Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Rene Ricard

I met Rene Ricard in 2002 when he came to give a lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I was a student. Ambitious young artist and writer that I was, I set up an interview with him. Instead of a brief chat, I was pulled into his frenetic world. I only spent a short week with him, but it was a life changing experience, something I suspect happened with almost everyone whose life intersected with his. Rene (no accent mark!) passed away in early February.

Rene in 2003 • Nancy Smith, artnet

“The clubs were just filled with all these... ‘Young geniuses.’ Of course that’s all gone now. The whole art world is dead. No one goes to the clubs anymore, there’s nothing interesting happening.”

“But maybe–not to be brash.”

“Oh, please, be brash.”

“Not to be brash.”

“Yes, yes, get on with it.”

“Maybe you just don’t know where any of the good clubs are.”

“Yes, yes, I’m old and boring and nobody loves me. I don’t get invited to any of the good parties. Is that what you mean, you little bitch?” Gasps, silence and then laughter. Rene Ricard takes a drag from his unfiltered Camel cigarette, one of many he’s been chain-smoking throughout his lecture. “…Or whatever you are?” Holds the fag daintily and gently taps the ash off. “Or did I hit the nail right on the head?”


In the early 1960s, when Rene was seventeen he saw one of the Warhol Flower paintings at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. He stared at it until the museum closed; he’d been sitting there for three hours. After that he immediately went to New York and joined the Factory. He had a Screen Test, he was in Chelsea Girls and he was one of Warhol’s Superstars.

Rene Ricard (left) with Andy Warhol (center) during the Factory days • photo via Hotel Chelsea Blog

“Can I ask you a gossipy question?”

“Oh No! Gossip. No, go ahead. But just one.”

“So can you talk about the fight you had with Andy?” I asked.

“We had so many! Ha!”

“I mean when he did those Shadow paintings.”

“Oh god, those were so horrible, I absolutely loathed them.”

“I know; you got in a big fight at a dinner. And Andy, in his diaries said how he was so embarrassed...”

“You know the funny thing about that is that it’s all true. He used to call up Pat Hackett every day and tell her everything.”

“He said his face was red. That he was so embarrassed because everyone saw ‘the real me.’ I was amazed. You brought out the real Andy, Rene.”

“You see, the important thing about those diaries is that Andy would call up Pat and tell her what happened and she would write it down, verbatim. It’s incredible. It’s the most accurate social document.”

At this point we were taking the sad walk from Rene’s suite in the Silversmith to the subway station, which would carry him to the airport and back to New York. When a friend and I were with him in his room he said that when he got on the plane Chicago would disappear.

“You see Andy and I had a VERY complicated relationship. I mean here I was, this 18-year-old boy. This 17-year-old boy. And, well. Andy had a crush on me. And I thought, well, you know I thought. I... I just couldn’t do it. Just because anyway…

And all that stuff about Andy being asexual just isn’t true, because I saw him having sex.”


“Yeah, I know. But he kept it well hidden. He was very clever in that way.  You see, back then homosexuals posed an enormous threat to the male art world. If you were a homosexual, you would just plateau. And the critics would, well; it’s just much better to be a eunuch. There’s all that history.”

“And it’s much more romantic.”

“Yes, the wondrous god coming down from the sky with all the knowledge.”

Bartolomeo Manfredi • Cupid Chastised • 1613
oil on canvas 69 x 51 3/8 inches • The Art Institute of Chicago

The Visiting Artists Program was in a cramped little office above the cafeteria and just off a small, dark attic lounge where students had sex on filthy love seats. Rene and the Director, Romi Crawford, were looking at a website that someone made in his honor, collecting many of his poems and other writing, when I came in to meet him. There was a black and white picture of him. It was strange because you could tell it been taken in the past, but in it he looked much older than he did now, like it was him in the future. “I think that’s a good look for you,” she said turning from the picture to Rene. “Romi!” he said, “That was my crack cocaine phase!”

I accompanied him to the museum. He wanted to look at the Ingres drawings and an appointment had been made in the prints and drawings room. When we walked in he exclaimed, “It’s me!” I thought he was announcing his presence, but he was talking about an Alex Katz print that was his portrait. They had pulled it out just for him. He pointed out that, “Alex is the only person who paints eyelashes.” Then he went to les Ingres. He was most interested in the portraits with the Venetian landscapes in the background.

One of the prints and drawings people brought up David Hockney’s theory, “Did Ingres really use the camera lucida?”

“No, no way.” Rene instantly referred to the drawings themselves.

“Look at the erasures there. There’s too much erasures. Later in life Ingres did daguerreotypes, as a photographic reference. And he hid those like mad, but it still got out that he used them. So there’s just no way he would have been able to keep it a secret. Actually, It was the early photographers that were trying to copy Ingres, not the other way round. They were finding his pictures and trying to do it like he did.”

He noticed a bit of oil with a slight halo around it on one of the drawings. What was the restoration history, he wanted to know. The prints and drawings person didn’t know, she was an intern and had just started.

Rene knew who everyone was in the drawings. This was his friend a composer, this was so-and-so’s wife. He got a magnifying glass. “Look, look,” he said, “see how he gives us choices for the edge?” pointing out the several contours implying the edge of a face. “You don’t do that with a camera lucida. Look at that face, he really makes it full, it’s not a line, it’s the edge, that face is a head, it doesn’t just stop, it keeps going around the cheek.”

We looked at how Ingres merely uses a few bits of line and you get the whole brickwork of a bridge. There were full figure portraits, with tiny meticulous faces, amazingly rendered hair and delicate landscapes in the distance. “Look at all the problems with the feet, his ankle should line up with the indentation below the Adam’s apple, but it doesn’t. It makes it look like he’s pitching forward. But he sure could draw faces huh?” And there were slightly larger ones. A friend’s wife, done when Ingres was in his 80’s and a piano layer. “He must have done it while he was playing the piano, look, look! There’s a motion line, just like in the cartoons. You can see all the possibilities for hands. And look at this,” he said in a raunchy way, referring to the extremely loose bits around the body.

“How great it is.”

Then we left.

The first thing he said when we got outside was, “I can’t believe they stuck me with the fucking intern. I’m a celebrity.”

Peter Paul Rubens • The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis • 1636 • oil on panel • 10 5/8 x 16 3/4 inches • The Art Institute of Chicago

We went to look at the older paintings; that’s what he was really interested in. He wanted to see "the Chastisement of Cupid," he was calling it by the name of the guy who painted it, "the Bartolomeo Manfredi." We started in the room with the de Zurbarán. “He paints from black, all these artist do. It’s great, you can see it when the pigments on top crack,” he said pointing to the note tacked at the bottom of the cross. Nobody can do white like de Zubarán. Then there’s the Assumption of the Virgin (1577–79) by El Greco, which is horribly lit and you can never see it.

“It’s really a great thing that they got it here.”

Except it’s like that don’t have it, because you can’t see it,” I said.

“Churches aren’t like this, they were never meant to be seen in this light. And that gold leaf altar around it is just god-awful. Look at all that wasted gold leaf!”

Rene explained how the Met tried to get this El Greco, but somehow Chicago pulled through and they worked it out and that was quite an impressive thing. Rene was quite impressed with the Art Institute, how it holds such great works by such rare artists. Or a rare good painting by an otherwise bad painter. “This museum is really world class, it’s not provincial at all.”

As a kid Rene loved to go to the museum. When it was announced that the class wouldn’t be going to the baseball park, but the art museum for a fieldtrip, he would be the only happy kid. Even as a kid he knew exactly what he would buy with a million dollars, a Vermeer, even though they already cost two million dollars. He maintained that youthful exuberance for art all his life.

He spotted a Coreggio across the room and raced up to it. In one breath explaining the whole of it. As much as he could fill you up on 1980’s gossip, he could tell you about the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Rococo and so on.

Always look at paintings on copper, such as Virgin and Child Admired by St. Francis (1606/7) by Francesco Albani. Paintings on copper maintain the richness of pigment that canvas sucks up. You can always tell with green. Green is a fugitive and unstable pigment, if you have a good green, then you can rest assured that what you see is pretty close to what it looked like the day it was painted. The paint cracks and flakes off, and that’s what makes oil on copper so rare, so whenever you come across a painting on copper pay close attention.

Poussin “painted from orange”–meaning he used an orange ground–that’s why his blue skies are so amazing. He pointed out the French tendency to simplify nature. “Look at this painting, it’s all cones and cylinders. There’s even a sphere right in the center.”

“So it’s no surprise that Cezanné came up with what he did. I mean look at that Poussin, it looks like a View of Mt. St. Victoire!”

No one knows how Rubens made his paint; it’s a mystery. It just doesn’t behave like paint should. Look at Rubens’s student Jacob Jordaens’s Temptation of the Magdalene (c. 1616/17) as an example. Rubens’s St. Francis (c. 1615) on panel, “It’s a shame, it’s been cleaned to nothing.” Rene was adept at catching restoration and cleaning, from explaining the polishing of Roman marble, to how cleaned paintings get completely scraped to the underpainting, and how awful it is that they transfer paintings from a panel support to canvas.

There was a Rubens oil sketch, Wedding of Peleus and Thetis 1636), made with only red and brown. Rene pointed out how he’s made yellow with just a little sienna and white and how Rubens tricks us into seeing dark, dark blues.

Fragment of a Painted Wall • mid-1st century A.D. • Roman • plaster & pigment • 19 1/8 x 18 7/8 x 3 1/8 inches
Lent by the Field Museum of Natural History • The Art Institute of Chicago


We were supposed to eat lunch in the nice restaurant upstairs, but there was a wait and Rene wanted to get back to the museum. So we went to the cafeteria in the basement. He was happy to have me along, but did not want to do a formal interview. “Rene Ricard doesn’t do interviews,” he’d stated flatly. It was at lunch that he said, “Here’s your quote: ‘Criticizing and making fun of art you hate is easy. Writing about good art is hard without sounding like a press agent.’”

In researching him for the interview, I read everything he’d written that I could get my hands on. He wrote a catalog essay on Phillip Taffe, which was really about Roman frescoes. He told he totally hated Phillip Taffe’s work, but they paid him an “ungodly sum” to write an essay, so he just wrote about what he felt like, which happened to be Roman frescoes.

They still don’t know how it was done to this day. The frescoes “glimmer and shine, which is something that frescoes just don’t do.” And that’s not a result of polishing or restoration. We were in the Roman and Greek antiquities section now. He pointed out the Pompeian red, which is so vibrant and deep, a complete mystery. There was one with a small still life; you could see the layers. There is an underpainting with lines on top. Again, you just can’t do this with fresco.

In front of the ancient Roman frescoes were three marble portrait heads, the center was Emperor Hadrian, to the left Antinous, his boy lover. When the boy died, Hadrian decreed that he was a god, and as a result there are more carved images of this boy in antiquity than any other god. It’s a shame though, on the face you could see the gouges from when statues were sacked at the fall of Rome are all smooth because they were polished down by restorers. There was a nude woman, which is rare, because the male nude was held as a higher example of beauty than the female. What’s best is she is untouched. She is covered in “sugar.” When marble is left untouched it flakes and turns to sugar. When they restore and polish it, they scrape all that off.


“In your essay ‘Not About Julian Schnabel’ you said...”

“No I didn’t!”

I continued, “In the essay you write about how your responsibility isn’t to the painter, the dealer, or yourself, it’s to the pictures. Is it possible to still look at the pictures that way today, without all the politics and history of the 80’s interfering?”

“I’m just a poet, by the time I find out, the parade has passed me by. Painting is a way we experience history, in graphic. Real art has a historical prerogative. It’s always a comment on the art that proceeds it. Jean Michel’s Enola Gay (1981), what made me know it was real art was that it was drawn on a grid structure. It showed a participation in history. It had a touch. Does that answer your question?

When I look back at that time, I cry. I don’t think about politics, I think of all my dead friends.”

Rene has seen thirty thousand dollars in cash, because when he sold a Julian Schnabel painting for thirty thousand dollars, he got the money in cash. He put twenty thousand in a safe deposit box and took ten thousand and went to Italy for a while. I asked him how he survives, like pays for stuff. He said I wasn’t privy to ask questions and that I was much more attractive when I wasn’t asking questions.

“So how did you get into Art Forum?”

“By being Rene Ricard.”

“Julian’s problem is that he overproduced. There’s that famous Mary Boone waiting list. Julian was just cranking out these paintings to meet the demand. A couple of years ago about thirteen paintings came onto the market in one season, which can completely ruin your career. But Julian has protection,” Rene explained. The biggest diamond dealer in New York, which is the nicest guy—I don’t understand that part—Got some friends together, and they all bought up the paintings before they went on sale. Which is a good thing because that stopped Julian’s career from plummeting. “But then Julian made that When Darkness Falls movie and the whole series of giant girl faces with white splattered over the face, based on a thrift store painting he found a way back, that kind of did it in for him. But the important thing is that Julian has market protection.”

Julian Schnabel • Blue Nude with Sword • 1979/80 • broken ceramics, bondo, oil & wax on wood • 244 x 275 cm • Bruno Bischofberger
Cover of Artforum • Summer 1980

Julian’s career was kind of already made, but Rene was working on this great piece for Art Forum, everyone kept asking him what it was going to be about and he said it wasn’t going to be about Julian Schnabel, but then it was. So he called it “Not About Julian Schnabel.” It really has some great passages, like: “One doesn’t want to hurt an artist, but really, one has a bit of a duty to eradicate the mediocre. Children should never be encouraged to be creative.”

“You just had to love Julian. He would invite people up to his studio to see his work. He’d cover his giant paintings with tarp and unveil them to you. There’d be one on each wall.” Finally one day Rene went up to see him and on the stairs ran into some art world somebody going down, shocked and disgusted. He got up to the studio and there was just one painting, and the tarp was all lumpy and sticking out and odd shaped. And Julian yanked on it, and it snagged on the jagged edges. It was the first plate painting. Rene said, “You’ve done it Julian, now I can write about you, now I can make you a star.”

So Rene was working on this piece for Art Forum and one day leaving Julian’s studio, he happened to notice a coffee cup in the gutter, and it had a figure on it exactly like the one in Julian’s Blue Nude (1979-80). And Rene kept it around for a while and then gave it to the editor of Art Forum. There’s a picture of it in the “Not About Julian Schnabel” article. He doesn’t mention it, or say anything about its relation to Julian’s work, but it’s there.

Now they were waiting to get the advance copy of Art Forum, Julian and Rene. And it somehow was that they had to wait at a bus stop in the middle of the night and the driver would have the copy for them, and they could only get one. When they got it, it was horrible, because it had a tiled image of the coffee cup on the cover that Rene had given the editor, not one of Julian’s paintings. Julian was furious and it was hell for Rene, because he was staying at Julian’s house. And Rene was hurt because Julian’s career was already made, he didn’t need the cover of Art Forum, and he never once congratulated Rene for getting the cover, even though they were friends.

The last time Rene had dealings with Schnabel was when he got a two million dollar portrait commission for Julian and was supposed to get 10%. He only got five thousand dollars. And then Julian did the same thing to his daughter, Lola.

The movie Basquiat (1996) is all Julian getting back at Rene for getting the cover of Art Forum, and leaving him for Jean-Michel. The movie is almost entirely based on Rene’s landmark essay, The Radiant Child. He’s quoted in there ad infinitum, and a lot of significant vignettes are anecdotes and bits from the essay. Rene said he should sue for character assassination, except they paid him a ton of money for the rights to insult him.

Jean-Michel Basquiat • Gringo Pilot (Enola Gay) • 1981 • oil stick, marker, pencil & acrylic on paper • 81 x 103 inches at widest
via Basquiat Biography


Jean-Michel was the Radiant Child. “Julian was mad because he wanted to be the Radiant Child and he just wasn’t.” Rene first saw a Basquiat when he went home with a guy and the roommate had the piece on the mantle. He just stared at it and sat in front of it. He stayed there till the sun came up. It was Enola Gay (1981), it had a plane dropping a bomb. He called up Art Forum and said he had the next new artist to write about, they asked him who it was and he said he didn’t know, but he’d find out. And that was the genesis of “The Radiant Child” essay. Stephanie Seymor, The Victoria’s Secret model, owns it now, or she did in 2002 when Rene told me this anecdote: She told Rene she thought it was funny and he said, “My God Stephanie, that’s the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima!”

I cannot do justice to the way Rene talked. He was so passionate and lucid. The words just flowed out and you get all emotional hearing it. Rene spoke with such conviction, that you just knew in your heart that what he is saying must be true.

He gave me a book of poems as a gift. As a thank you I gave him a small artwork. At the time I was drawing and painting a cartoon orange every-dog on a blue ground. For me it was as rooted in On Kawara’s methodology as the whimsy of Yoshitomo Nara. I handed him the small piece in a little ornate frame and he was touched. “Do you know what color this is?” Rene asked, indicating the background.

“Ultramarine Blue Light!” I dutifully recited wanting to show off the attention to specificity I’d learned from walking through the museum with him.

“It’s periwinkle! This color is going to be very hot in the next year.”

I felt ahead of the curve.

“I’m going to put this on my bureau!” I can still hear his musical over pronunciation of the word “bureau.”

Years later, in the middle of the night, I got a phone call. When I asked who it was, the caller replied, “It’s Rene fucking Ricard.” He’d first called my mom and asked her for my number when it turned out I wasn’t there. I’m sure that was an amazing conversation.

As he launched into conversation I imagined him in his room in the Chelsea Hotel where he lived. I thought of that little dog I’d made for him in a place of honor amongst the clutter of various precious knickknacks and other treasures. I wonder what has become of it now that Chelsea Hotel is closed indefinitely for renovations and Rene is gone. Chicago didn’t disappear when he got on that plane, but the New York he helped make did when he died.

Rene Ricard • mixed media on paper • signed & dated: "March 2012 NYC"
via Morning Passages


raymondf said...

Thank you for a brilliant, funny, beautiful & memorable chronicle. Pure Rene....in all his blazing glory.

raymondf said...

Thank you for a brilliant chronicle of Rene Ricard in all his blazing glory. This is marvelous--an important historical document--and very much appreciated.