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September 16, 2014

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Artist Steve Kaufman dies at 49 in Colorado

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun

Attracted by the bright colors, Javier Trevino, 12, stops to look at the painting of artist Steve Kaufman while shopping with his family Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Centaur Art Gallery in the Fashion Show Mall. Kaufman, 49, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., was found dead Feb. 12 in Vail, Colo.

Steve Kaufman's Work

Bill and Sarah Turner, of Ohio, peruse the paintings of the late artist Steve Kaufman on display Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Centaur Art Gallery in the Fashion Show Mall. Kaufman, 49, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., was found dead Feb. 12 in Vail, Colo. Launch slideshow »

Interview with Kaufman

Beyond the Sun

Steve Kaufman, a world-renowned pop-culture artist who had many ties to Las Vegas, died early Friday morning in Vail, Colo., after a battle with health problems. He was 49 years old.

Kaufman is known in Las Vegas for a recent installation of several works of art at Caesars Palace. Richard C. Perry, the owner of Centaur Gallery at Fashion Show Mall, said Kaufman also was commissioned for a piece at CityCenter.

Perry’s gallery holds the largest exhibition of Kaufman’s art in the United States and Kaufman was a frequent visitor to the gallery for shows based around his art.

As an artist, Kaufman was never one to shy away from a challenge, Perry said. Kaufman worked long hours to paint a 144-foot-long canvas with the names of those who died in the 9/11 attacks.

The New York City native used a basement of Caesars Palace to paint the giant work, which would later tour the country. Kaufman started the tribute painting shortly after 9/11 and completed it in early 2002, Perry said.

“Probably no one in the world has ever done anything like that,” he said. “It was just unbelievable.”

At the time of his death Kaufman was living in Los Angeles, where he spent much of his adult life. Kaufman lived a largely “bi-coastal” existence, Perry said, also keeping a small residence and studio in New York City.

According to a statement from the Vail Police Department, Kaufman had arrived in Vail this past Thursday to take part in a show featuring his work.

Police said a friend found Kaufman dead at about 8:20 a.m. the next morning in his Vail Village Hotel room. His friend became worried when Kaufman didn't attend a breakfast meeting. He went to Kaufman's hotel room, where the artist was found unresponsive on the floor, police said.

The Eagle County (Colo.) coroner will conduct an autopsy, but police said it appears Kaufman died of natural causes.

According to a biography on Kaufman's Web site, the artist had suffered from health problems in recent years.

In a biography entry dated April 2003, Kaufman wrote: "I had a stroke, my cholesterol was 576, I’ve been told I flat line died. That night I had 6 jelly donuts, during my sleep I saw quick flashes of my life like I was on VCR tape recorder rewinding my life story very fast, then it stop, everything when black."

The next year, Kaufman suffered two minor strokes and a bout with cancer. Five years later, in February 2009, Kaufman had a second major stroke while in Las Vegas, he wrote in the online biography.

Click to enlarge photo

While in town for his 30th birthday, John Dirk, of Washington, D.C., stops to admire the pieces of the late pop artist Steve Kaufman on display Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Centaur Art Gallery in the Fashion Show Mall. Kaufman, 49, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., was found dead Feb. 12 in Vail, Colo.

"I was seeing spots that day, I woke up in Las Vegas and being paralyzed couldn’t get into a wheel chair," he wrote.

Kaufman got his start in the Pop Art movement years ago, when as a teenager he began working as an assistant to Andy Warhol.

“His early days of art really began when he was 9 or 10,” Perry said. “He practiced; he worked; he got very excited about the time in which he lived.”

Kaufman was prolific, producing between 200-300 paintings each year, Perry said.

“If you looked at his portfolio you would say: ‘My God, this guy painted everyone and everything,’” Perry said. Kaufman painted many Las Vegas icons, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Elvis.

Kaufman also was known for his charitable work. In Los Angeles, he was known for hiring men who were recently released from jail to help in his studios.

Perry was a personal and professional friend of Kaufman’s. Perry said he admired how Kaufman maintained his down-to-earth personality in spite of his fame.

“He’d give you his heart and his soul,” Perry said. “He’s probably the most generous guy I’ve met in the art community.”

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