PRINT December 2001


Twenty years ago, poet Rene Ricard’s “Radiant Child” manned the front lines of the Ingrid Sischy–era “new Artforum.” Contributing editor Bruce Hainley looks back at an essay that became synonymous with the magazine’s evolving image.

Rene Ricard’s prose coordinates itself by digression, but I won’t digress: What’s at stake for anyone interested in thought’s embodiment is écriture. Ricard writes, and—neither simply art history nor art criticism—his writing wrongs. Ostensibly, “The Radiant Child” is what some might consider an overly personal twirl by the Factory star (Kitchen; Chelsea Girls), poet (1979-1980; God with Revolver), and downtown éminence through the scenes (“communal exhibitions”; Mudd Club), modes (graffiti/tagging), and references (Warhol, Twombly) that would mark many of the soon-to-be art stars of the ’80s. But even more than being about Jean-Michel Basquiat (Ricard was the first to think about what and how his work might mean) or Keith Haring; or about graffiti and its “dyslexic development in that the second generation is capitalizing on territory pioneered by its lost innovators”; or about the slightly sickening fact that the “crass fast-turnover speculators’ market can have a deleterious effect on an artist’s future career” since “we are no longer collecting art we are buying individuals”; the essay is an attempt to theorize, via Haring’s Radiant Child, which manages to be both a tag with the “same effect as advertising” and “something so good it seems as if it’s always been there, like a proverb,” how “we are that little baby, the radiant child, and our name, what we are to become, is outside us and we must become ‘Judy Rifka’ or ‘Jean-Michel’ the way I became ‘Rene Ricard.’”

Ricard can compare “Wild Style and Plain Style” tagging to eighteenth-century Japanese calligraphy, quote a bit of the Phaedrus, riff on Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life to make a point about the vitality of Van Gogh, and it still somehow all works. But I would rather focus on Ricard’s insistence on “becoming,” his deployment of the poetry of his voice—the theoretical voice of poetry—than on the prestige of his being first and right about Basquiat and a little deluded about, say, Rifka. Unlike most art reviewing and its attendant middle-of-the-roadism, poetry is never afraid to enthuse or howl or get lost. Intimate with breath and inscription, fractal ex- and interiorities, it never forgets to put the body on the line. Ricard unleashed his voice in Artforum hot on the heels of Ingrid Sischy’s assumption of the magazine’s reins. Bright, daring, a gung-ho visual-culture gal, Sischy was everything the journal had never been—and in her late twenties. Backstory for understanding the deep rancor for her support of writing like Ricard’s is Janet Malcolm’s 1986 New Yorker profile “A Girl of the Zeitgeist.” As is well documented, a group from within Artforum’s inner circle started October; that division was, with Sischy, absolute. It came down to questions of style, aesthetics, not unpoliticized or unproblematic concerns. Malcolm quotes Sischy (pace Ricard): “It’s always been a problem, this troublesome writing we print . . . The bigger question is: How does one write about art? That’s what the magazine has been struggling with—probably quite disastrously, in the end—for twenty-two years. How does one write about something that is basically mute?”

The struggle, even if “disastrous,” is what exhilarates. The shock or emetic of beyond—art’s erotic challenge through language’s alterity—disturbs when one encounters writing that is not about tasks or making sense (although it can do this in the process) but sets up through idiosyncratic language the strange visual and nonvisual confrontation placed under the sign of “art.” Ricard is only one of the more interesting examples from Artforum’s subsequent history; Hilton Als’s “Darling,” Rhonda Lieberman’s “Revenge of the Mouse Diva,” and the critical interventions of Wayne Koestenbaum and Molly Nesbit are others.

Let such radiance, such écriture, stand as a figure for the poetic, but notice the ongoing history of the problem with it in the context of “serious” art criticism. As writing, it’s often dismissed as “not serious,” “embarrassing”—in a word, “stupid.” Substitute “art history” for “philosophy,” and Avital Ronell has recently tracked such writing’s daunting disruptions and embodiments: “Since Kant, beautiful writing has been feminized and homosexualized, as so many attacks on theory reveal (or try to conceal).” And: “The poet as genius continues to threaten and fascinate, menacing the philosopher with the beyond of knowledge. Philosophy cringes.”

A menacing radiant beyond is what I hope to experience when looking at things and what I think Ricard hoped to get into his writing about looking (whether or not there was anything there to be “seen”), while trying not only to convey why it might be important to want to experience some beyondness but also to write its radiance. Some have called love a similar blow to the body.

In this ongoing series, Artforum looks back on an essay of note from our pages ten, twenty, or thirty years ago this month.