Richard McGuire’s Art For The Street 1978 – 1982by Megan N. Liberty
The diversity of Richard McGuire’s work is surprising; from his illustrations for The New Yorker and McSweeney’s and published graphic novels Here (2014) and Sequential Drawings (2016) that treat the book as a sculptural object—something I’ve argued in a previous review of Here—to his musical and performance career as a founding member of the post-punk band Liquid Liquid, McGuire’s artistic output is multidisciplinary. Richard McGuire: Art For The Street 1978 – 1982, published to accompany the show of the same title at Alden Projects, NY, adds a new layer to this impressive body of work, detailing his early years enmeshed in the performance and street art scene exhibiting work in museums and galleries alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Harring, with whom he became friends, and on the street alongside Jenny Holzer’s Truisms and SAMO© poetry.
The book documents in rich illustrations the street collages, band posters, and record ephemera McGuire made during this period, including exhibition checklists and black-and-white photographs of his wheat pasted drawings installed across the city. One such photograph shows a black silhouette against a wall filled with advertisements, like a shadow in a doorway. The figure stands out against the chaos, framed in a rectangle of negative space, with the text “FASTER AND MORE WILDLY” around the edges in scratchy letters. In another photograph the figure appears again, this time larger and enclosed by the words “THINGS ARE BOOMERANGING.” The figure is Ixnae Nix, created by McGuire in the late 1970s, and these are just some of the texts associated with more than seventy-five such drawings. Luc Sante, who wrote the introduction to Sequential Drawings, suggests in the catalogue’s forward that, “Taken together, the Ixnae Nix drawings might represent something like a subjective diary, one that passersby can identify with.”
A diarisitc quality runs throughout his work—McGuire kept a detailed diary, which he consults throughout the interview between Todd Alden and McGuire in the book. His installation The Way There and Back at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, CT (May 20, 2018 – Jan 13, 2019) consists of over fifty plaster, aqua resin, wood, and cardboard sculptures of shoes, all painted in a simplified color palette of cream and light blue, displayed on a single shelf that wraps around the room. In addition to these sculptures, McGuire’s comic “My Things” (included in the show as wall mounted prints) takes us through his daily routine, from making breakfast to looking up directions on his phone, to cooking dinner in the evening. These practices, though visually distinct, share Ixnae Nix’s interest in celebrating the ordinary. “What remains consistent are McGuire’s powers of attention,” Françoise Mouly writes about “My Things,” which was also published in The New Yorker. “McGuire studies the minutiae of touch, gesture, and interaction, his eye keenly attuned to the way objects shape and scaffold our lives.” Though the Ixnae Nix drawings employ a different visual aesthetic, filled with rough and energetic lines, they too hone in on our habits. In one paste-up a figure stands balanced on one leg, foot raised as he ties his shoe, an image that could just as easily have come from the pages of “My Things” and fits with The Way There and Back’s focus on shoe sculptures. Around the figure reads, “THINGS SUCH AS SHOELACES.” “The titles evolved from a Burroughs-esque cut-up method—just grabbing selected phrases that caught my ear… I would see what worked best with that image as a ‘sound picture,’” the artist explains to Alden in the interview. The text, like the subject matter, is ripped from the everyday.
It’s hard not to see a formal relationship between Ixnae Nix, framed in a box with text, and McGuire’s comics, especially in Here (2014), which was exhibited at the Morgan Library and published as a book. Like in comics, his use of the frame creates a world for his character, a separate landscape against the advertisements and other street art with which it shared a wall. While the nature of street art makes it unlikely McGuire was thinking specifically about the relationship between his figure and the surrounding images, he was certainly aware that he was adding to an already crowded field against which it would be read (or skipped over).
Art For The Street also documents McGuire’s Liquid Liquid collages, which he made simultaneously. With performance art on the rise, it was common for visual artists to perform musically—Basquiat was in the band Gray and occasionally played with McGuire—and Franklin Furnace, where McGuire worked, was becoming a hub for showing, selling, and archiving this work. These groups made physical records accompanied by swaths of ephemera—covers, inserts, and posters. “I always saw myself as an artist first,” he tells Alden. “The exciting thing for me was making an image and getting it out there.” McGuire conceptualized the records as sculptural objects. “It was all about the making of the object. The design of the sleeve and the label, too.” The Liquid Liquid imagery is striking. Bold text appears against collaged photographs of women from advisements and worn out creamy paper. His images distort planes, creating surreal and otherworldly landscapes where figures walk in fields of benday dots above airstrips, as in a 1981 poster. The covers betray a visual language akin to comics. One 1979 poster in particular seems a clear precursor to the graphics of Here, which McGuire would begin publishing in RAW in 1989. The poster, announcing a New Year’s Eve show, layers rectangular images of three parties atop each other diagonally across the page, fading into each other. McGuire employs a similar stacked window structure to show mixed temporality in Here, which also includes a spread with scenes from different parties over the years. A 1980 poster, on the other hand, doesn’t include any collaged photography, in favor instead of thick dark geometric lines, more like “My Things” and evocative of the densely packed visuals of Chris Ware, who started publishing comics in the late ’80s around the same time as McGuire.
Alden’s catalogue does much to reinsert McGuire into an art historical narrative from which he was omitted, especially with his detailed interview that exhaustively builds a timeline for McGuire’s work alongside his more well-known contemporaries. It reveals McGuire to be an artist of the everyday. If we think of the street as a public space where our habits collide with those of others, a place where we publicly perform our daily routines, McGuire’s dissection of personal habits and possessions makes him even more fittingly an artist of the street.
ContributorMegan N. Liberty
MEGAN N. LIBERTY is the Art Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her interests include text and image, artists’ books and ephemera, and archive curatorial practices.