Rene Ricard: So, Who Left Who?
Half Gallery | March 29 – April 26, 2017
The heart of Rene Ricard’s second posthumous exhibition at Half Gallery is a pair of old tabletops resting on the mantel of a fireplace. The untitled diptych is dated to 1995 but looks much older; its rubber upholstery is yellowing like badly jaundiced skin. Ricard’s cursive handwriting spreads across their surfaces, posing a question that has shifted from hypothetical to literal: “Nan Goldin and David Armstrong, so which photo will they remember? The glamorus one on the bed or the crack face that looked too far?” These two photographs hang on either side of the fireplace: a sexy young poet (à la Armstrong in 1979) and an aging back alley scoundrel (Goldin, shot in 1995). Since Ricard has passed, this question has become even more relevant.
Half Gallery is certainly taking efforts to make sure the question of how we remember Ricard does not go unattended too. With its first posthumous show, titled Remember, including an impressive array of Ricard’s works (none of which are reshown here), these selected works—spanning from the late 1980s to 2012—make a case for Ricard’s multifaceted approach to poetry, painting and materials. In addition to tabletops, Ricard’s poetry appears on a napkin, a dress shirt, hotel stationary, thrift store paintings, an old photograph, and a cardboard box. If there is an element of consistency it is the poet’s delicate penmanship, a flowing cursive line that often jams up against an edge or unexpectedly cuts diagonally.
Ricard was vain about his handwriting, and one canvas suggests he was well aware that it wasn’t his face people would remember, but the look of his longhand. Titled New Paintings and not so new (2012), this small oil on canvas was produced as the publicity image for an exhibition; it reads: “Rene Ricard / New Paintings / and not so new.” Other than his friend Jean Michel Basquiat’s casual scrawl, there may not be more recognizable handwriting in contemporary art. It is Ricard’s signature style, ageless and skirting the same boundary between beauty and depravity that is captured in the juxtaposed photographs. After all, this is the poet who could burn ten grand on underwear, caviar, and Champagne, then go to sleep on a park bench—in one twenty-four hour cycle.
An undated work executed in pen on paper points to a possible source of inspiration for Ricard’s penmanship: Renoir. No bigger than a boot heel, the piece consists of a rectangle within which Ricard has put down an impressive copy of Renoir’s signature catty-corner to his own. The resemblance is not subtle. Another pair of drawings make explicit Ricard’s uncanny ability to draw like Parmigianino and Matisse. His deft draftsmanship puts greater significance on the aesthetic of his penmanship insofar as it makes evident his ability to work in a number of styles, and his choice not to. Ricard stuck to his cursive, and that cursive now undergirds his artistic and poetic legacy.
Of course, many of Ricard's poems were typeset, so one has the opportunity to experience the shift in medium between handwritten and printed word. Interestingly, in the few instances where poems are presented as printed documents, there tend to be coffee stains and corrections inked in—the artist’s touch is never too distant.
Ricard was nothing if not enigmatic, and if there is an element of this show that eludes me still, it is why so many of his paintings feature ships and boats. Four works depicts old ships in the background: one seemingly a steamer and the other three galleons on turbulent water. Is it mere coincidence? Is it an evocation of earlier era’s symbolism for danger, adventure, power? Three of the pictures foreground intimate and emotionally charged poems, the fourth, a recomposed proverb from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.
Perhaps the variety speaks to the complexity and shifting nature of Ricard’s work, not to be easily compartmentalized or filtered by rational thought. However different they may be, it is easy to see they are all works of Rene Ricard. The penmanship is unmistakable.
CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.