BILL RICE Paintings & Works on Paper


As the Lower East Side progresses toward a “total make-over,” and chic hotels and designer co-ops replace its tenements, I wonder where the community of poets and artists who cannot be assimilated will move? It is fashionable to think of these individuals as “bohemians,” the descendants of Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, as if they were easily distinguished specimens. Certainly, the selling of the bohemian or outlaw lifestyle is one of the art world’s marketing ploys, quick to confuse those who would exploit the surface features of this group with those who live and thrive in it.

Bill Rice, “Tree,” c. 1973. Oil on canvas, 50 × 50˝. Courtesy SHFAP.
Bill Rice, “Tree,” c. 1973. Oil on canvas, 50 × 50˝. Courtesy SHFAP.

A painter, film actor, and an unaffiliated scholar, Bill Rice (1931 – 2006) was one of the central figures in the various bohemian enclaves that gathered and overlapped in the Lower East Side of the 1960s. Among his diverse achievements, Rice worked with noted Gertrude Stein expert Ulla Dydo on Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises: 19231934 (2003), an essential study of the author’s writing process, using her notebooks and manuscripts. He was a terrific, low-key actor with slightly exaggerated, handsome features that put him in company with Humphrey Bogart. Like Harry Dean Stanton, Rice was a character actor with memorable lean, rugged, and worn features. One of the treats of this exhibition was watching a DVD compiled by Jacob Burckhardt of clips of films featuring Rice and directed by Scott and Beth B, Jim Jarmusch, Amos Poe, Robert Frank, and Burckhardt.

After attending Middlebury College, Rice moved to New York in 1953. His early paintings were influenced by Abstract Expressionism. By the early ’60s, he had moved toward his subject, intimate portraits of young men and the geometry of the city transformed into accumulations of lines and rectangles. Subsequently, he began populating these dark, shallow, enclosed spaces with languid and furtive young Hispanic and black males (gay desire). René Ricard, another genius of bohemia, called Rice the “greatest living painter of the city, and in his painting there is no other city than New York, black New York.” Black, both as atmosphere and light, runs throughout Rice’s work. The sun doesn’t rise in Rice’s New York; it is always night. His layers of thin washes convey a world that is liquid and melting, a sense that everything will be gone in the morning but the sexual desire animating the city and its isolated individuals.

The exhibition was small and powerful, accompanied by an extensive catalog with illuminating essays by Ulla Dydo and Joe Fyfe. The undated Untitled, a painting of a tree in front of a wall embellished with a trace of graffiti, is both a portrait of the artist as a survivor enduring every season, as well as an evocation of the sexual and artistic world that Rice inhabited; it thrived and bloomed in an antagonistic environment. It is a romantic vision, but it is also one that I hope isn’t erased by the latest wave of economic oppression to place its stamp on New York. Rice’s paintings are as integral to New York as the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street and the Statue of Liberty. They are original in that Rice took the genre of the urban landscape and made it something all his own: the city at night when forbidden desire rises to the surface. In this regard, he was the Edouard Manet of New York.


John Yau


JUL-AUG 2011

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