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Obituary: Rene Ricard

The artist, critic and bon vivant was credited with propelling Jean-Michel Basquiat to fame

“Suck my pussy, you star!” Rene Ricard loved a shocking opening line, something so punchy that he was often ­physically assailed—or thumped—on first meeting people. He also loved heroin, opera, crack cocaine, 18th-century ­furniture, bondage, French literature, hardcore S&M and the very wealthy. “You are fortunate enough to be speaking to Rene Ricard, friend of the rich, enemy of the people—this is she.”

For 50 years, Ricard cut a unique swathe (one might say a “sashay”) through the many worlds of Manhattan, where the dingiest demi-monde abutted the smartest social register and where “Rene” (uttered with something between a sigh and groan) was a seemingly eternal fixture. Ricard was one of those hidden motors of the city without whom it is almost inconceivable that it could function. Akin to spotting Woody Allen with his clarinet, spying Rene with a crack pipe and dog-eared Rimbaud meant that New York was same as it ever was.

As of 1 February, it is no more, as Ricard died suddenly and unexpectedly of cancer, aged 68. As one of the last long-time residents of the Chelsea Hotel, his death also marks the demise of that bohemian institution.

Ricard was a poet and art critic especially celebrated for his writing on contemporaries such as Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat; his 1981 Artforum essay “The Radiant Child” was crucial to ­making Basquiat’s fame. An Apollinaire to the 1980s art-firmament, Ricard was almost as much a star as the painters themselves, though he was always acutely conscious of his own ­relative failure next to their greater glory.

Artist povera

In 1977, Ricard appeared on TV vaunting his own penury and how Brice Marden called him a “dilettante”. And certainly, compared with the wealth of such artists, Ricard lived a life of genuine poverty, albeit consistently supported by them (or their wives). Ricard famously fought with Basquiat over a painting he claimed had been promised to him (a central plot device in the later movie “Basquiat”, 1996). However, he boldly lost or pawned all the art given to him by his famous friends, if he had not already sold it on the street for drugs.

Ricard was also a ready muse and model, whether in a 1970s study by Mapplethorpe of the poet-as-leather-queen or in the memorable images Nan Goldin took of him at his most handsomely crack-ravaged. Ricard’s debut book of poems in 1979 was the first publication by the Dia Foundation and was followed by at least five slim volumes and fanzines. Ricard also scrawled his poetic shards and bittersweet epigrams on scraps of card, walls or battered found-canvases, and these striking “paintings” were regularly exhibited, including recently in London at the gallery of his friend Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones.

Escape to New York

Albert Napoleon Ricard was born in Massachusetts on 23 July 1946 into, according to his own legend, the oldest of old New England grandeur. (In preference to any dream of becoming a poète maudit, Ricard’s real fantasy was closer to being a Boston Brahmin such as Robert Lowell.) Ricard escaped to New York at 18 to become a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he inevitably ended up starring in several movies. Ricard played Warhol himself in “The Andy Warhol Story”, 1967, although his most impressive role was in the perfectly named “Underground USA”, 1980. For the ­camera loved Ricard, and he loved it back with all the flourish of a fallen ingénue.

It might be added that Ricard also loved The Art Newspaper. When introduced to Anna Somers Cocks, our chief executive, she mentioned that his voice sounded extraordinarily like that of Jayne Wrightsman, the highest high-society patroness of the Metro­politan Museum of Art. Whereupon Ricard fell to his knees in gratitude at the greatest compliment he could imagine.

Once, at an opening for Lou Reed’s photographs at the Hermès store on Madison Avenue, Ricard turned up 50 minutes after the event had ended and attempted entry by assuring the bouncer of his eternal intimacy with “Lou”. But no amount of pleading could get him in to see the closed show. As we stood outside, Ricard boasted, “I have even had my suits complimented in The Art Newspaper.” After I revealed that I had written this, he snapped back, “Of course you did, darling, of course.” Then, when I introduced him to the young Hermès heir I happened to be with, Ricard cried out, “Everything I am wearing is Hermès, top to toe; it’s all 1972,” before adding, “and I can promise you that I will never wear Hermès again after tonight—never!” He then hurled his vintage loafers into the gutter in disgust.

Gone now and gone forever are his trademark phone monologues, where he would start talking mid-phrase, entirely without introduction, rambling brilliantly through salacious ­gossip of the cattiest kind. The astonishing ­performance could last up to an hour, until he replaced the receiver equally abruptly with his inimitable whispered hiss: “That’s it, baby… it’s over and out from Radio Rene.”

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 255 March 2014