NEW YORK — Barton Lidice Benes, a New York sculptor who worked in materials that he called artifacts of everyday life, expanded his definition of everyday as he went. He used the everyday mementos of childhood in his early work, and later made sculptures from chopped-up, everyday US cash (purchased already shredded from the Federal Reserve).
When friends started dying of AIDS, and Mr. Benes tested HIV-positive, he began working in everyday materials of the epidemic: pills and capsules, intravenous tubes, HIV-infected blood, and cremated human remains.
Mr. Benes, who died of acute kidney failure on May 30 at 69, created a body of work that was exhibited internationally and included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian Institute.
His work dealing with the AIDS epidemic was acclaimed for its raw approach to death. Some of it was so raw that he had difficulty finding art galleries willing to show it. Among his best known works, though it was never exhibited publicly, was his collection of memento mori filling his 850-square-foot New York City apartment and studio from floor to ceiling: thousands of artifacts like tribal masks, animal skeletons, taxidermy, religious relics, voodoo dolls, and a stockpile of celebrity ephemera. He called it ‘‘my tomb.’’
The North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, which in the early 1990s showed controversial artworks of his that no other galleries would, plans to build a replica of his apartment and furnish it exactly as Mr. Benes left it. Among its objects, many of them macabre, are a blackened human toe; a giant hourglass holding the mingled ashes of two of Mr. Benes’s friends, partners who died of AIDS; a gallstone removed from his friend Larry Hagman, the actor; and a stuffed giraffe’s head.
‘‘Everyone thought I killed it,’’ Mr. Benes said of the giraffe in an interview last year with The New York Times. ‘‘I don’t kill anything,’’ he added. ‘‘Just cockroaches and mice.’’
Gallery owners unwilling to show his AIDS sculptures gave Mr. Benes various explanations, he told interviewers. It was a matter of taste in the case of ‘‘Brenda,’’ a wall relief carpeted with red AIDS-awareness ribbons and slathered with a coat of gray paste made from the cremated remains of a woman who had died of AIDS. ‘‘I absolutely hate those ribbons,’’ he said, contending that wearing them did nothing more than assuage people’s consciences.
Another work, ‘‘Lethal Weapons,’’ raised health alarms. It was a collection of 30 vessels — including a water pistol, a perfume atomizer, and a set of hollow darts — each filled with the artist’s or other people’s HIV-infected blood.
Both works were shown in 1993 at the North Dakota Museum of Art without incident, said Laurel J. Reuter, the museum director. ‘‘After we announced it, I think we had one woman write us a letter,’’ she said in an interview. ‘‘After we talked to her about the art and why it was important, she came to the opening.’’
‘’Lethal Weapons’’ was also exhibited in Lund, Sweden, but not before Mr. Benes agreed to let the authorities heat the installation to 160 degrees Fahrenheit in a hospital oven to make it safe for public viewing.
Barton Lidice Benes was born in Hackensack, N.J., the son of Marie and Richard Benes. His father, a son of Czech immigrants, gave him his middle name in memory of Lidice, a Czech town destroyed by the Nazis in 1942. After his parents divorced, Barton and his mother lived in New York City with his Czech-born grandparents, who were steeped in Roman Catholic traditions of honoring the relics of saints, including their bones.
Mr. Benes’s younger brother, Warren, attributed the artist’s interest in artifacts partly to his frequent visits to the American Museum of Natural History. ‘‘He would have been happy to spend the rest of his life inside one of those dioramas,’’ Warren Benes said.
Mr. Benes graduated from Pratt Institute in New York City. He first gained notice for a series of pieces, including a statue of the Virgin Mary, in which he used shredded US currency. After the devastating 1997 floods in North Dakota, he made sculptures from the broken remnants of personal property that flood victims had brought to the museum. He titled the project ‘‘Flood.’’
Besides the curio collection and the furniture, the North Dakota Museum of Art’s re-creation of Mr. Benes’ studio will eventually include his remains. In his bequest he asked that his ashes be kept in a pillowcase on the bed. ‘‘It makes me comfortable,’’ he said ‘‘that I get to live in my own pyramid now.’’