Rene Ricard, 67, poet, painter, witty arbiter of taste, dies
Rene Ricard was more a personage than a professional anything, a notorious aesthete who roamed New York’s contemporary art scene with a capacious, autodidactic erudition and a Wildean flamboyance.
The New York Times
“I’ve never worked a day in my life,” Rene Ricard, then 32, wrote in an essay for The New York Times Op-Ed page in 1978. “If I did it would probably ruin my career, which at the moment is something of a cross between a butterfly and a lap dog.”
Mr. Ricard wasn’t being disingenuous, though as a poet, an actor, an influential art critic and a painter in his own right, perhaps he was selling himself short. He was, however, more a personage than a professional anything, a notorious aesthete who roamed New York’s contemporary art scene with a capacious, autodidactic erudition and a Wildean flamboyance.
He was a member of Andy Warhol’s cohort beginning in the 1960s, appearing in a handful of Warhol’s films (including “The Andy Warhol Story,” in which he played the title role) and an habitué of the Factory, the Warhol studio that was a hangout for artists and musicians of the day.
As a partygoer, a weekend guest and general bon vivant, Mr. Ricard was known for his wickedness and his wit, his astute and perfervid opinions on art and literature, and his commanding conversational skills — even if he did say so himself.
“I honestly don’t need much money,” he wrote in The Times. “People love to buy me drinks. Hostesses love to feed me. Famous artists lavish me with expensive artworks and heiresses do the same with jewels that I promptly lose. The fact of the matter is that if I worked a straight job I wouldn’t have time to do the serious business of my life, which is to amuse and delight, giving my rich friends a feeling of largesse, my poor friends a sense of high life and myself a true sense of accomplishment for having become a fixture and a rarity in this shark-infested metropolis.”
Mr. Ricard, who lived for many years at the Chelsea Hotel, was 67 when he died Saturday. Raymond Foye, his literary executor, said Mr. Ricard died at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan; he had cancer.
Mr. Ricard’s poems, collected in volumes including “Rene Ricard 1979-1980,” “God With Revolver” (1990), “Love Poems” (1999), were often intensely personal and self-conscious, with acerbic barbs aimed as much inwardly as at others:
“So, if I kill myself tonight/stop the headache/and the genius all at once,” he wrote at the end of one despairing poem, continuing:
then you could show my letters to the world
show I loved you once.
And your new lover
when he’s forgot your name
can say I knew Rene Ricard
And asked him once to leave my house.”
In the early 1980s, Mr. Ricard’s essays in ArtForum magazine, which brought together an observer’s keen eye, conversations with artists and his own tendency toward stream-of-consciousness introspection, were instrumental in pushing forward the careers of emergent artists, including Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring and, perhaps most notably, the graffiti-artist-turned-painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the 1996 film “Basquiat,” Mr. Ricard was played by the actor Michael Wincott.
“What is it that makes something look like art?” he wrote in “The Radiant Child,” an essay that propelled Basquiat to prominence and that many consider a seminal text in contemporary art criticism. “I can’t answer that. I asked someone once why he liked Jean-Michel’s work and why it was being singled out for acclaim, and he said, ‘Because it looks like art.’ But then again art doesn’t always look like art at first. The way the space shuttle that lifts off doesn’t much resemble the space shuttle as it lands.”
Friends of Mr. Ricard recalled in interviews that his talents were vast and that his knowledge, especially of art, was encyclopedic.
“He was very talented, and he loved art; he was an art junkie,” Schnabel said. “It was a lot of fun to go to a museum with him because he would walk up to a painting and tell you something you didn’t know.” Mr. Ricard was also, he added, a complex personality.
“He was a volatile and passionate and explosive character who could be extremely tender and insightful,” Schnabel said. “So you say to yourself, is it worth it? Is it worth the trouble to be friends with Rene? And I would say to people who were his friends, he was worth the trouble. When I say passionate, there was a level of emotional violence and pain that probably surrounded him his whole life. It made his work riveting.”
Albert Napoleon Ricard was born in Boston on July 23, 1946, and grew up in Acushnet and New Bedford in Massachusetts in a troubled home: His father, Delpha, was a violent alcoholic who was convicted of killing a man after a bar fight. Ricard remained close to his mother, Pauline, a factory worker, until her death in 2000. Foye, his literary executor, said Mr. Ricard is survived by a brother and a sister but had no other details.
Mr. Ricard left school after the eighth grade and was on his own by his midteens, living in the Boston area. There he met the poet John Wieners, who became a mentor, and sat in on classes at Harvard. A voracious reader, he became a self-educated art historian and a well-informed generalist whose knowledge awed his friends, including well-known artists.
“He just knew it all,” the artist Brice Marden said. “We’d take him to the country with us for the weekend. He’d disappear into a bedroom with five books, and the next day he had them all read.”
He had already taken the name Rene when he moved to New York with the purpose of entering the art scene that was coalescing around Warhol. He became a regular at the Factory and later, after Warhol moved the studio from Midtown to the Union Square neighborhood, at the nearby nightclub Max’s Kansas City. He appeared in Warhol’s films “Chelsea Girls” and “Kitchen” in the mid-1960s.
“I think he was only 19 when he came into the Factory,” said Gerard Malanga, a writer and photographer who had worked with Warhol. “He already knew who we were and why he was there. He became my protégé, the only one I’ve ever had.”
Mr. Ricard’s paintings, which were shown in New York by Schnabel’s son Vito, grew out of his poetry; he painted lines from his poems over otherwise completed paintings, some of them copies of masterworks, some found paintings, some original works.
But Mr. Ricard may be best remembered for less tangible accomplishments.
“He was an arbiter of taste,” said photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. “He had very strong opinions. He bored easily. If he liked your work, it meant a lot. In the top 10 of extraordinary New York art people, Rene was in the top three. He was as interesting as anyone you’ll ever meet.”