Rene Ricard’s Melancholic Punch Lines

12 April, 2017

Rene Ricard was a true troublemaker. A poet, painter, essayist, and celestial bohemian, he appeared in Andy Warhol’s films and launched the careers of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. He called his own career “a cross between a butterfly and a lap dog.” His splendid and ironic metaphors transcended mediums and influenced a generation of artists by blending poetry and visual art. Though his friends were famously famous, including Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Nan Goldin, and Dash Snow (Bruce Weber wrote his obituary for the Times in 2014), he remains largely underappreciated outside the art world. Now, an exhibition at Half Gallery revisits his groundbreaking work. We sat down with gallery owner Bill Powers to talk about this underdog artist, who Bill knew very well.

“Please, hold me the forgotten way” by Rene Ricard

Bill, tell us about the drawings you brought with you today.

He did a line drawing almost in Warhol’s style, but he signed it Matisse. That was part of his humor, that he did know a lot about art history. He showed me once how he stole his signature from Renoir. There's a little bit of that prankster element to his personality. Two other pieces are just poetry. In the second stanza of one of his poems it says, "now the lights are slowly going out in the Bronx, now the lights go out one by one in Queens, love is gone and the lights are going out one by one in my heart." The last line is a painting that we'll have in our new show. Over here is a little short poem he wrote on an old B. Altman box top, which was like an old Lord and Taylor or what Barney's might've been back in the day. I love the color of this box top. It has kind of a gold shimmy to it. It says, “then the judge, then the judge said to my father why did you shoot him again? My father replied to the judge I didn't want to see him suffer.” Again, it's that weird wit. It's kind of sad but it's also the absurdity of life and seeing some of that humor in it.

Do you think he was self-conscious and aware of that?

Yeah, it's interesting to see how some people have an awareness of what their art will look like after they're gone. When he writes something like, “I'll never be old, I'll be young and then one day I'll be gone,” it's as if he's writing that looking into the future, us reading it after he’s gone. He has another painting that I love with a bit of text that says, “but the road that ought to have brought me back was too long.” It's a skeleton on a road. as if he just couldn't make it back.

Why mount this show? Why does Rene Ricard fascinate you?

You come to New York because you want to meet all these characters and then you find so many homogenized people. It can be a little bit disappointing at times. Rene was a true Renaissance man. I remember one of the last times I went to go visit him in the hospital, I brought him flowers. He said, now you know these are also called Hortense, which was named after Napoleon's step-daughter. Then we had a whole conversation about the origin of the name of these flowers. I love that he was still teaching and educating even on his deathbed.

“Love I did the homework, but flunked the exam” by Rene Ricard

He really was one of the original New York bohemians.

He lived in the Chelsea Hotel so that's a little magic. He was staying on his friend's couch. What a true bohemian! You walk around Williamsburg and see the look. Here's a guy that in his 60s who was still rolling his own cigarettes and sleeping on a friend's couch. The room that he stayed in is where Arthur Clarke was alleged to have written 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you believe in any of that associative magic, that was very much attached to Rene. He knew Warhol, was in Warhol films with Edie Sedgwick. He told stories about Jimi Hendrix or Lou Reed. He was just this creature of the 20th century who somehow had managed to survive into the next century.

Can you tell us a little about his discoveries?

He discovered Basquiat. His first Art Forum cover story was “The Radiant Child,” which was about Jean-Michel Basquiat. If you see Basquiat the movie, all the voice-over in that is Rene's writing that they took from that essay and Julian used for the movie. Then in the second Art Forum cover story, Rene wrote an article called, “Not About Julian Schnabel,” which was of course all about Julian Schnabel. He was definitely an early champion of Julian and Keith Haring.

But he started as a poet, yes?

He did. In the last show that we had uptown after Rene passed, we had his first text painting that he ever made in 1978 that originally belonged to David Armstrong. Then David sold it to Ryan McGinley when he was sick, so now Ryan McGinley owns it. Rene lived in a building on East 12th Street, with Allen Ginsberg, Luc Sante, Richard Hell, and Richard Prince, until Rene started a fire in his apartment and got evicted. I guess Rene’s famous book would be the DIA Catalog of Poems.

“So... Who left who?” by Rene Ricard

And he was also a bit of a troublemaker too…

Yeah, I mean Rene definitely loved drama and pitting people against each other. I don't know if people will be familiar with the Boston School, where you had Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Mark Morrisroe and then a few years later Phillip Lorca diCorcia. Jack Pierson was also in that mix. All of those people came from Boston to New York. So did Rene. He fell in with that crowd, although he used a different medium which was writing and painting. Ultimately he ended up in the same scene, but no matter what the medium, he would transcend it. He could tell you the history of book binding or where this lamp was from and who made the first leather couch in Europe. He had this well of knowledge. These days, you think about all the technology and we have the Internet. You can look at anything, and people don't know anything.

He was a flamboyant character too. I remember seeing him at an opening.

When we did a show downtown in 2009, Rene said to me, “they'll never review me until I'm dead.” It was kind of true, but he didn't do himself any favors. I remember he did a show in Chelsea and The New Yorker did a “Talk of the Town” piece, but Rene was so high that he didn't even bother going to his own dinner afterwards. I think he was a little bit of a live-wire like that. I know the New York Times reviewed our show uptown after he had died and so did Art Forum. The writer from the Times said he always kind of scared me in person. I think that did prevent him from getting his due in his own lifetime because people were nervous, like if I write something — even if it's good — is this guy going to come physically attack me? Maybe they were right.

Yeah, he had a stage persona almost, very lively, with his shades and looks.

He was just such a hustler. When he was in the hospital, he didn't want people to know that he was really sick because he was in litigation with the Chelsea Hotel, which was trying to evict him. He was trying to get a payout from them. I thought anyone who's on their death bed isn't going to still be engaged in this kind of hustle. I just love that he was still doing that dance right up until the end. I think the very last thing he ever asked of me, was if I could go downstairs to the newspaper stand and buy him a Payday candy bar.

How would you describe his use of text and image?

I think it was a way for him to elevate a line of text. A lot of times you have a long poem, and one line can get lost in the prose. I think it was almost a way of underlining something in public: to take this one line and put it on a painting.

“The darkest day” Rene Ricard

How do you think he came to that idea?

I wonder if he had seen some of that with Basquiat who obviously would incorporate writing into his painting. I'm not sure of the origin. I know that he was a great draftsmen and he had an amazing hand and actually could draw and paint. That's why in the last two shows that we've done I've wanted to make sure that we didn't just have thrift-store paintings that he had done text over, but paintings that he had done start to finish so people can really appreciate him as a painter.

The prose he paints is very touching. There's a bit of humor to it, and irony.

Lola Schnabel owns my favorite painting of Rene's. She's had it since she was 16. It's a landscape scene and the text over it says, “God, don't let me cry on the subway.” It speaks again to the absurdity of life and you know, we're all living our private lives in public in New York. I'm hoping that Rene can be remembered as one of the great poets of the late ’70s, early ’80s in New York. If you went to any of his memorials or his funeral, there was the writer Eileen Myles who got up at his funeral and said, “you know at the end, Rene and I weren't speaking, so maybe we were friends.” I think that was kind of everyone's experience with Rene at some point.

He transcended all these different mediums without grasping one that would catch a critic's attention really. He was never in a box…

But maybe there's a little magic in that. Not that he's in the tradition of a Ray Johnson, but Ray Johnson had a little bit of that pranksterism. There's no one masterpiece by Ray Johnson had, yet any serious art historian would recognize his significance to the 20th century. Similarly, it's hard to really pinpoint one thing that was Rene’s genius. I think Rene falls on the spectrum somewhere between Jack Smith, Christopher Wool and Dash Snow. That same kind of hero, an artist artist. Rene joked that if he ever was going to write his memoirs, he was going to title it “How to Break In to the Underground Movies,” because who wants to? That's nothing anyone aspires to. It's almost like a consolation prize.

Bill Powers in the Chandelier library with the three Rene Ricard artworks. Photo: AS.

Words by The Editors.

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