By Alain Elkann
Rene Ricard 1946 – 2014
It is very sad to have to say that this is the last Rene interview, because the death of a poet is the end of a voice. In any generation there are very few voices like that of Rene. So I think that all the American people who love poetry and art will want to mourn for Rene and think of him.
This interview is his last with me and it took place in my family home in Torino, where Rene stayed with Jacqueline and I in May, 2013. Rene spent a week with us, reading, writing, visiting museums and gathering flowers in the garden. This was one of his favourite occupations. Every day he made new, beautiful bouquets of the flowers he had picked from the garden.
Now, like the beautiful and troublesome flower that he was, unfortunately he has died himself. Luckily, because of his poems and his paintings, joined to his friends’ memories, he will survive forever in our hearts.
I hope Rene will rest peacefully, close to his beloved mother.
February 4th, 2014.
Poet, Critic and Painter
MY FIRST MASTER WAS ANDY WARHOL
Rene Ricard is one of the poets most painted by artists. He is said to figure in the paintings of Francesco Clemente more often than anyone else except Clemente’s wife Alba. How is that?
Francesco’s a poet. When he was nine years old his mother published “Pioggia di sabbia” (Raining Sand), a book of poems he had written. And if I’ve become a poet myself I really owe it to Francesco and Alex Katt, one of the great American painters.
The first artist to explode into your life was Andy Warhol…
I was seventeen and saw a gigantic picture of flowers in a gallery in Boston. I looked at it again and again, and during those hours I planned my life. I sold two Canovas I’d inherited for 800 euros without having any idea what they were worth and went to New York to see Warhol in his studio. Two days later I got to act a small part in his film “Kitchen”. When I asked him what I should wear for the film he said, “It’s a black and white film, so wear black and white.”
Did you become close friends?
More than anything, he gave me a lot of advice. When I started publishing poems my editor used the name Albert René Ricard. Warhol told me no one could take someone with three names seriously so I became just Rene. He was my master and I was his apprentice but to grow up you have to kill your father. I understood Warhol’s importance as an artist when the three Italian “C”s, Clemente, Chia and Cucchi, all wanted a portrait by Warhol as proof of their own distinction.
They say it was you who discovered Jean Michel Basquiat. How did that happen?
At five one morning in a friend’s house I saw a large drawing and stared at it for hours. It showed a plane bombing Hiroshima. I called the review Art Forum and told the editor I’d discovered a great new artist. She asked me, “What’s his name?” I answered, “I don’t know.”
How did you get to know each other?
I made an appointment to go and see him in his studio – he was sleeping on a kitchen floor on the lower East Side in New York. There were three small pictures of boxers, and he cooked me a plateful of ravioli with a fine piece of Parmesan cheese and some French butter. He said, “I thought you must be hungry,” which was true. Then I asked him, “Do you want to be the most famous artist in America?” He answered “Yes, if you can put me into the ring with Julian Schnabel…” – the most important painter at that time. “Okay, I’ll lace up your boxing gloves for you,” I said. So I wrote my piece and we met again and after that we walked a long path together.
When did Rene Ricard become an artist?
At the age of nine, like Raphael, I could draw well, but I felt embarrassed because no one else at the time could draw like that. In 1978 I painted some poems in oils: they belong to Nan Goldin and David Armstrong now. Then at one point my home in New York caught fire.
Is it true you lived near Allen Ginsberg?
Yes, he and Burroughs hated me and wanted to destroy my career. My only real friend was Gregory Corso. So I became “homeless” – I no longer had a home anywhere. One day I fell asleep on the Metro and someone robbed me thinking I had a wallet, but in fact there was only an exercise book with the poems I’d written during the last year. Emerging into the street I saw a large white door and decided to stop writing on paper. I composed a long poem on that door about why God had abandoned me. It was bought by Paola Igliori, the first wife of Sandro Chia, who then made it possible for me to work at the Petersburg Press where I was able to make paintings of my poems. I earned 250 thousand dollars in a single year. I believe I must be the first poet writing in English since Alexander Pope to make a living from his own poems.
And since then?
I have shows here and there, all over the place. At the moment in Vienna and next June I’m going to Greece.
Do you find that New York, where you live, has changed a lot?
Utterly. Aids has destroyed the city and the amusing and positive atmosphere it used to have.
Do you think of yourself more as a poet or as an artist?
Others define me as a poet, and maybe the fact that I now paint poems proves that I am a poet.
Why do you love early painting?
Because I’m American. Restoration is my great passion, and I wish I could have had that as my career. I love ruined paintings and being able to see what a restorer can make of them.
What about those who collect your own work?
My paintings are beginning to fetch very high prices and soon those who collect them will no longer be able to afford them. They bought a lot of my work in the early Nineties, paying ten or twenty thousand dollars a time because they thought I wouldn’t live long, and now I get that much for a single drawing…
How many paintings do you do in a year?
Usually five or six, though I work on some of them for a long time. I don’t own any myself because luckily they all get sold as soon as they’re finished.
Where do you have your studio?
Just now it’s where my bedroom used to be in the Chelsea Hotel.
A HOMELESS PERSON’S PAST
I fell asleep on the Metro
someone robbed me
took away my notebook of poems
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