passages

Rex Ray (1956–2015)

Rex Ray. Photo: Miriam Santos-Kayda.

I KNEW REX was going to be instant family. He had a big rubber smile, and an endless stream of wit, warmth, taste—and a bottomless knowledge of Warholiana. It was the mid-1990s, and I remember thinking, This is why it’s great to be an adult: because you get to know people like Rex Ray. Oddly, the night we met Rex said, “If you’d met me three months ago I would have been bitter, and you wouldn’t have liked me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was working as a clerk at City Lights books, and I was the world’s bitterest clerk, and I decided one day that I’m not going to be bitter anymore.”

I found it difficult to believe that anyone as social as Rex could be bitter, but he said, “No, it’s a decision, and I decided to stop.”

Rex’s decision to stop being bitter coincided with his first big show of works in San Francisco. It was a charged event—everyone knew something special was being born; it was the new, unbitter Rex Ray with his first exhibition of works that would come to be known as his mature style. I thought to myself, You know, sometimes it’s just wonderful to see something effortlessly new in a gallery, its newness curling down off the wall like dry-ice fog.

After that first show, I only ever saw Rex blossom. He was a tree that only knew spring, and his work became bigger, more complex and more ambitious, and his studio grew with this drive. Everyone who knew him shared such unjealous happiness at his success.

And then it stopped. I don’t know if Rex always knew it was lymphoma or if he had a misdiagnosis at the start and then only learned the truth later. We had a dinner at Zuni near the end, and he was so embarrassed to be so frail, to have his feet hurt so much just from walking from the curb to the table. He looked at me and said, “I’m Mr. Burns!” And he made light of it, but it was impossible not to see the pain. Sometimes you say good night to people, and it only means good night, but sometimes you say good night and you know it’s actually good-bye, and that was how it was that night.

I miss the way Rex called you darling. I miss the way he analyzed Britney Spears’s career trajectory. I miss going into Jonathan Adler and seeing his new works on the walls—and there was always new work. Rex had more drive than any artist I’ve ever met, and he started so much later in life. He was a lovely human being, and why do they always go first? Idiots go on forever. Rex, darling, we all miss you very, very much, and say hi to Andy.

Douglas Coupland is a writer and artist based in Canada. He is currently artist in residence at Google’s Paris Cultural Institute.

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