Paintings by Bill Rice. Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2007.
LETTER TO BARNEY
It’s been almost a year since Bill Rice died. I don’t know if you knew him. He was a really good painter, an actor, an independent scholar in his later years, and a really decent person. He was also a considerable figure in the subterranean world of art and culture in the East Village for many years — a world that personally interested me very little. But Bill was different; he stood out. Not because he tried, but simply because he was.
At any rate, when I woke up this morning, at 4:30, which is, as you know, my custom, I opened the window and could immediately feel Bill’s presence. Or, his absence. He had, in fact, sat on this very sofa just about this time last year, some few months before he died. Maybe it was because it was the first cool day we’ve had recently, wintry and gray, or just because suddenly I missed him. I remember him once or twice staring out of this very window when we were not discussing inserting or completing the blow-job part of the landscape painting Joy and I had bought at the benefit his friends had recently organized to help pay for his hospital expenses.
To get back to this morning: Joy and I had just returned from Venice and Vienna, and I was trying to finish a suite of poems on the turn-of-the-century Secessionist artists and architects, when I was overwhelmed by the memory of Bill. And just as suddenly and almost automatically the attached poem wrote itself in a matter of minutes. And when it was finished, I remembered that I had written a eulogy for Bill I think on the very day or day after he had died. While Joy and I went to the commemoration they had for him some time later, I never delivered it, for reasons I’d rather not divulge here. In any case, I’ve attached this as well, in the spirit of that anniversary.
If the eulogy and poem work well enough for you and Astrid, why not also run some images of Bill’s paintings to commemorate him and his work. I also can dig up some great black and white personal photographs I took of him and his studio; there are also some of his show I curated over ten years ago at the Sidney Janis Gallery, and other things.
If you run the eulogy with the photographs, I promise not to withdraw my own poem again because of self-doubt. Hell, who reads poetry anyway, except other poets (maybe), and they are the worst lot of all — phony, linguistic, three-card-Monte players, without a pot to pee in. Perhaps we might call the whole thing: “For Bill Rice: A Letter, A Eulogy, A Poem, and Some Photographs.”
Hope you are both well. We are here in December, for a change, and hope to see you for the holidays. In January, we are off to China. Perhaps Barney could give us some tips on how to walk directly into a minefield without blowing ourselves up.
I first heard of Bill Rice in the mid-1980s, when I went to see a show of his paintings at the Patrick Fox Gallery, somewhere near the Bowery. I was immediately drawn to them, to the personal but dark, secretive, seemingly unreachable worlds they described. They were filled somehow with a smoldering sexuality and a collective sadness.
Sometime later I read a brilliant article that Rene Ricard wrote in Artforum, comparing Rice’s figurative and abstract paintings to Brice Marden’s monochromatic, geometrical abstractions. A real tour de force, and a gutsy call, especially to bring Rice’s blow-job paintings into the discussion. What subtle discourses we weave, when we are willing and able to. To me, however, they captured perfectly the city in the 1970s when it was truly an open and perilous place to live and work, and had become, to use the words of a good friend of mine, a necropolis.
Anyway, I couldn’t get the images out of my mind — their solemn, brooding, seductive quality, and yet, embodying a vivid, cutting-edge sense of reality on the margins of society — and, while I regretfully did nothing with them during the heydays of the Collins & Milazzo years, I stored them away in my memory. Years later, when I was curating a space at the Sidney Janis Gallery, I not only recalled them, I decided to show them. Bill, of course, decided to paint a whole, new body of work for the exhibition — and so happened all of those delightful and intelligent afternoon visits at his studio in the East Village. It was truly a marvelous experience, watching him make the subtlest of changes in his paintings over the course of time and listening to that deep voice of his reach into the depths of existence and weave the subtlest of sentences, filled with both the smallest and most profound of insights and observations.
I think the show at Janis happened in December of 1995. We hung the paintings everywhere in the space I had called for my project there, 11, rue Larrey at Sidney Janis Gallery. Carroll Janis, in the tradition of his father, even wanted to hang them from the ceiling. What fun it all was, and how beautiful, sensitive, and moving the pictures were. Paintings of trucks, Venetian blinds, yellow and black New York City taxicabs, and “Don’t Walk” signs. And black youth on bicycles and stoops, partly naked and glimpsed, often seemingly illicitly, through a curtain or blind. Rice’s world verged upon the voyeuristic, and the uncontainable. His realism was both brutal and subtle, abstract and literal, psychological and utterly physical. He never seemed to pull his punches — poverty is poverty is poverty — but he was not beyond the most magical, painterly sleights-of-hand. No one could make a painting glow romantically russet from the inside like Rice, using the reflected light from a garbage truck’s parking lights or from the crime lights overhead late at night.
Unfortunately, I never managed to sell any of those difficult but incredible pictures. Desperate to do something about the situation, I implored Ross Bleckner, a good friend of mine, to buy one. After all, he, too, had painted initially, and for the longest time, implacably dark pictures. He bought one. It was the only sale. I simply would not allow the show to go entirely unsold.
A year later, when I was invited to curate an exhibition of realist paintings and to lecture on realism at the Hopper House in honor of that institution’s 25th anniversary, I included a picture of Bill’s, and did one of the three lectures on his work. After delivering the formal part of my lecture, I invited him to join in, and to discourse on his work. He was so open and precise, and yet, always uncompromising about his vision as an artist and as a human being. I think people were really moved by him — not just by the content of his words but by his physical presence. This is going to sound pompous — dignified and even haughty, Rice was, but never arrogant or pompous —: I think people felt that despite his economic circumstances (he said he never made more than from the sale of his work organized by his good friends in the last months of his life), he was always an existentially commanding human being. Samuel Beckett, in this regard, comes to mind. Bill was, in short, a noble creature. I think Sam and he would have liked each other a great deal. After all, Bill was also an excellent actor, loving not only the theatre but great literature. And I am quite sure Sam would have loved Bill’s paintings, had he known them and him.
In the end, what I remember most was his gaunt figure, that deep voice, which seemed to resonate from the hinterlands of Vermont to the self-enclosed world of Krapp’s Last Tape (which I think he performed), and his incisive, dry humor. Somehow, he seemed taller than all of us, and to stride with a step wider than most. But for all of that, he was infinitely gentle and modest, to the point of seeming saintly.
Bill had so many good friends, and he was always surrounded by them. In the theatre, in the bars downtown, in our apartments. And they rallied around him during his moment of need, he himself having always been so supportive of them. Although I was not a part of his circle, I was lucky enough to count myself among the many other people he knew. And I think we will all miss him greatly.
New York City, January 26, 2006
Sometimes out of nowhere —
In a string of tawdry pearls
Or half-burnt out lights dangling
From the throat of a queen,
Flashing off for what seems like years already
And back on for a moment like this one —
Menopausal, dissolute, haughty —
Or like a garland left over,
Sparkling blue, green, red,
From some forgotten holiday or celebration,
Strung along a mirror with half-empty bottles
And fingerprints around the edges,
Filled with nothing but desire,
Smoke, idle talk, darkness,
And the companionship of strangers —
In the flash of blinking parking lights
From a garbage truck’s howling mouth in early morning,
Or in a glimpse of black flesh through Venetian blinds
Pulled down over the city under the moon,
Or in a bobbing head delivering a blow job
On a park bench or in the backseat of a taxi cab,
Or in the glint of a streetwalker’s accessories
Or a black youth’s perspiring body
Peering through a cyclone fence,
I see you there, Bill,
In your pictures of the night,
And in the lowly tree against a brick wall —
Like Giacometti and Beckett’s,
Black and white, but filled with memories
Of color — the colors of autumn in Vermont
And of your beloved East Village.
New York City, December 2, 2006