John Richardson (1924–2019)

John Richardson. Photo: François Halard.

“I’VE SEATED YOU next to John Richardson at dinner—you guys will hit it off.” John and I met in Moscow, June 2008. It was the opening night of the first Garage Museum, and my friend and Garage director, Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, got us together. John and I talked and danced until morning and remained friends ever since. I liked him immediately. He was an art world legend before we met, but I liked him even more in the flesh.

John had a life-force that halved his age. He knew everything; art-historical references, contemporary painting, gossip, museum collections, royal connections, people’s grandmas, second cousins, characters from the criminal underworld, rap singers, academics. He spanned a century of knowledge and culture and understood fluid gender identity before the term had been invented. Witty and acerbic, he was the raconteur, and relished the drama of life. He was great company and surrounded himself with great company. John’s loft in New York was a treasure. You could smoke, no problem. He lived for a while with Mrs. Astor’s former butler, who’d serve visitors drinks from a gold Great Gatsby drinks trolley. The joy of human contradictions was abundant in his house style—he had a wide range of friends and a wide array of objects. The décor was a visual pinball machine of eras and expressions. While he would always try to convince me about the merits of this huge, black, latex sculpture with orifices and protrusions that hung in his writing room, it was the tiny pen-and-ink Picasso sitting beneath the sculpture that I liked to zone in on.

John could be bitchy and have a real moan, especially when it concerned others curating or writing on Picasso, but he was exceptionally funny and blessed with an extraordinary vocabulary while doing it. He was a genius impersonator and I adored the way he said the word “wretch-id.” His eyesight was failing and I loved the extra-large typeface of the Google search page on his home computer, the enormous illegible handwriting that was like Twombly’s signature. On the occasion of being honored at the London Library, he wrote his speech in huge, scruffy letters and then couldn’t read his own notes. The whole theater of it was all the more captivating because it brought out the depth of his knowledge and formidable humor as he had to perform on the hop. John was self-educated, curious, always asking you questions—ferociously intelligent, and not afraid to be unfashionable in his thinking about art.

And he was game. When I suggested that we do some naked modeling for a portrait, he was frankly thrilled: “Well, I may as well.” His handsome block head was way too big for his body, and he wore his hair slicked back, old school, with a killer hairline that light could grip onto. He loved blazers, checked or with gold buttons, and wore delicate shirts covered in mauve and spring flowers. He had wizened arms and his forearm spider tattoo had bled into the surrounding flesh, the design distorted in the creased skin. As he spoke, his large, sculptural hands would interlock in a variety of ways, then swing down in front of him like giant, weighted bells. When he wanted to emphasize a point, his arms would open up with an eagle’s wingspan. I’d take his socks off when he modeled for me because he couldn’t reach them, and I smiled because he wore trendy neon underwear at ninety. We both loved nipples and would discuss them when he modeled. He liked his own a lot.

One day he arrived at my studio door with a sculpture of a penis made from stacked egg shells and handed it over to me with a calm smile, saying a friend of a friend had made it. We recorded an interview that went on for hours. Then we did it again, and again. Through his words, I could feel Picasso and Bacon in my studio. It’s so rare to talk to someone who just gets it. I relished his stories of staying with Peggy Guggenheim in Venice and her awful food, Picasso stomping around the studio trying to grapple with Velazquez’s Las Meninas while Jacqueline calmed the waters, John’s complicated love affairs and dark, vulnerable side, how Braque mixed his paint, and the days of Warhol and Mapplethorpe. He used to ask me about my palazzo in Palermo when I painted there for a while. He already knew some facts about it and the way he described my life back to me was exotic, better than real. He was the perfect friend for artists because he never demanded your time or got annoyed if you couldn’t make it. He understood the need to work and be in the studio.

But when the dust around John settles, it’s for his service to the art of Picasso that he should be remembered. He could turn any subject into a virtuoso insight about the artist. I could say, “John, this is a beautiful turn of a chair leg, don’t you think?” And he’d end up telling anecdotes about Picasso’s chairs, why he preferred organic forms over straight lines. I never tired of it—it was gold dust for a painter. Good artists don’t come along often. Picasso is the Titian, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt of the twentieth century, and John illuminated and enriched his journey for all of us, now and for centuries. He genuinely loved him and showed the world the brilliance of the late work that had been dismissed and ridiculed. He liked the radical, brave Picasso, and got annoyed with him if his work brushed up against convention (although he’d usually blame that on his relationship circumstances, like a parent making excuses for a child who’s not performing as well as usual at school).

When John was modeling for what became the final time, he told me that his last decade working on the Picasso shows for Gagosian were the best years of his life. He couldn’t believe his luck. To show Picasso exactly the way he wanted to, in downtown New York on Twenty-First Street, made him a young artist on the block again. I don’t think John had experienced that level of freedom before, the finances and the encouragement to share his vision after a lifetime’s research. It was pure pleasure, and he didn’t want the ride to end. His “Picasso Mosqueteros” show in 2009 blew me over—it was staggering—and the “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou” exhibition in 2011 has been one of the most influential shows on my work. I still think about it. John had an artist’s eye for mounting exhibitions, giving importance to the whole range of the artist’s creativity—from a cardboard cutout to a drawing scratched through paint on the back of an old door. He was an excellent curator of drawings and prints, and knew exactly where and how to show them. When he told me he was going to hang Picasso’s work on green curtains in the “Picasso Minotaurs and Matadors” exhibition in London, I thought he’d lost it, that it would look like a boudoir. But he was right. It was beautiful and perfect for the work. I left those shows with a sense of urgency, desperate to get in the studio.

One of my fondest memories was an afternoon in London when we stole a wheelchair from the Royal Academy so I could push him back to the Ritz after visiting the Rubens show. We were howling with laughter as I was running down Piccadilly, pushing him like a baby in a pushchair with his arms flaying around, when a young RA guard started chasing us. John indignantly pointed his walking stick towards the guard’s navel: “Don’t you know who this is? This is a famous painter, you can’t arrest her!” So I added, “This is Sir John Richardson! I’m sorry, but he needs a push!” The poor guard didn’t know what to do and ended up walking with us up to John’s room in the Ritz and kindly helping, very apologetic. I actually thought John was going to ask him out for dinner.

In New York, too, we would visit shows together. One afternoon, as we wandered around Acquavella’s Braque exhibition, he told me the inside stories and pointed out the pictures that he and Douglas Cooper had in their home. The next minute we bumped into an oldish aristocratic lady and John went into hushed, full gossip mode. As she walked off, John raised his eyebrows, leaned right into me, and informed on who she was trying to bed.

Even after all of Sir John’s achievements, he always saw himself as an outsider, a trespasser at the center of the art world—not a scholar or a museum person. And that was the point; that’s how he could see it all. Instead of being institutionalized, he became the institution. I loved him. He was full of all that life can offer: sex, death, and magic.

Jenny Saville is a painter based in Oxford, England.