From Manhattan to Montauk, with Los Angeles and Miami in-between, Bill Powers is something of a man about, well, towns. He is a renaissance dandy, a renowned gallery owner, a Ditch Plains surfer, an art critic and collaborator, the editor-at-large of Purple magazine, an author (Interviews with Artists, What We Lose in Flowers), a champion of untapped talent, and yes, the husband of the designer Cynthia Rowley, who is quite nearly inseparable with him at social galas and fashion events.
So it’s of little surprise that he befriended and connected with the late Rene Ricard (2014), the influential art critic, published author and poet, social-coaster, Andy Warhol Factor manque, and Chelsea Hotel artist-in-residence. Though a social butterfly of the East Village scene of the ’70s and ‘80s, he mattered, strategically, having pioneered, through his writing and Downtown-Uptown connections, such iconic ‘80s artists as Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente, and most famously, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like so many Jack-of-all-trades, however, he was somewhat unsung, particularly when it came to his own clever and distinct text art, drawings, and collages. He broke others, but never quite himself, having been broke most his life. He died at age 67.
Perhaps he will have his posthumous Renaissance of his own. At Miami’s Art Basel this month, Powers, who helms the Upper East Side’s youth-driven Half Gallery, is bringing a splice of his art-star incubation station to the SIXTY Hotels’ Nautilus, showcasing rarely seen works by Ricard, and including one of his works incorporated into the bottom of the hotel’s swimming pool.
“I think we will stand out by doing a historical booth in a crowded field of young talent,” says Powers. “In the way that the Frieze Art Fair has Frieze Masters to showcase older paintings, I like to joke that our Rene Ricard solo presentation could fall under the heading of NADA Masters… although as of yet that category does not officially exist,” he dryly asides.
At an event known for breaking the Next Big Thing in the art world, Powers believes that the art-savvy crowd will mostly know, or at least have heard of, Ricard, who Powers befriended a decade or so ago. “I met Rene at Jacqueline Schnabel’s house in the West Village, though Andy Spade had familiarized me with his work years prior,” says Powers. “He immediately struck me as a Renaissance Man, albeit, with some heavy vices.
“Pretty much everyone down there [in Miami] has seen the Julian Schnabel movie Basquiat, which Rene wrote all the voiceover for.” He was a principle character in the film. “For the uninitiated, this tends to be the quickest point of entry,” says Powers. Or, if visitors to the hotel and Half Gallery pop-up there aren’t familiar with him, Powers says, “I will point out that Rene wrote the ArtForum cover story ‘The Radiant Child,’ which launched Basquiat’s career. But yeah, Ricard’s paintings and poetry are definitely lesser known.”
Of all Ricard’s short poem’s, Powers is drawn to a pointedly brief one: “I’ll never be old/I’ll be young/And then one day I’ll be gone.”
“It’s funny and defiant and full of good melancholy,” says Powers. “Rene was erratic, and a true bohemian. He made art when he needed money, and was still sleeping on his friend’s couch at the Chelsea Hotel right up until the very end. He was in early Warhol films with Edie Sedgwick, became a critic, and then a poet, and then a painter.” He wasn’t unrecognized for his endeavors, though, in the power-player art community. “The gallerist Larry Gagosian spoke at his memorial to an audience that included the director Jim Jarmusch and artist Brice Marden. “Rene was a man of many hats.”
Of the ever-increasingly pricey art world of today, Powers says that it’s critical to champion figures such as Ricard, as well as the recently passed-away Interview magazine editor Glenn O’Brien, another Factory alumni. “These sort of guys are often the superglue of culture connecting different worlds.”
Of the Nautilus set-up for Half Gallery, Powers says, “In the past the hotel has invited artists such as Katherine Bernhardt to paint the bottom of the pool. For this Art Basel, we worked with the Rene Ricard estate to reproduce one of his best known paintings: ‘Then Love Takes Us to Faraway Places’… in this case, the kiddy pool. This text is the second line from his poem, ‘Growing Up in America.’”
Elsewhere in the hotel’s space, Power’s has incorporated a piece from Warhol’s own collection. “It’s a Formica table top onto which Rene scrawled, ‘Blowjobs 5 cents/With lipstick 25 cents.’ Rene first saw the line written on a bathroom mirror in San Francisco in the 1970s,” says Powers.
The gallerist visited Ricard on his dying days. “He was in Bellevue,” says Powers. “The last thing he asked me was to go down to the gift shop and buy him a PayDay bar.”
Besides the rarely-seen-before art works of Ricard that Powers has collected, mostly Powers remembers him for his wit, which translated into his art. Case in point: Ricard was sitting across from Courtney Love, post-Kurt Cobain, at a restaurant, and Ricard was heard to say, “Look, she’s had so much plastic surgery, she doesn’t even recognize me.” We do.