Jonathan Napack, 39, an Asian art expert and former New York Observer columnist, died of pneumonia on Jan. 20 at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong. He died in the country where he worked for over a decade to build connections between Asian art and the Western world.
A fixture in galleries, studios and collections, he was named the first Asian advisor for Art Basel in 1999. In September of last year, he organized Art Basel’s first-ever event in the country: a panel discussion with National Art Museum of China director Fan Di’an titled “China: New Opportunities in the Global Art Arena.” He considered the conversation one of his proudest accomplishments, according to friends and family.
“He leaves a big gap, because he was somebody who was really trying to bridge the Asian dealers with the West,” said Barbara Pollack, a New York arts journalist who travels frequently to Asia and knew Mr. Napack well when he wrote for The Observer in the early 90’s. “He was the go-between guy.”
“He was absolutely a brilliant renaissance man … a cynic with a jaundiced eye for everything,” said his father, Howard Phillips, from his home in Florida. (Mr. Phillips is his stepfather; Mr. Napack considered him a true dad.) Mr. Napack spoke German, French, Chinese and Japanese and was “in absolute command of the written word,” according to Mr. Phillips. He took his parents on tours all over the world, from Burma to Vietnam.
“He always wanted to be where the action is,” his mother, Carol, said.
“He also created the action,” Mr. Phillips said.
Mr. Napack wrote a column called “Art Diary” for The Observer from 1993 to 1995, reporting surly accounts of New York’s nightlife elite, including Nancy Kissinger and Ron Perlman. Charlie Finch of Artnet.com wrote that his work at The Observer “sliced and diced the powers of the art world.”
Mr. Napack wrote for the International Herald Tribune, The Art Newspaper, The Asian Wall Street Journal, ArtNews, GQ magazine and other publications.
According to his parents, Mr. Napack was first captivated by Asian culture when he visited hurricane-ravaged Kobe, Japan, with a girlfriend. “Jonathan was mesmerized by it all,” Ms. Phillips said. He made Hong Kong his permanent residence in 1997.
In March 2000, he wrote for ARTNews about the “gutsy rebellion” of Yang Yong, who was then a budding photographer in his mid-20’s. Today, he is one of the most prominent contemporary Chinese artists. Mr. Napack co-edited a book of his haunting urban photographs, which was published in 2004. He also co-authored the book Art in America: Focus China, published the same year.
Hou Hanru, director of exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute, wrote in an e-mail to friends: “He’s gone; the art community has lost one of its most wonderful actors, and we have lost a dearest friend.”
Mr. Napack was born on Feb. 13, 1967, in New York, where he attended Trinity School. He studied art history at Boston College, graduating in 1989. His mother said that he got his first big break at Spy magazine, where he was offered an internship after college. “He came home and said, ‘Mom, it’s only $50 a week.’ I said, ‘Jonathan, this could change your life.’ And did it ever change his life!”
He is survived by his parents, who live in Sarasota, Fla., and East Hampton, N.Y., and his brother, Alexander, 34, who lives in Los Angeles. His biological father, Alvin Napack, died in 1978.
A service will be held on Feb. 7 at artist Ai Weiwei’s restaurant in Beijing. On Feb. 10, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong will hold another service. A memorial will be held in New York, but no date has yet been set.