IT TAKES SOMEONE with as much tenure and tenacity on the scene as Rene Ricard to make me remember what it was like to be a young art writer. Seemingly always already there, stumbling and groping forward just in front of me, his peripatetic wanderings through the cultural mayhem of New York were a beacon-like inspiration for my own similarly hopeless pursuits and perhaps, too, a fair warning to maintain some critical distance lest we all end up like moths to the flame. He was a full-fledged freak, and in missing him, many of us must miss just as dearly that time when being so outré was not all that aberrant in the art world.
When, in the 1980s, my then-neighbor the art critic Thomas McEvilley brought me into Artforum, I was just into my early twenties, a college dropout who worked in nightclubs and wrote about woefully unknown artists for a local zine. I didn’t know much then, but I understood enough that I would never be a McEvilley or Donald Kuspit or any of the other more intellectually inclined writers at the magazine in those days. What I could look to, and did with the blind conviction of youth, were cats like Rene Ricard and Edit DeAk, who were very much the spirit of the magazine, and who not only championed artists that I could identify with but who did so with a passion and in a vernacular that was wholly mesmerizing, and in my case quite infectious.
Because the legacy of the poet-critic was still in some currency back then, Ricard’s wild conjuring of visual culture through a language of sheer poetics seemed somewhat more natural. It was easier, then, to situate him within that lineage from Charles Baudelaire through the great New York scribe Frank O’Hara to others still around like John Ashbery, yet harder to realize that he was more of an anachronistic throwback, something quite beautifully and sadly coming at the end of the end of a great line. As fate would perhaps inevitably have it, when the art world changed into a more conservative realm of production and sales, and when those now larger-than-life creative spirits that had once been his singular muse as an art writer passed on, Rene turned back to poetry. I’d often see him in that time, not a happy or easy one for him, at the bar where I worked, cadging drinks from me, or hitting me up on the street for money, saying how hungry he was and would I just buy him a sandwich—one to get by on as he would surely be very rich very soon. Art writing, maybe more so than art itself, is a con game, the ultimate game of confidence, and Rene would never lack confidence.
Impoverished but never a beggar, Rene in fair exchange would sell me one of his poems for whatever money I could spare in those days when I still made good coin working at night. He told me that these handwritten poems, so much like the ephemeral and visionary artwork we both adored, would be worth a great deal of money someday. He never ascribed to my prudish ethics about a critic never collecting art, always telling me that I was a fool to not wheedle art out of those we helped, and that at least if I could own a Ricard it would eventually make up for some of those stupid choices I had made regarding collecting in the past. I don’t know if those poems are worth all that much now, but I treasure them nonetheless. Then of course, because words were always just another way of making pictures, Rene Ricard became at last an artist, wedding his sardonic tongue to the great irony of visual representation. In that last incarnation I finally got to work with Rene so many years after just trailing his shadow, as I commissioned him to be the guest artist for Paper, the magazine I work at. I don’t know why it makes me so happy to say this, but in this most simple little gig Rene Ricard proved to be one of the most difficult artists I have ever dealt with.
Rene made a righteous place for himself in art magazine discourse by an act of utterly nervy genius, letting his voice carry far above most others neither by careerist negotiations nor dint of professionalism (of which he could hardly ever be accused of possessing the slightest trace), but by virtue of seeing things so very differently and feeling it all that much more intensely than most anyone else out there. That space he created for himself—call it out-there, marginal, or simply unorthodox—is one I was lucky enough to occupy for a time, and one that I hope with all my heart will always be there for future generations of art writers.
Carlo McCormick is a culture critic and curator living in New York City.
More reflections on Rene Ricard will appear in the May issue of Artforum.