Tom Sanford, The Assassination of "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott

Tom Sanford, The Assassination of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, 2005

Over the weekend, we received a tip about an online controversy surrounding news that New York artist Tom Sanford’s 2005 painting “The Assassination of Dimebag Darrell Abbott” will soon be auctioned for charity at Philips de Pury. (Note that Sanford is one of Bad at Sports’ regular New York correspondents). The painting depicts legendary guitarist and Pantera founder Darrell Lance Abbott on the night of his murder onstage during a Damageplan performance in Columbus, Ohio. (Also killed that night were Jeff Thompson, 40, Nathan Bray, 23, and Erin Halk, 29). When the website Blabbermouth posted a story announcing that the painting would be auctioned, numerous metalheads voiced a renewed sense of outrage and disgust via comment boards and forums like this one on Metal Underground. (Metafilter also picked up on the controversy).

Much of the anger seems to stem from the idea that Sanford is exploiting Abbott’s death by depicting the much-loved figure in a disrespectful and even lurid manner. And yet, if you read through the discussion on Metal Underground’s site, amongst the myriad “what a douche” comments and death threats (!) you’ll also find some polite dissension from metal fans themselves, as in this comment, by MetalBro4Life:

To DiamondOz’s post #25, as I recall, didn’t Slayer write songs about Ed Gein (“Dead Skin Mask”), Jeffrey Dahmer (“213”), Josef Mengele (“Angel of Death”) and more recently Andrei Chikatilo (“Psychopathy Red”), as well as Albert Fish in the intro to Cannibal’s “Addicted to Vaginal Skin”, all of whom did some pretty heinous REAL-LIFE stuff to people? How do you think their victims felt when they heard these songs? If you don’t like it, then turn it off! Tom Sanford and whoever owns the painting has every right to create what they will…. after all, it’s only art. That’s what Araya said that that is what Slayer is all about.”

Sanford wrote about the controversy on his own website, responding in particular to accusations that his Dimebag painting is “in bad taste.” An excerpt from Sanford’s statement:

Back in early 2005, when I made the painting, the reaction of Dimebag’s fans was actually not on my mind. I was interested in this tragedy as a historical event that occurred in our media saturated world, but was without a defining image of the event. Normally the pervasive 24-hour news and infotainment industry is able to define news worthy events with an image or video. In this case the event was only captured in the accounts of witnesses who saw the horrific event live at the Alrosa Villa. This afforded me an opportunity to make a painting that might be the only visual depiction of the tragedy, and yes I exploited this opportunity.

In my defense I thought it to be an extremely significant event, and one that needed to be remembered. I thought my painting might help remember the tragedy. The painting is certainly in poor taste, but I think that when one is describing a mass murder, etiquette is really not an issue.

Poor taste is pretty much the baseline criteria for my work, so fundamental to my project that I really do not consider it when I make a painting. I have no interest in being in good taste. My work is always subjective, inaccurate and incorrect, and I stand behind this position. I am however surprised that Metal fans would be so sensitive to taste, as it seems that their genre of music operates in a context without taste. For fucks sake, Dimebag played a guitar with a rebel flag painted on it! For any non Americans who might read this, the rebel flag is a symbol of the civil war era American south.”

I’m not a metal fan myself, so my p.o.v. on this issue is of a necessarily more distanced and clinical tack. We’ve had discussions on this blog before around issues of taste and quality as they pertain to the ways that non-specialized or “general” art audiences find and/or make meaning from works of art. Sanford’s “Dimebag” controversy is especially interesting in this regard. Here you have an instance in which a segment of the artwork’s viewers feel deeply connected to the images in Sanford’s work. They derive a sense of personal meaning from the painting, one that makes them feel angry and insulted.

Sanford’s painting walks the razor’s edge between irony and sincerity. His goal, in part, was to depict a tragic event that had great significance for members of certain (sub)cultural communities and yet went almost completely unacknowledged outside of them. The painting’s over-the-top qualities lead some to view its subject ironically and others as a cheapening of tragedy.

All this would seem to put Sanford in something of a bind. Judging from the online discourse, the painting has inspired revulsion among many of those who identify with the history and community it depicts. Those who lack this sort of personal investment (like myself) are able to look at the painting in a manner that is far more distanced and critical in nature – and, I suspect, one that is much less passionate too. As a result, the individuals who are most moved by the painting, and most apt to want to find something meaningful in it, are also among its most vocal detractors. This may well be the biggest irony of all.

Got a response to this post? Let us know! Email your comments to We’ll feature thoughtful responses to issues generated by our posts in our Letters to the Editors Feature on Saturdays.

Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.