New York

Rene Ricard, Enlightenment, 2010, acrylic and marker on canvas, 27 × 20".

Rene Ricard, Enlightenment, 2010, acrylic and marker on canvas, 27 × 20".

Rene Ricard

Half Gallery @ 16 Morton Street

Rene Ricard, Enlightenment, 2010, acrylic and marker on canvas, 27 × 20".

This past February, Rene Ricard, the hard-living art-world personality, died at the age of sixty-seven. He was too many things to pigeonhole solely as a poet, though the poems in Rene Ricard, 1979–1980, a slim volume of confessional free verse bound in glossy turquoise like a Tiffany catalogue, leave little doubt as to what his true vocation was.

Flying the colors of the maudit adolescent aesthete (Arthur Rimbaud meets Raymond Radiguet), the Boston-born Ricard arrived in New York City in 1964 and was quickly absorbed into the world of Warhol’s Silver Factory, where—unsurprisingly—he added his own transgressive stardom to that cavalcade of underground superstars. In the 1980s, he wrote stream-of-consciousness essays for Artforum, notably defending the work of the young Julian Schnabel (whose painting would provide the neo-expressionist template for Ricard’s own) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (whom he famously dubbed “the Radiant Child,” though, in fact, the eponymous icon was Keith Haring’s invention). In his writing and speech, Ricard adopted the ever-axiomatic épater le bourgeois as a fundamental tenet of faith, miming the tics of 1940s film divas—Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, to mention a few—and the catchphrases lifted from their scripts or the imagined lines they might have uttered. Such phrases could often be found in his “poem paintings,” as in one such work, in which, quoting Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944), the words . . . JUST PUT YOUR LIPS TOGETHER + BLOW are scrawled upon a mechanical reproduction of the 1871 painting Whistler’s Mother. Such mannerisms were kale and quinoa to Ricard’s ongoing theater of the ridiculous—think Ronald Tavel, Charles Ludlam, Jack Smith, the Cockettes, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Divine. Maintaining the ironies of this grand drag-queen tradition, Ricard, aflutter with imaginary feathers, would make studied entrances to premier art exhibitions. To steal the fire of truly famous or accomplished persons, catty witticism became second nature—though, often enough, his paintings end up as little more than one-line gags: GORE VIDAL IS BI-SEXUAL / HIS BOYFRIEND SLEEPS WITH GIRLS reads a particularly Schnabelian poem painting.

Still, except for the camp, there was little that was feminine about Ricard. Quite the contrary—the mode of Christopher Street leather clone more naturally suited his steely, shrill discourtesies, his tough carapace encysting the privations of a hardscrabble childhood and those of an often ill-starred adult life. The earliest dated work in the show, The Archaic Smile, 1978, features text that begins IT’S THE WEEK BEFORE XMAS / I’VE JUST BEEN EVICTED. And his mythos waxes.

This memorial exhibition included thirteen poem paintings, several of them featuring aphoristic inscriptions on found, junk-store canvases. Such amateur paintings, mostly small portraits or landscapes, were once abundant in the secondhand stores of the then still slum East Village. The East Village artist, in incorporating these paintings into his or her work, reinforced an aggrandizing sense of solidarity with the marginal status and blighted anonymity of the original hobbyist. That the canvases were pre-grounded made the painting process that much easier.

The poem painting is a venerable modernist strategy rooted in the picture poems of Guillaume Apollinaire, taken up by the Surrealists, notably Miró, and extending unto the hilarity of Cary Leibowitz’s abject confessions. By the 1980s, this mode was East Village cliché, but the revivifying sting of Ricard’s well-honed wit staved off any staleness. One such work, made in 1990, reads BLOW JOB / 5¢ / W / LIPSTICK / 25 ¢. By contrast, another painting provided a rare occasion for Ricard to actually present himself as beautiful. Enlightenment, 2010, depicts a young dandy smoking a cigarette, about whose head Ricard has scrolled a halo: the artist as saintly fashion plate.

Still, while such striking transcriptions underscore the divine amateurishness of Ricard’s work, he was no painter born—unless the self-mythologizing turf twixt tweet and selfie is admitted as a legitimate painterly trope. Which, in a certain sense, is the case today. Clearly, if the confines of one’s world are circumscribed by the Silver Factory and the E! channel’s red carpet, well, then such an aesthetic allowance has already been seamlessly conceded.

That he may have made as many as 150 poem paintings underscores Ricard’s ambition to be a painter—yet quantity trumps quality. At the same instant, he is a kind of success as a visual artist, his works saved by their memorializing effect, their power to restore the freshness of a moment of shifting tastes, the early ’80s, quite in the way that a fading, camera-generated photograph does—that is, as a quaint souvenir, like a book. (A what?)

Robert Pincus-Witten