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, 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 tte--ttes 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.