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PRINT May 2014

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Rene Ricard

Rene Ricard, New York City, July 29, 1986. Photo: Allen Ginsberg.

FOR THE LIFE OF ME, I can’t remember exactly when or where I first met Rene Ricard. But it had to have been sometime in the spring of 1981 that our editorial bond was forged. Bets are I hooked up with Rene, in one way or another, through Edit deAk, the first writer I’d brought to Artforum when I stepped in as editor with the February 1980 issue; back then, deAk’s antenna for changes and breakthroughs in art and the discussions around it, particularly in the contemporary American-European nexus, was like lightning’s attraction to metal. She could zap it like no one else. “A Chameleon in a State of Grace,” her wide-ranging piece on Francesco Clemente, published in the February 1981 issue of Artforum, caused a buzz, especially among younger artists; of course, the reigning establishments were horrified. Not Rene. DeAk’s article was the first thing that Rene and I talked about. He said we needed to go on the record about Julian Schnabel’s work next. Note the we, as if we were already partners, when I had just met him minutes ago. No matter, I was in.

How could I not want to go on a dangerous mission with him? Eyes with sensory and electrical impulses that always reminded me of a camera’s aperture. One minute you saw something light-filled and charming in them; the next they were darting around, globes in a skirmish with life. By the time I met him, his Factory days were over, but Rene’s charisma was not lost on Andy Warhol, who cast him in Kitchen (1965) and Chelsea Girls (1966), among other films. For my money, though, this poet, critic, painter, was born to play a thief and a priest. He could fake other people’s art almost convincingly, and had a definite moral compass. From the moment we pledged to do the Schnabel piece, we were glued together by the work. It was only a matter of days before Rene started showing up with the bits and pieces he was building into the article, which would eventually be called “Not About Julian Schnabel” and would be published a couple of months later, in the summer of 1981.

Rene’s independence was fierce and never for sale; it and his red Olivetti typewriter, a proud possession, his few artworks that he’d received as gifts, and his poems were pretty much all he had. He put his time in at the Chelsea Hotel, but during the period when he wrote for the magazine, he lived here and there in borrowed flats, mostly thanks to the respect and affection of close pals. Rene’s Artforum pieces were not written in order for him to climb any academic ladders, or get tenure, or for the usual career enhancements. I quote from one of my favorite of his poems:

All you sycophants and grant hustlers.
I will never chase the rich again. Let me starve.
I will never apply for a grant. Let me starve.
I must look out for my biography. After all,
I may be a pariah but I am still and always
Will be a living legend. I’d rather starve.

I hold sacred what goes on between a writer and an editor during the process of creating a work, and I will never spill what happens in that “room of our own.” But I can say that Rene’s critical essays were constructed the way he might lay out a poem: not necessarily in chronological order, eventually put together the way a builder might go at a house, brick by brick. The two best-known essays from our period of working together at Artforum were written barely a year apart: “The Radiant Child,” starring Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, graffiti, that moment, van Gogh, and so much more, was published in December 1981; “The Pledge of Allegiance” appeared in the November 1982 issue, which bore a camouflage logo and a picture of an industrial typewriter on its cover. Here Rene was making a pledge to an attitude, as well as to artists including Futura 2000, Basquiat, and the poet Duncan Smith, and also to Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery. He meant it. I quote from his pledge: “I have made my liaisons in print and as these artists’ fortunes rise and fall so do mine. I will be forever in league with them, and if they slip I’ll look like hell. I have championed them. I’ve pledged allegiance, I’ve signed my name, and there my reputation sits.”

Rene could be wild. There was one patch while he was working on “The Pledge of Allegiance” when he basically asked me to save him from himself. He wanted to hunker down and write but was worried that when the sun went down, temptation would get the better of him, and he’d hit the clubs, taking God knows what while he was at it. So he gave me the keys to the apartment he was borrowing, and I’d show up every day to check on him. Our exchange: He’d hand over whatever paragraphs or pages he’d come up with, and I’d bring a little feast for him to celebrate his progress. I’m sure I got the better end of the deal.

There was only one time that Rene scared me; it was my fault. I’d been asked to choose a group of Artforum writers to speak at a little symposium on art writing at Books and Company, then a mecca for meetings between New York’s literary world and its art world, and only a few doors down from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Rene was among the panelists that evening. I could tell he was amped on something, maybe moonshine, maybe something more illegal, or perhaps just pure Ricard juice, before he went on, so I cautioned him to watch what he said. Big mistake. He went on to insult a number of people in the room, including calling an art dealer who was present by her primate nickname. The sense of shock was palpable, but that just egged Rene on. I should have known better than to try and tame him. I had never attempted to before, and I never did again. Why mess with his refusal to censor himself? It was a gift.

Ingrid Sischy is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair US and international editor of Vanity Fair France, Vanity Fair Italy, and Vanity Fair Spain. She was previously the editor of Interview and of Artforum.