscent of scenes from art history. Nimoy told NPR that shooting The Full Body Project “led me to a new consciousness about the fact that so many people live in body types that are not the type that’s being sold by fashion models.”

Leonard Nimoy, "Matisse Dancers" (2005), silver gelatin print, 16 x 20 in
Leonard Nimoy, “Matisse Dancers” (2005), silver gelatin print, 16 x 20 in (Leonard Nimoy / courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts)

It wasn’t his first time working with nudes. A 2008 Full Body Project press release from Louis Stern Fine Arts — one of two galleries representing Nimoy; the other is R. Michelson Galleries — explains:

Nimoy has created an extensive and provocative portfolio featuring the female nude. Using this traditional subject, Nimoy has explored the spiritual (the Shekhina Project), the sculptural (the Borghese Series – inspired by Canova’s “Paulina”) and the voluptuous (the Classic Nudes series). The classic elements of light and shadow, line and silhouette, visual rhythms moving in and out of focus, in concert with the photographer’s will, define these works.

MASS MoCA showed Nimoy’s photography in an exhibition titled Secret Selves in 2010.

“Leonard was a dear friend, and in many ways a father figure to me, and as kind, generous, interesting and caring as a person could be,” Richard Michelson told Hyperallergic over email. “He was a photographer from his 13th birthday, throughout his life, and a master in the field.”

The cover of 'Vincent,' starring Leonard Nimoy (via Amazon)
The cover of ‘Vincent,’ starring Leonard Nimoy (via Amazon)

Nimoy was also an arts collector and patron — something I discovered while visiting the Museum of Modern Art’s recent Robert Gober exhibition, where one of the artist’s sink drawings was listed as belonging to the collection of Susan Bay-Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy. The actor apparently had a long history of arts philanthropy as well, donating to the Asia Society, the Hammer Museum, and other institutions.

Nimoy managed to parlay his fascination with art and art history into his primary career, acting, as well. In the 1970s Nimoy discovered and bought the rights to a one-man play about Vincent van Gogh written by Phillip Stephens. Nimoy rewrote the play, which tells the story of Vincent through the eyes of his brother, Theo, and brought it to the stage at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater. You can see photos of him in character on his website (and shell out for a DVD on Amazon).

The play was revived not too long ago, in 2012, with actor Jean-Michel Richaud as Theo. A conversation between Richaud, director Paul Stein, and Nimoy took place after opening night, and in it Nimoy speaks passionately about performing the show (“It takes fierce concentration”) and van Gogh’s work (“glorious”), and very thoughtfully about living a creative life:

A long career in the arts is a walk the razor’s edge. On the one side, on the right side, you have passion and instinct and all the emotional aspects of your work. And on the other side, the left side, you have, pardon the expression, the logic and the discipline that it takes to manage this path.

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