Chryssa at her studio in New York, circa 1980.
AS A LONGTIME FRIEND of Chryssa, I was saddened to learn of her death in an Athens hospital on December 23. I met her in the 1960s, when she was gaining critical recognition for her paintings, reliefs, and pioneering neon sculpture. She showed extensively in the United States and Europe through the ’90s and was given solo exhibitions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. Her works are found in the collections of these museums as well as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and Tate Modern, London.
As an idealistic young woman with vivid memories of the brutal occupation of Greece, Chryssa Vardea-Mavromichali planned a career in social service, but her disillusion with government incompetence prompted a radical change of goals. In 1953, determined to become a painter, she left for Paris, studying briefly at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, meeting Breton, Ernst, and other Surrealist luminaries. At a time when New York was rapidly supplanting Paris as the major center of advanced art, Chryssa traveled to San Francisco, where she attended the California School of Fine Arts for a short time but left no footprints. Her life as an artist really began in 1955, when she settled in New York, where she was immediately captivated by the visual excitement of the city, especially the calligraphy and color of its public spaces, which she would celebrate in the monumental steel, neon, cast-aluminum, and Plexiglas construction, The Gates to Times Square, 1964–66. Reflecting in her journal on the time as well as the physical and emotional energy expended on the Gates, she wrote, “For two years I’d had no desire to see anyone.”
Among her earliest works were the Cycladic Books, 1955–56, white-plaster reliefs cast from discarded, disassembled cardboard packing boxes. For Chryssa, the resulting T-shaped forms recalled the stylized geometric language of third-millennium Aegean sculpture. As Sam Hunter noted in his 1974 book on the artist:
“These were unlikely and esoteric sources for contemporary sculpture and Chryssa . . . stood quite alone in her interests and strikingly original plastic formulations. . . . The reliefs also offered the first evidence of what was to become a dominating obsession with the problems of visibility and legibility in art. . . . Chryssa’s Cycladic Books may also be seen as a prediction in terms of flat relief . . . of the Minimalist rage which followed in the sixties.”
Over the next few years, Chryssa produced metal and plaster reliefs, sometimes encased in frames or boxes, containing arrangements of letters. Arguably, she was the first artist to employ words as the exclusive subject of paintings and sculpture. As a young woman and a foreigner with limited professional and social connections, she had to rely on her keen visual intelligence and instinct for structural order, and she discovered the latter in what she called “newspaper images.” Large canvases such as Newspaper, 1958–59, proclaimed their content in capital letters above four columns of abstracted text created by the repeated application of an inking stamp.
As she became increasingly visible to the art world with her first solo exhibitions at the Betty Parsons Gallery in January 1961 and later that year at the Guggenheim Museum, Chryssa expanded her investigation of the formal and expressive possibilities of the printed image. Between March and October 1962, she worked intermittently on Newspaper Book, a suite of twenty-one offset lithographs, of which seven complete editions were printed. The range of possibilities—advertisements, weather maps, stock-market charts, and crosswords—elicited a variety of responses and prompted an amazing gestural freedom.
Despite wide recognition in the ’60s and ’70s, Chryssa suffered from emotional problems that required periods of hospitalization, caused her to alienate dealers, and gradually marginalized her in a rapidly changing New York art scene. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, she began to create large-scale, painted honeycomb aluminum reliefs with fluorescent and neon elements inspired by the signage of Chinatown, which were shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery and documented in Chryssa Cityscapes, published in 1990 by Thames & Hudson. She continued to work intermittently, producing a remarkable Pentelic marble version of the Cycladic Books for a 1997 exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art.
Deteriorating vision and other serious health problems caused her to leave New York and settle in Florida at the end of the decade. Restless, no longer able to work, she returned to the city she had left as a twenty-year old and resided outside Athens until her death.
Diane Kelder is professor emerita of art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
I FIRST SAW Chryssa’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, in Dorothy Miller’s “Americans 1963” show. I was impressed. I continued to be impressed by the sculptures and reliefs for which she is best known. They looked startlingly fresh and original. I did not meet her until later, and had no idea whether she was a man or a woman, American or foreign; I just knew that this was a really strong artist with a personal vision. Chryssa worked in many different media—including painting, drawing, and prints. In all media, her imagery often recalled calligraphy. However, she became famous for her sculptures and reliefs made of steel, aluminum, and plastic encasing neon lettering or fragments of letters, sometimes distorted or layered so they cannot actually be read.
Artists had used neon before, but Chryssa made the colored tubes the basis of her sculptures. Sonia Delaunay experimented with it in the 1920s. In the ’60s, it came to be associated with the urban environment as well as with technology; Pop artists such as Larry Rivers and the French Nouveau Réalist Martial Raysse also used neon. But Chryssa was not a Pop artist. She came from an ancient Greek culture that was distinctly not contemporary but grounded in antiquity. She was excited by the strangeness of the “neon wilderness,” as writer Nelson Algren called the blinking barrage of signs and images that created psychic overload. In a sense, neon itself signified America and its technological advances. But there was a darker, dystopian Bladerunner feeling about the failure of technology to produce progress, which made Chryssa’s constructions both glamorous and ominous.
Chryssa’s neon pieces used artificial colored electric light as a structural element, as linear calligraphic drawing encased in geometric, Minimalist structures. She did not combine text with images like other artists did. Text literally became her image. In the ’80s, she used Chinese characters inspired by the neon signs in Chinatown, a neighborhood not far from her SoHo loft on lower Broadway. Chinese was even more foreign to her than English, which she spoke well but with a decided accent.
In New York, Chryssa was both highly visible and totally invisible. She was American but not American, fascinated by the strangeness of Pop culture like Marisol (another totally underestimated artist). But she was not beautiful like Marisol. Chryssa was a nomad, born and educated in Athens (where she studied social work). In 1953, at age twenty, she moved to Paris, where she met the Surrealists. Then she spent a year in San Francisco at the California School of Fine Arts. By 1955, when she became an American citizen, she was living in New York. Her neon images of automobile tires and cigarettes led to her first major neon work of interwoven light and letters, the 1962 relief Times Square Sky.
I never understood how she mastered the technology, but apparently she simply marched into factories and started working. She transformed the honky-tonk sleaze of Times Square into an electrified landscape of glowing neon. She brought the vulgar advertising signs of movie marquees, restaurants, and bars into the world of fine art. Chryssa never repeated herself or worked in series, and she did most of the hard physical labor of making the sculptures herself. There was much of the stevedore about her; yet she was capable of producing elegant and fragile surfaces in her paintings and drawings and all of her work displays craftsmanship and fine detail.
In addition to being a nomad, Chryssa was a workaholic. She was always fascinated by language, perhaps because she had to learn not only a new language in the US, but also a new alphabet, since the Greek alphabet is Cyrillic. After two years in New York, in 1957 she produced her first major work The Cycladic Books, an installation of mute, minimal, white-plaster reliefs that suggested an undecipherable ancient alphabet based on the mysterious marble Cycladic idols of the Aegean Islands. She showed these in her first New York show at the Betty Parsons gallery in 1961, the year she also had a solo show at the Guggenheim Museum.
Chryssa was a pioneer of art and technology, although she was never part of any group. Her masterpiece is probably The Gates of Times Square, 1966. Built of cast stainless steel, Plexiglas and neon tubing, it is a huge cube, ten feet on each side, a monumental architectural installation in the form of a capital letter A—which becomes a gate through which viewers can pass—inscribed with symbols and illegible text and lit with brilliant neon. Timers turn the lights on and off; the black glass in which they are encased conveys the sense of night. It was the sensation of her show at the Pace Gallery that year and is now in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.
Chryssa was a bizarre kind of genius, isolated but sociable, intense (too intense for most), given to emotional outbursts but totally focused on her work, which she knew was important. She was furious that others did not understand its originality and uniqueness. Chryssa’s association with the Pace Gallery, where she regularly had shows during the ’60s, began in 1963. Pace’s director Arne Glimcher was a great believer in her work and encouraged her most outlandish experiments. (Pace also eventually represented her best friend Agnes Martin.) Her shows were widely praised and she exhibited in leading museums both in the US and abroad. But that was never sufficient. She would appear and disappear. And when she appeared, it was as a demanding virago out of Aeschylus who scared her dealers to death, claiming they were not doing enough for her. Castelli gave her a show in the ’90s and tried to humor her, but she was too much even for lenient Leo.
She became fixated on Arne Glimcher, her dealer during the great years of her career. Glimcher continued to admire her work, but he also valued his life. In 2000, she was given a full retrospective in Athens. I wrote the catalogue, which meant I spent a lot of time with Chryssa, looking at her early pieces made of newspapers, her many paintings and drawings and piles of prints. I could imagine her exploring the “neon wilderness,” alone and dazzled. With her appearances and disappearances, her threats of violence, one could say Chryssa was her own film noir. One day in her studio, I noticed a gun. She pointed to it and said she was planning to shoot Glimcher. Sure she was being mistreated and ignored in New York, she shut her studio on lower Broadway for good and apparently returned to Athens. There were rumors she had moved to Florida, but she stopped communicating with friends. Fittingly, no one knows where she died last December. Despite the fact that she is buried in Athens, she will long be remembered in New York.
Barbara Rose is a critic based in New York and Madrid.
Jan Hoet at Documenta 9, 1992. Photo: Stefan Dewickere.
JAN BOUGHT my very first painting, The Spirit of Saint Louis, 1988, even before my very first gallery show. He was extremely decisive from the beginning of my art career, as he was for numerous other artists.
In retrospect, his 1992 Documenta 9 was a Documenta for the artists. Just to name a few of them: Stan Douglas, Matthew Barney, Mike Kelley, David Hammons . . . In this Documenta, the visual was the concept.
With the loss of Jan, we are also losing an era—one that was once instigated by people like Harald Szeemann, and which still persists in the figures of Kaspar König and Rudi Fuchs—that propelled the curator into near mythological proportions. Unlike some curators today, Jan was passionate and adamantly uncompromising in his choices, which were born out of instinct and intuition, whereas now most exhibitions are born out of a discursiveness largely derived from 1980s sociology.
I for one will miss Jan because of his electrifying enthusiasm and his sometimes cruel unpredictability. I do think he lived his life to the fullest. And what remains is respect.
Luc Tuymans is an artist living in Belgium.
More reflections on Jan Hoet will appear in the Summer issue of Artforum.
Marina Abramović, The Urgent Dance, 1996. Performance view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Ghent, 1996.
PEOPLE LIKE JAN HOET do not exist anymore. Jan belonged to a rare art tribe with a unique, intuitive vision that opened new territories and horizons.
I met Jan just before he curated the legendary 1986 exhibition “Chambres d’Amis.” We became instant friends. His energy and flamboyant approach to everything he did spoke to me immediately.
For my fiftieth birthday, he invited me to do a large exhibition in Ghent, Belgium. I told him that for the occasion, I would like to create an evening of Argentinean tango. Jan was full of enthusiasm about this. We titled the event “The Urgent Dance” and put some very strict rules in place for the night.
The 450 people invited to attend the event had six months’ notice to learn basic steps of Argentinean tango. The dress code was tuxedos and brilliantine hair pomade for men. In case they forgot, a large pot of hair pomade was to be located right at the hall entrance. Women were asked to dress in evening gowns of any color except for red. We even invited an Argentinean tango orchestra to play.
As the date of the event approached, I told Jan that I would love to have a cake. He got mad, saying that it was so bourgeois of me to ask for a birthday cake. Furthermore, he told me that we spent the whole budget for the evening and nothing was left for the cake. The truth was that Jan was secretly conspiring behind my back. He gave a photograph of my naked body to the best pastry chef in Belgium, who made a life-size replica out of marzipan, even reproducing (in chocolate) scars that are scattered around my body from my performance career.
Exactly ten minutes before midnight on the night of the event, the museum doors opened, interrupting the dancing. Six beautiful topless men carried the body cake in on a large stretcher. Immediately afterward, six fully dressed women carried Jan in on a stretcher, exactly the same way as my cake. He was completely naked except for a small bow tie. He was offering his body as a present to me. Some of the guests from the US, mainly curators and collectors, were sure that Jan’s body was made out of wax. It was not conceivable for them to see the director of a museum completely naked.
I will remember that evening for the rest of my life. What I admired the most about Jan was that he never played by the rules. I loved him immensely and I would have done anything for him, as an artist and a friend.
Marina Abramović is an artist based in New York.
More reflections on Jan Hoet will appear in the Summer issue of Artforum.
Rene Ricard. Photo: Allen Ginsberg.
IT TAKES SOMEONE with as much tenure and tenacity on the scene as Rene Ricard to make me remember what it was like to be a young art writer. Seemingly always already there, stumbling and groping forward just in front of me, his peripatetic wanderings through the cultural mayhem of New York were a beacon-like inspiration for my own similarly hopeless pursuits and perhaps, too, a fair warning to maintain some critical distance lest we all end up like moths to the flame. He was a full-fledged freak, and in missing him, many of us must miss just as dearly that time when being so outré was not all that aberrant in the art world.
When, in the 1980s, my then-neighbor the art critic Thomas McEvilley brought me into Artforum, I was just into my early twenties, a college dropout who worked in nightclubs and wrote about woefully unknown artists for a local zine. I didn’t know much then, but I understood enough that I would never be a McEvilley or Donald Kuspit or any of the other more intellectually inclined writers at the magazine in those days. What I could look to, and did with the blind conviction of youth, were cats like Rene Ricard and Edit DeAk, who were very much the spirit of the magazine, and who not only championed artists that I could identify with but who did so with a passion and in a vernacular that was wholly mesmerizing, and in my case quite infectious.
Because the legacy of the poet-critic was still in some currency back then, Ricard’s wild conjuring of visual culture through a language of sheer poetics seemed somewhat more natural. It was easier, then, to situate him within that lineage from Charles Baudelaire through the great New York scribe Frank O’Hara to others still around like John Ashbery, yet harder to realize that he was more of an anachronistic throwback, something quite beautifully and sadly coming at the end of the end of a great line. As fate would perhaps inevitably have it, when the art world changed into a more conservative realm of production and sales, and when those now larger-than-life creative spirits that had once been his singular muse as an art writer passed on, Rene turned back to poetry. I’d often see him in that time, not a happy or easy one for him, at the bar where I worked, cadging drinks from me, or hitting me up on the street for money, saying how hungry he was and would I just buy him a sandwich—one to get by on as he would surely be very rich very soon. Art writing, maybe more so than art itself, is a con game, the ultimate game of confidence, and Rene would never lack confidence.
Impoverished but never a beggar, Rene in fair exchange would sell me one of his poems for whatever money I could spare in those days when I still made good coin working at night. He told me that these handwritten poems, so much like the ephemeral and visionary artwork we both adored, would be worth a great deal of money someday. He never ascribed to my prudish ethics about a critic never collecting art, always telling me that I was a fool to not wheedle art out of those we helped, and that at least if I could own a Ricard it would eventually make up for some of those stupid choices I had made regarding collecting in the past. I don’t know if those poems are worth all that much now, but I treasure them nonetheless. Then of course, because words were always just another way of making pictures, Rene Ricard became at last an artist, wedding his sardonic tongue to the great irony of visual representation. In that last incarnation I finally got to work with Rene so many years after just trailing his shadow, as I commissioned him to be the guest artist for Paper, the magazine I work at. I don’t know why it makes me so happy to say this, but in this most simple little gig Rene Ricard proved to be one of the most difficult artists I have ever dealt with.
Rene made a righteous place for himself in art magazine discourse by an act of utterly nervy genius, letting his voice carry far above most others neither by careerist negotiations nor dint of professionalism (of which he could hardly ever be accused of possessing the slightest trace), but by virtue of seeing things so very differently and feeling it all that much more intensely than most anyone else out there. That space he created for himself—call it out-there, marginal, or simply unorthodox—is one I was lucky enough to occupy for a time, and one that I hope with all my heart will always be there for future generations of art writers.
Carlo McCormick is a culture critic and curator living in New York City.
More reflections on Rene Ricard will appear in the May issue of Artforum.
RENE: A light fantastic
A week before Rene died, my husband, our fifteen-year-old daughter, and I visited him at Bellevue Hospital. He was sporting a “Van Dyke” beard, as had generally been the case lately, and seemed pretty vigorous, though ashen.
He looked—and I mean literally—like a seventeenth-century, Franco-Iberian grandee: Specifically, the cold and brilliant Cardinal de Richelieu (1585–1642), as represented in several portraits by Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674), and a bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680). There was an El Greco saintly scholar in there somewhere, as well. A Counter-Reformation man, in any case, in every way.
As might befit a longtime resident of the Chelsea Hotel, whose in-house restaurant is named after Cervantes’s great hero, Rene also resembled almost any image likely to come to mind of the half-mad, wholly noble Don Quijote de la Mancha. These and other contradictory qualities crashed into one another, and into others, to form the R. Ricard persona: Somewhere back around the age of sixty, Rene had indubitably gotten the face he “deserved.”
Art. Art. Art. He was awash in thoughts and images of art. We were in his room for what my husband feared was an “inconsiderate” two hours plus, and except for an abrupt cri de coeur about wanting candy (“A Payday! I’d kill for a Payday bar!”), and one sotto voce digression about the New Yorker writer Ariel Levy (more on this in a moment), everything he said led into, or led out from, something to do with art.
Right off the bat he launched into a rhapsody about the detail-image of an almost-suckling Parmigianino angel, from an old Christie’s catalogue that “Helen [Marden] brought me.” He made me lean over the bed into his knees to behold how heartbreakingly beautiful it was: “Look at this. Look. Look!” As I withdrew, he lifted and shook the book. There was a pause, followed by a rapid descent into satanic giggle-puss: He eyed my daughter, Juno, who from the sidelines had been making it her business-as-usual to give the lie to standard denotations of her mythic name, in being both temperamentally august and—petite.
Without much success, he set about trying to dislodge her admittedly enviable composure, by emitting an arpeggio of bird-and-kitty-like chirps and trills, while scanning the hospital-room ceiling aka heavens for words that might adequately convey how very “teeny-weenie, weeny- teeny, itsy-bitsy” she had indeed been when he first encountered her as a “tiny little baby,” which she clearly wasn’t any more. He hunched up and squinted, à la Shylock-examining-a-gold-coin. He made the “infinitesimal” sign with his thumb and forefinger, as the other digits made a cockscomb behind. Such was the plight of the poor poet. This particular divertissement on the theme of jeunes filles en fleur mercifully gave way to a full-blown aria on…. who else but: Balthus!
He had recently seen “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations” at the Met. That Rene, some thirty years earlier, had shockingly (and inexplicably) insulted the show’s talented curator—with an expletive, as I remember, only Brits get away with—during a garden party at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum marking the opening of “Gardens of Delight,” an exhibition organized back then by my aforementioned husband, the writer Brooks Adams, was left unsaid. Rene was ecstatically focused on the “white undies.”
We had no Balthus imagery in front of us. We were all in the virtual realms of our heads. But he was probably thinking of Therese Dreaming (1938), wherein the best white undies in the show—the “solar plexus” of that painting—were disported. Before I was able even to connect with any synesthetic aptitude of my very own, Rene was out with “Mmmmm… Yummy yummy! And you can really tell that mound is nice and moist!”
Pas devant! Pas devant! I almost shouted, as if back on the Greek island of Hydra two summers ago, with Rene forever invoking that French call-to-propriety in the face of salty-talk-in-front-of-children: pas devant les enfants! Our enfant had, of course, by then heard it all before, and it became a sanguine bit of punctuation, or a whoop of fun, whenever impropriety reared its head.
Rene Ricard. Photo: Bill Troop.
I feel like dropping even more French into this piece. Our shared French thing, and also the “Broadway Baby” thing, were powerful forces in my circa 1981 cathexis phase with Rene (Brooks’s too), as much as any experience in common of hip scenes, happening contemporary art, etc. There was really no “shared experience” on those fronts, even when I was also present, and implicated. The Fun Gallery, for example, had a way of making me feel sort of fancy and prudish; and my most memorable tête-à-têtes with both Julian S. and Jean-Michel B. would translate better to stage or screen than onto this page…
I did become friends with Annina Nosei, the “Principessa” Parsimonio of Basquiat lore. Super-smart and a topflight dancer—“a perfect partner,” selon Rene, “at a time when girls didn’t know how to dance like women any longer—you know, like women the same as the man only backwards and in high heels.” I won’t tell you I did that, precisely, but I will say that among my inner “reels” of the lost life nocturnal, my nights out on the town dancing with Rene certainly stand out. Then too, the very early 1980s in NYC were a great big potent cocktail, a golden age for social mixology.
My great in-the-moment art experiences with Rene, however, for the most part concerned Old Masters. His fleet disquisitions—encompassing everything from period quirks in theology to fashion appreciation to insights on class and rank to lucky strokes and errors of conservation to questions of authorship to salesroom gossip from other eras to forgery and framing tips—were plumb out-of-this-world. They’re my gold standard for casual museum chat, rarely achieved.
As is also well known, Rene over the years took a special interest in assorted young people starting out. His approach was a rather Jesuitical spitball-combo: rank snootiness/high-mindedness, hectoring/harassment, seduction/charm, a touch of masochism, the soul of a mortally wounded saint, and a mean streak, but with a warm current of paternal, or at least avuncular tenderness running under all the fire and ice. I was vividly reminded of this, postmortem, while doing some online detective work on the strange case of Ariel Levy.
In “A Little Bit Famous,” a Talk of the Town piece in the July 4, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, signed by Ms. Levy, a calamity occurred. No not the cheeky title. Right there, on the second “e” in the first appearance of Rene’s first name, was the dread accent aigu, mother of all possible fact-checking errors. An erstwhile fact-checker, as well as New Yorker writer at one point, I remember audibly gasping “Oh NO!” upon chancing on it in cold type.
It didn’t surprise me to hear about this from the horse’s mouth a whole year later—Hydra, once again, summer of 2012, at 108 degrees. I’d been expecting it, and had empathy-to-the-max for the perps. There had to be a savory tidbit to be unearthed behind-the-scenes, following “the crime unveiled.”
I found the ex-checker. Rene had got there first to be sure, long ago, so I refer you to Michael Spies (pronounced “Speeze”), the Jesuitical-spitball receiver in question. “A Weird Encounter with Rene Ricard” may be found on the blog-site Vocativ. (It was posted on February 7, 2014 @ 13h43EST, in remembrance.) In it Spies describes his (first) inquisitor with generosity, as “An erudite, sensitive and volatile man,” and the vignette is touching. It captures a Rene sound: pricking, wheedling, crying out to the Fates.
But what of la Levy? Rene was still mumbling about her on his deathbed! Apropos of nothing: something about “so smart and yet so stupid.” He was thinking out loud of a piece she wrote some months back about an “extreme assignment” she had taken on—involving a trip to Mongolia, at the midpoint of a late and already dicey first pregnancy—and its harrowing outcome. He had been keeping tabs on her. Attention A. Levy: He cared! He seemed aggrieved, perhaps feeling betrayed. Very “Lion in Winter”—and he was a Leo. Or maybe he had become a Prospero/Lear, with an Ariel-as-Cordelia to rail at.
This was all very late in Rene’s Third Act. (In its earliest scenes he became an admired poet-painter.) There had been a Prologue—the hardscrabble New England childhood, featuring his mother, Pauline, as benevolent presiding spirit. Act One spanned louche ’60s Boston, to New York City and the Factory years, with proffered sips of Harvard/Yale along the way, and “Andy” as a second, sometimes cruel, house “mother.”
I stepped onstage at the beginning of Act II (winter 1980/81), his Angel Gabriel/Golem-to-the-art-world years. He had been introduced to Artforum by Edit deAk, who was already writing for it—was in fact in the process of coming out with “A Chameleon in a State of Grace” (February 1981), the article that essentially launched Francesco Clemente in America and internationally. Rene had recently been living with her in her giant loft on Wooster Street. All three of us, on our unequal individual terms, were more or less indentured to the magazine and to Ingrid Sischy, then the editor. If Edit and Rene were each working on a piece, sometimes Rene got dispatched to stay with me: I had some psychic space to spare, no drugs, and a “roommate” elsewhere occupied (pas devant!). And that is how I got to know his feet.
Rene had sane feet. They were big-guy feet, articulated, nice-looking but functional—not effete. They used to spend their days in overused Adidas that later smelled. In recent years they were often in euro-fancy gentlemen’s slippers, worn with white socks. They were bare and in evidence at the hospital, and I found myself patting them, which isn’t very like me. I guess I was one of his mini-Magdalens, and we may be legion.
Rene was lucky in love/hate, not least with women. In his last, newly-published text, a rather kaleidoscopic essay about Basquiat prompted by last season’s blockbuster exhibition at Gagosian, he justly credits Edit with enabling his self-granted “PhD.” I noticed no mention of Ingrid, but she certainly produced, staged, and lit his two big soliloquies with inspired premeditation and great flair. To this “distaff” must be added the literary devotions of Raymond Foye, who gathered Rene’s hastily written words—sometimes storing them in Baggies—as a muleteer, bearing a bucket, trails his charge.
There is of course Rene’s trio of graces—Alba Clemente, Jacqueline Schnabel, and Helen M.—who continued to preside, despite vexations. Then there’s Rita Barros, his Magdalen-in-Chief, a photographer and Chelsea Hotel near neighbor, who Rene considered his “wife.” His reassuring feet, discalced and shod, are enshrined in an artist’s book Barros made while traveling with Rene in Portugal, where she was born.
S-p-r-i-g-h-t-l-y: Those are the letters that appeared on my cellphone screen when, that summer on Hydra, I started to type Rene’s name into my “contacts.” I had neglected to reset the “T9” default setting—it is a “stupid” phone. But the code name stuck, and it remains. Boy was he fast. It was Rene who taught me the meaning of esprit de l’escalier, but I wasn’t prepared for this particular speedy exit. It was as if Rene kept zooming away even after he died, past “Bardo,” and into a Theosophical ether-sphere.
Here’s one of Rene’s best short poems, from the famous “Tiffany blue” collection, 1979–80.
“The Time of Day in Giorgione”
The sun is always setting in my heart
Like the time of day in Giorgione
The days drift beyond reach and… poof they are gone
Yes. “Poof.” And Amen.
Lisa Liebmann is a writer based in New York.
More reflections on Rene Ricard will appear in the May issue of Artforum.
As a young artist and poet, having just met her partner and fellow artist Arakawa, Gins set off on an ambitious trip to acquire advice from living legend Giorgio de Chirico. Arakawa, a celebrated conceptual painter, was a friend and protégé of Duchamp. Madeline was a student of physics, Buddhist thought, painting, and poetry. Both responded to de Chirico’s enigmatic imagery and his search for the key to art’s self-sustaining power (he had attempted to mix paint mediums that would never dry to keep his paintings alive). De Chirico’s catalytic mixture of image and poetic vision, so influential on the surrealist painters, French and Italian cinema, and anime, led Madeline to carefully construct a question from him that would unlock the connections between language and imagination, body and environment. After several days and unsuccessful attempts at meeting the aging master, Madeline was given an audience. Wasting no time, she immediately asked, “What is missing from the world?” Without skipping a beat, de Chirico answered “Morality, kindness and social justice.”
Yet Gins was quick to counter, remarking that she was thinking of “something else”—specifically reversible destiny, and all that project has come to mean: the myriad attempts to find, within the processes of life itself, the possibility of constructing it again on new terms. In many ways, Arakawa and Gins’s work was, and is, a sustained response to de Chirico’s list of what is missing from the world.
Over the years, many have sought them out, attracted to the experimental approach of sustaining life through the orienting precision of language and through the use of environmental prompts to adapt and adjust our bodies. The wide range of prominent thinkers attracted to Gins and Arakawa’s project reflects the scope of their experimental research and includes philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jean-Francois Lyotard, novelist Italo Calvino, poets Robert Creeley and Charles Bernstein, cognitive linguist George Lakoff, philosophers of cognitive science Brian O’Shaunghnessy and Shaun Gallagher, geneticist Stanley Shostak, psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin, and art theorist Arthur Danto—to name a few. Visiting Madeline and Arakawa's studio over the years, one might be forgiven for thinking that the contours of consciousness were being stretched to the limit on the corners of their worktable. For more than forty years it went on this way, finding new variations to build upon and exploring the ways in which methods of research might themselves vary continuously.
Madeline approached every day with vitality and wonder, exhibiting an extraordinary ability to undergo change. This commitment to tentativeness rather than to closure made her appetite for knowledge voracious and her dealings with others a gift economy. Her enthusiasm for work was indefatigable, allowing her to labor ceaselessly (with Arakawa until his death in 2010) on the shape of awareness. This endeavour is evident in her written works: Word Rain (1969), Intend (1978), What the President Will Say and Do (1984) and the amazing work of speculation and precision, Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994). Madeline constantly encouraged the familiar to pass through itself and, through that continuous passage, grasp the means by which to remain in and of the world by transforming it.
Jondi Keane is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia.