Walking Through with Rene Ricard at Vito Schnabel, New York

by Madeline Sparer, July 2011

For almost fifty years, Rene Ricard has had a leading role in the New York City art scene: friend of Andy Warhol, appearing in several of his classic films; art critic for Artforum, helping launch the careers of Jean-Michael Basquiat and Julian Schnabel; and, most of all, constantly evolving poet and painter, whose work spans different media. Ricard’s latest exhibit, Sonnets from the Portuguese, presented by Vito Schnabel in Chelsea, is comprised of nineteen works, ten word and image paintings interspersed between nine chartreuse canvases with short poems painted on them. The paintings, as Ricard writes in the artist statement, are a way of showing his “affection for the city of Lisbon and my friends there who have allowed me to raid their family albums for old photos.”

A few weeks ago, Rene and I walked around the gallery, discussing his art and his life, focusing on this new work in the gallery.

Rene related that the inspiration and the imagery for the current show began in Lisbon, at the Museu Nacional dos Coches, where he found a book about a Portuguese opera singer from the 1910s. Flipping through the pages, he saw several black and white pictures of the singer as a child. The images struck a chord and two of them now form the backgrounds for the works UNTITLED: “What I Really Think” and UNTITLED: “Madness.” Other pieces are rooted in photographs that came from family albums of a close friend, Rita Barros, whom he was with when he purchased the book at the museum. Only after Rene decided to include this set of pictures in the current exhibit, did he learn that Rita’s father and the Portuguese opera singer were friends. The coincidence was remarkable and exemplifies both the deliberate and accidental connections that are at the heart of his work, especially in this exhibit.

But Rene does not leave it all to chance. Long before seeing the book about the opera singer, he knew these paintings would be part of his next show: “Before I got to Portugal, I had the hanging of the show figured out, and what I wanted were about twenty of these green paintings, interspersed with images. The green paint is called Sulphur Yellow. It’s by Lefranc and Bourgeois. It was discontinued twelve years ago; I loved it twenty years ago. My first assistant went online and we bought every tube that existed in the world.”

Though the two original ideas, the Sulphur Yellow paintings and the Lisbon-inspired works seem unrelated, they fuse seamlessly in homage to something, whether to Rene’s Portuguese friends and their respective histories, or to his favorite color of paint that was discontinued twelve years ago. In their totality, they trace an intriguing personal history and elusive inner life.

This connection between word and image is the crux of Rene’s work. On this he remarked that “some of them have no meaning. I like them to not have too much of a relationship between the image and the thing written on it, but sometimes you can’t help it. Sometimes it just goes together. […] When they’re really successful, the collision of the text and the image is what makes it work. Sometimes the text will fulfill the image in a new way. If I write ‘Please hold me the forgotten way’ over a picture of two boats in a storm, I mean, it’s pretty obvious that there’s a connect. Everything connects, our minds are hardwired to form narratives of any superfluous information we get.”

In contrast to his open discussion of the word and image paintings, Rene had very little to say about the poems on the Sulphur Yellow canvases. Yet each poem, whether serious, witty or slightly confusing, seems to make sense if you can imagine him reading it aloud. This is the case in UNTITLED: “Tomorrow is another day…”, a short, whimsical poem that reads “Tomorrow is another day, but so was yesterday,” a display of Rene’s slightly cynical, epigrammatic sense of humor.

Perhaps it is only fitting, then that the theme of Rene’s latest show is remembrance and connection. Rene has established himself as a living legend, a downtown icon; yet his work is still relevant. In this show, his affection for his Portuguese friends and passion for a long-lost shade of paint invites viewers to meditate on the selectivity of their own memory.

Rene Ricard: Sonnets from the Portuguese
12 May—25 June 2011
Vito Schnabel
522 West 23rd St, New York