PRINT March 2003

The Poets: Edit deAk and Rene Ricard

IN “ART ATTACKS! HEAVY VOLLEY AT AESTHETIC FOLLY,” a special supplement to the September 29, 1981, SoHo Weekly News, Rosalind Krauss opined, “In its most recent incarnation, Artforum announced its determination to . . . let ‘art speak for itself.’ . . . And so artists and poets write for Artforum a kind of cheerfully incontinent, incantatory assertion of self and selves.” Krauss doesn’t name the perpetrators, but Artforum readers would likely have recognized Rene Ricard and Edit deAk as the prime suspects. Ricard, a poet, had recently published a highly personal panegyric to Julian Schnabel, and in the same issue of Artforum that called for art “to speak for itself” deAk had written, “The presence of art directly in a magazine could be like a bass drum, a thumping insistence that could lock the whole enterprise onto a meaningful track.” (Krauss clearly felt the incantatory “thump,” but the meaning in “meaningful” was up for grabs.) As punishment for their crimes against the discourse, Ricard and deAk didn’t follow their theoretically minded contemporaries into the anthologies and syllabi that today tell the story of the art criticism of the ’80s. Whether or not that’s a historical injustice is a matter for debate. However, in their day Ricard and deAk occupied indisputably prominent positions in the art press, inspiring their colleagues’ admiration and bemusement, as well as the contempt Krauss so pointedly demonstrated. Theirs was an idiosyncratic and deeply felt brand of “criticism,” with all the ambiguity the quotation marks imply.

“In point of fact I’m not an art critic. I’m an enthusiast,” Ricard declared in the Summer 1981 issue of Artforum. “I like to drum up interest in artists who have somehow inspired me to be able to say something about their work.” Three years earlier, Ricard had described his vocation somewhat differently in a New York Times op-ed piece on the joys of the jobless life: “I’ve never worked a day in my life. If I did it would probably ruin my career, which at the moment is something of a cross between a butterfly and a lap dog.” At the moment, Ricard—a former Factory habitué who had appeared in Warhol’s Chelsea Girls—could also have claimed to be a poet as well as a writer for Art in America, where he occasionally published short reviews of exhibitions from 1977 to 1979. Among these early pieces, a 1978 review of Billy Sullivan’s drawings demonstrates Ricard’s poetic sensibility and his knack for seeing a work of art in relation to a particular social milieu, a skill that served him well in the feverish ’80s art scene. His wry claim that Sullivan had mastered the “difficult color, basic-black” was as much a formal judgment as a social one, perfectly keyed to Sullivan’s subjects, the “denizens of a particular brand of magazine society—the people who get into discotheques for free.”

Ricard’s art writing hit its stride in his 1979 Art in America review of Schnabel’s first show of plate paintings, which began with an almost biblical pronouncement: “There comes a point in a painter’s life where civilization abandons him.” Never mind the fact that the painter in question was all of twenty-eight years old or that the market couldn’t get enough of him—Ricard sensed the greatness of Schnabel’s self-inflicted heroism. The poet bet the farm on the painter in his 1981 follow-up essay “Not About Julian Schnabel,” which marked his move to Artforum, where he would publish for the next several years. “Consumed by the omnivorous maw” of Schnabel’s “pictorial machine,” Ricard breathlessly proclaimed that the painter had “created an art world” and occupied its center. For better or worse, Ricard was probably right, and his claim epitomized the heady enthusiasm that defined the ’80s for so many critics who, like him, had been haunted by their own sense of belatedness during the previous decade. “I missed the Abstract Expressionists,” Ricard wrote, “and I wasn’t here for the beginnings of Pop art and afterwards everything seemed to’ve split up and now we have it here again and I am part of it and I am finally seeing it happen before my very eyes.”

This exaggerated sense of timeliness may be just what a critic needs to capture the mood of a moment, and Ricard certainly made the most of it. In his 1981 essay “The Radiant Child,” he waxed poetic over the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, while his article “The Pledge of Allegiance” contained sprawling early appreciations of East Village personality-cum-dealer Patti Astor, spray paint master Futura 2000, fluorescentophile Kenny Scharf, and other rising stars of the downtown scene, circa 1982. Often, Ricard’s observations about new art betrayed great wit and insight (“If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption it would be Jean-Michel”). But, more important for audiences today, his essays read like explosive time capsules of the ’80s, crammed full of the masterworks and detritus that caught his slightly frantic eye. Ricard’s “I,” in fact, was the guiding force behind his prose, and he wrote in unabashedly self-centered terms about art’s emotional effect on “the viewer (me).” Today that parenthetical “me” still jumps off the page—a coy unmasking of the ubiquitous “viewer” so often invoked by critics to disguise their personal experiences as universal ones.

Ricard had no use for such art-critical drag: “Why bother. I have too great an urge to take off my clothes in public.” A raconteur and exhibitionist at heart, he described the art world and his place in it with a candor both mesmerizing and repellent in the intimacy of its often sordid detail. He was on a first-name basis with “Jean-Michel,” “Julian,” and “Brice,” and he called paintings “pictures” in the old-fashioned, aristocratic manner, not the newly theoretical one. In “Not About Julian Schnabel” we learn of Ricard’s fight with Mary Boone Gallery over exclusive rights to publish one of Schnabel’s images. After the incident he vowed never to write about anyone in the gallery’s stable again and willfully ignored a painter (Gary Stephan) he would otherwise have liked to cover. In “The Pledge of Allegiance,” Ricard tells readers that he earned two thousand dollars from the Stedelijk Museum for a Schnabel essay before cynically adding, “And you know what? I never even got to see the show. The trip would have taken the pay. That, kids, is the establishment.”

Although these anecdotes can be a bit distasteful in their narcissism—to say nothing of their morals—Ricard deserves credit for puncturing the seamless critical verbiage that typically veils the commercial workings of the art business. His recurring concern with how a painting might hang in a collector’s home was (and remains) an unusual preoccupation in a critical context that ordinarily treats artworks as though they were encountered in a vacuum (a Schnabel in a dining room, he wrote, “made a complete mockery of the usual niceties of sitting at table”). Though different in tone, Ricard’s attention to the social context within which art is made and seen shared much with Robert Pincus-Witten’s diaries in Arts as well as with sometimes highly confessional diatribes of Jeff Perrone in the same magazine. Yet neither of these writers rivaled Ricard’s flair for flair or his singular status as the insider’s outsider.

The only writer who might have challenged Ricard for that title was deAk. “DeAk has been everywhere before anybody,” William Zimmer commented in a SoHo Weekly News review of a group show she organized, and her writing and occasional curatorial efforts would seem to corroborate the claim. A founding editor of the ’70s underground magazine Art-Rite, the Hungarian-born deAk had been a presence in the art press for years, but she jumped to the front of Artforum in February 1980, the first issue under Ingrid Sischy’s editorial direction. It was in that issue that deAk made her plea for art’s direct presence in the press, a passion she had nurtured at Art-Rite and one that Sischy would take up in her prolific publication of artists’ projects. Like Ricard, deAk was deeply sensitive to an artwork’s cultural context and emotional timbre, which often perfumed her frenetic prose. This approach differed dramatically from a still-lingering Greenbergian formalism of which she complained: “Always seeing itself in terms of ‘problems,’ much contemporary art has had both hypochondria and an allergy to itself.” DeAk was equally dismissive of the new strain of theoretically sophisticated criticism that had gained currency in the early ’80s. “There’s something rotten about a structure that produces terminological pollution and calls it theory, like a mob-controlled waste disposal company,” she wrote. “These semiotician types intimidate through applying more expensive designer labels. It’s a means of holding onto power (by sequestering information), like the doctor’s wife who intimidates her friends by naming common illnesses with their Latin names.”

In contrast to this “hypochondriac” art with its Latin diagnoses, deAk celebrated a kind of artistic onanism and critical decadence in her first major Artforum essay, a 1981 analysis of Francesco Clemente titled “A Chameleon in a State of Grace” (a phrase so oddly pitch-perfect that the Guggenheim used it twenty years later in press materials for the artist’s retrospective). The article, peppered with marginalia drawn by the artist himself, aptly distinguished Clemente’s relationship to his sources from that of many contemporary American figurative painters. For deAk, the Americans were “Puritans at base,” their images “coming from dark movie houses, TV sets and newspapers,” a phrase that aptly describes the media sources of many New Image painters or artists in Thomas Lawson’s fold. She found their paintings “short in sentience of texture,” when compared with the canvases of young Italians more “free to draw their dreams . . . their allegories . . . their heritage.” It was within this relatively unencumbered “state of grace” that deAk situated Clemente’s embrace of art history and his own libidinal preoccupations: “He attends to his visual culture and tradition, roaming that scenic road in any direction. He is foot-loose in time, culture and metaphor. . . . Nuancical kinkiness, whimsicality, unruliness—all are like excess circles around him, and generate that field of charming licentiousness.”

Although typical of her style, deAk’s essay on Clemente stood outside her all-consuming preoccupation: the art of the street. “My interest in street art is in the insane amount of new information,” she commented in a 1982 interview in Real Life Magazine. “Maybe it looks like shit: primitive, infantile, badly done, crumpled, rumpled, crappy, tacky, raunchy, unconscious, whatever.“ ”But the information level of some of these images, messages and even the look itself is what none of the art-world artists I know have been able to come up with.” DeAk shared Ricard’s taste for the tags of graffiti bombers, and her knowledge of art from “unheated basements” and “under the street” was unequaled in the mainstream art press of the early ’80s—a time when alternative organizers such as Fashion/Moda and Colab gained increasing recognition in print and collectors clamored for graffiti art across the East Village.

Yet the critical acceptance deAk helped engineer was in some ways a pyrrhic victory. The art she considered “information from the middle of the night” had a vampiric tendency to lose its power once brought to light in the press or subjected to the incandescent glare of the gallery scene. Her feverish 1983 Artforum account of graffiti bomber–turned–Wild Style artist and performer Rammellzee subtly demonstrates this dilemma. At one moment, she insists on seeing his work within its original street context, writing that “taking him out of that [graffiti] heritage is like saying to the Sun King ‘listen, I don’t think you should be talking so much about being French.’” Yet just two pages later, deAk submits bits of his work to a practically Morellian stylistic analysis, with neatly rendered lines pointing out the “corner launcher extender” and “whip launcher arrow.” DeAk’s nod to connoisseurship was meant to explain, not to tame, Rammellzee’s art; but it indicates the extent to which all manner of “street art” was necessarily haunted by its own critical and commercial success. DeAk became acutely aware of this problem, as she indicated on more than one occasion, putting it best in her last major piece, in April 1984, for Artforum: “How long can you be an outlaw before the clash of context ceases to spark off its own meanings?” When deAk raised this question in 1984, time was clearly running out.

In the charged atmosphere of the ’80s art press, deAk and Ricard won as many points for style as penalties for boosterism. Peter Schjeldahl referred to the “sweet delirium” of deAk’s “inimitable writing style,” while in 1984 Dan Cameron wrote approvingly in Arts that “Ricard was able to match social nuances to higher truths with such delicacy that he made criticism a more creative act than it had been for years.” But their poetic partisanship was also vulnerable to charges of critical spinelessness, as Lawson made clear in Artforum: “Rene Ricard . . . has offered petulant self-advertisement in the name of a reactionary expressionism, a celebration of the author’s importance as a champion of the debasement of art to kitsch, fearful that anything more demanding might be no fun. The writing was mostly frivolous, but noisy, and must be considered a serious apologia for a certain anti-intellectual elite.” DeAk attracted similar derision from Perrone in the September 1981 issue of Arts, who cited “Not About Julian Schnabel” and “A Chameleon in a State of Grace” as examples of “high art public relations endorsements,” signaling a “reversal of critical priorities.” “On the whole, deAk (and Ricard) don’t seem interested in argument,” Perrone lamented. “The writing serves as a plea for appreciation.” While these criticisms are to a certain extent well founded, it’s important not to throw the radiant child out with the bathwater. The art writing of the early ’80s was undoubtedly made richer by deAk’s and Ricard’s voices, and they fit squarely in a freewheeling critical lineage that extends backward toward critics like Gene Swenson and Gregory Battcock and forward toward authors as diverse as Bruce Hainley, Charlie Finch, and Dave Hickey (whom deAk praised in print in 1982). All things considered, it may be for the best that Ricard and deAk eluded latter-day anthologies and syllabi. Like graffiti art in a museum, their work would surely have lost some of its potent charge—and guilty pleasure.

Scott Rothkopf is an art historian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.