PRINT March 2005


Steven Parrino

STEVEN PARRINO’S austere practice and straightforward approach to the art world made him a model to many of those who knew him and an influence on a wide range of artists. Following his untimely death at age 46 in a motorcycle accident early New Year’s morning, Artforum asked critic and curator Bob Nickas and sometime Parrino collaborator Jutta Koether to offer their thoughts on the late New York artist.

BOB NICKAS: I probably saw Steven Parrino’s work for the first time in 1984 at Nature Morte, the gallery Alan Belcher and Peter Nagy ran in the East Village. I’d never seen anything like it before, and it was love at first sight. A monochrome painting had been wrenched from its stretcher, the canvas pulled and distorted, then fixed back into place in a supremely frozen gesture. The folds of canvas were sensuous, like drapery, but they also suggested the crumpled body of a car after an accident. This clear sign of violence had been served up cold—the violation of painting—and reminded me of Lucio Fontana.

JUTTA KOETHER: I first saw Steven’s works at Rolf Ricke in Cologne. I remember a show in the early ’90s that involved works with references to Darby Crash and the Germs. Since I was writing for an art/music magazine, I was called in to cover it. I lost track of Steven for a few years and then ran into him one super-cold winter day in Williamsburg. We were both kind of downtrodden, a bit angry and depressed. We didn’t really know each other well, but we had this intense conversation. A strange encounter, two semistrangers talking about their lives and music at the Bedford Avenue subway stop. (I remember he mentioned that he had a synthesizer for sale.) Then, in the mid-’90s, we were in group shows at Le Consortium in Dijon and at Pat Hearn Gallery. I liked the consistency and clarity of his work—sensuality and violence at the same time, coming directly from the materials and the man. Such openness and decisiveness. I admired the way he kept his spirits up, with no fear, no compromise, no false sentiments.

BN: It’s true. Steven had a very sharp, no-nonsense mind. He always knew what he thought of something, always knew what he was going to do, how an idea should be executed. He had not a hint of indecision. As we got to know each other, we found we had a lot in common: a love for Stella’s black paintings and Warhol’s death and disasters; punk and No Wave, from the Ramones and Black Flag to James Chance and the Contortions and DNA; tabloid culture and movies, from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) to Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). His work was also influenced by subculture figures such as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Russ Meyer. He made paintings titled Tura Satana and Kitten Natividad after two of Meyer’s biggest stars. Steven appreciated that these women were sex objects who ultimately emasculated, triumphed over, the male stars.

JK: I saw him play in various band projects—for example, Blood Necklace in the mid-’90—which always had a vibe similar to his visual output: rigorous, stripped down, hard. At some point I heard that his synth had not been sold and that he was looking for somebody to make music with. It was still in his studio, and his invitation to come over immediately led to the beginning of our noise sessions and what would become the Electrophilia album Black Noise Practitioner, released on the Skul record label last November. With his work, what counted most was this interest in and care for a practice between equals, as thinkers, artists, musicians—to establish a practice that allowed you to enter a new zone, autonomous yet totally hands-on at the same time. And there was the capacity for the old ego to disappear. I liked his discipline, honesty, and respect in that practice. He believed in the power of ritual to make it all come alive, and he believed in establishing strict rules of playing together in which then-unheard intensities and extreme noise could occur. All this was done not as a “band” but as a practice.

BN: There is also the image to consider—the motorcycle, the dark glasses (even at night), the biker boots, the tough, all-black, seemingly impenetrable exterior. But this was his armor. Everyone who knew Steven well would tell you that he was the sweetest guy, a loyal friend. He had a moral code that could be intensely enforced. I remember there had been a dispute over some paintings left with an art dealer in Europe. Steven had been offered a museum show not far from this dealer’s gallery and asked for these paintings to be loaned. When he went to install the show, he promptly destroyed the works with a circular saw and a crowbar, then leaned the remains against the wall. It was a kind of nasty, sublime landscape. When the dealer came to the opening, he almost had a heart attack. I also remember Steven’s announcement in the late ’90s that he would only make silver-colored aluminum paintings and black paintings—nothing else. And he did!

JK: Once in casual conversation we discovered that we had both been working on developing a kind of “black system,” where life forces, existential and aesthetic matters, and a joyous nihilism had arrived in our lives and manifested themselves in our art. We instantly recognized that as a starting point for something, which—fueled through the noise practice and many exchanges—developed into the show “Black Bonds,” which opened at the Swiss Institute in 2002. This is from his statement “The Disorder of Black Matter”:

I want to be profoundly touched by art, by life. I came to painting at the time of its death, not to breathe its last breath, but to caress its lifelessness. The necromancy of the pietà, Pollock’s One, timed with the birth of a synthetic star, 1958 BLACK PAINTINGS, DEATH & DISASTERS, modernism at its most powerful, before the point where circuses began. / The dust clears (just barely), and I stand in my own graveyard. I hear the constant din of BLACK NOISE.

BN: His passing makes me think of his ultimate contradiction: Steven was a nihilist with a good, true heart.