whitehot | May 2012: Cowboy Ray Kelly Interview
Arriving in New York City from his family farm in Texas in 1964 to study painting at the Art Student's League, Cowboy Ray Kelly lived an art-filled and adventurous life ever since, including ending the tumultuous decade of the 1960's as Mark Rothko's painting assistant for three years while the Rothko Chapel in Houston was being built. He apprenticed with Herbert Ferber, taught fresco, briefly, at Skowhegan School and founded the Rivington School on New York's Lower East Side in the 80's. He's shown work worldwide including P.S.1, Socrates Sculpture park, and the Cooper Hewitt Museum. He was Robert Motherwell's hired bartender of choice for the extravagant parties he and wife Helen Frankenthaler hosted at their upper East Side townhouse. Over the years he threw back drinks with everyone from Elaine de Kooning to Ad Reinhardt, married and divorced pioneering performance/video/film artist Arleen Schloss and still hits the town hard with Anja Kostler, his much younger and gorgeous German born photographer girlfriend. In 1970 he purchased an abandoned building on Broome street, across from WhiteBox gallery, for the price of one year's rent on a two bedroom apartment in today's market. As the curator of his exhibition, I got a chance to have a discussion with Cowboy Ray Kelly in his basement workshop/studio before his May 1st 2012 opening at Orchard Windows Gallery.
Greggory de la Haba: When I think of the Lower East Side in the eighties I think of crack heads, junkies, Puerto Rican gangs, homeless addicts selling stolen goods on the streets, graffiti and the sculpture garden on Rivington street which you created. I remember skating past this massive piling that always seemed to grow bigger, to keep reaching up to the heavens, like a Gaudi cathedral and as such never seemed complete. Tell me about that time and work.
Cowboy Ray Kelly: Oh, too many junkies. Thats one thing I don't miss seeing. Even found one dead in the abandoned car I had in the garden. Always shooting up in there. When the city tore it down, took a long time cause I welded it so damn good, I felt as though they were ripping out the Trevi Fountain from Rome. It was my masterpiece, those bastards.
GdlH: It was definitely an iconic landmark. Like the Bobby Bolles welded, mash-up, sculptures that used to grace the triangle down in SOHO on Broome and West Broadway, you just expected them to always remain in situ. Can you imagine the city removing the cube from St. Mark's Square?
CRK: Ha! I guess that's the difference between an artist installing a work for public viewing and some rich organization paying to have work placed there. Back in the 70's and 80's people didn't even want to pay for the buildings or empty lots let a lone a public art work initiative. So artists had to take it upon themselves to create and place accordingly.
GdlH: The Rivington School you started was an offshoot of the No Se No Social Club which was a Puerto Rican Social Club five steps down into a basement that you eventually turned into an art gallery and performance space. How does a 'gringo' from Texas take over a Puerto Rican social club and who showed up?
CRK: Ha! Well, the Puerto Ricans were busted by the cops for not having a liquor license as we eventually were, too. Many notables performed there on this little stage we had at the end of the bar including Taylor Mead, Phoebe Legere, Nancy Girl and E.F. Higgins III. And everyone from Debbie Harry to Keith Haring stopped in for the one dollar beers. The whole point of the Rivington School was to provide a place for unrepresented artists, a reaction against the big galleries, to show work and teach interested parties how to weld.
GdlH: And the first sculpture garden was in the empty lot from this location, yes?
CRK: Yes, 42 Rivington street.
GdlH:What made you switch from painting to sculpture?
CRK: I love painting. Love looking at pictures but growing up on a farm where we had to make our own tools, fix our own tools and always had welding equipment on hand, it just seemed a more natural direction to go, the physicality of working in steel, metal, re-bar gives great satisfaction.
GdlH: Maybe cracking all those eggs for Rothko's egg tempera concoctions turned you off from painting?
CRK: Ha! Maybe, never thought of it that way.
GdlH: And is it true what I read that he used the whole egg and never had a consistent formula?
CRK: It's true. Thats why they had to restore the Chapel paintings some years ago now, the yolk in the tempera was rotting the painting.
GdlH: What's the one thing you remember most about Rothko?
CRK: The alcohol.
GdlH: Heavy drinker?
CRK: He loved his scotch. Every morning he had me go get a bottle of Scotch, Johnny Walker Red.
GdlH: Your next show at Orchard Windows features these new sculpted metal cowboy hats resting on intricately twisted metal stands. You don't plan on resting your cowboy hat anytime soon do you?
CRK: Ha! Not unless the devil has something better planned.
GdlH: If you had unlimited resources what would you do?
CRK: Open an art school, support artists. That was Rothko's dream, too, until his foundation got sued.
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