From the Exhibition:

Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life

John Lennon died in New York City on December 8, 1980, at the age of 40. Returning from an evening out at a recording studio, he was shot by Mark David Chapman at the entrance to the Dakota apartment building on 72nd Street. Earlier the same day, Annie Leibovitz had photographed Lennon and Yoko Ono in their apartment at the Dakota for Rolling Stone. Her memorable photo of a naked Lennon curled up beside Ono was published on the cover of the magazine the following month, as a posthumous tribute to the former Beatle.1

Some eight years later, Barbara Nessim was commissioned to produce an equally iconic cover portrait of Lennon for Rolling Stone. The magazine’s art director, Fred Woodward, asked Nessim to create a simple line drawing of the musician as he might have looked if he had still been alive. Albert Goldman’s controversial biography of Lennon had been published earlier in 1988, and the magazine was planning to run a highly critical response.2 The Rolling Stone article by David Fricke and Jeffrey Ressner claimed that Goldman’s book was “riddled with factual inaccuracies, embroidered accounts of true events that border on fiction and suspect information provided by tainted sources.”3 Although he didn’t respond at the time, Goldman attempted to defend himself in the New York Review of Books some months later, in response to yet another hostile review of the biography.4

Nessim was initially reluctant to accept the commission, because she felt that she “didn’t do portraits very well.” She agreed to attempt it nevertheless, but allowed enough time for Rolling Stone to approach another artist if she didn’t succeed. Nessim produced two or three sketches before creating the image that she was happy with. In the final version she uses red to suggest blood, blue to indicate the sky or afterlife, and purple to represent the two mingling together. The outline of Lennon’s face is also left incomplete, to indicate that he died young. The portrait met with Yoko Ono’s approval and was published on October 20, 1988.5

The original artwork for Lennon Remembered is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which also holds many other works by Nessim.6

1.Annie Leibovitz, Photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono,Rolling Stone (January 21, 1981): front cover.

2.Albert Goldman, The Lives of John Lennon (New York: William Morrow, 1988).

3.David Fricke and Jeffrey Ressner, “Imaginary Lennon,” Rolling Stone (October 20, 1988: pp. 42-52, 93.

4.Albert Goldman. “The Lives of John Lennon (review),” New York Review of Books (March 2, 1989); .

5.Barbara Nessim, John Lennon Remembered, Rolling Stone (October 20, 1988): front cover.

6.Victoria and Albert Museum. Search the Collections. .