By JANE RANKIN-REID, March 2023
I’m trying to retrieve a sound picture of my early 1980s years in New York City. Of the aural quintessence that entered my veins and switched on a new layer of beats in my head. Day and night, from intimate vistas scrawled with customized tributes and bold declarations, the streets reverberated with acoustic fragments of rhythm captured and instantly rephrased into synchronistic jump cuts. Sounds of single words said out loud in sharp claps like gun shots ricocheting through beams of sudden light. Shards of brass rising, drum and bass beats booming out of passing cars hitting my skin like solid soda water. Music was a shared pulse overlaying the streets, outpacing physical distance. From hard to soft, bass turned way up high, the street’s beat was a constant secret audio stream entering my system like the warmth of a high.
Some nights, every song was a signal, outfitting emotions with canonical beats and intimate prose phrased as anthems. Canned skeins of truth and beauty. The Red Bar is imprinted onto my essential NY time line, though not the details. I’ve had to retrace my steps to relocate it on Avenue A, in 1982 or was it the spring of 1983? Sitting smoking and drinking beer on a ledge outside, watching vivid downtown night lifers passing by, wondering if I was seeing things differently because I was there.
To The Kitchen on Wooster Street, hearing Glenn Branca’s deafeningly exhilarating 100 Guitar symphonies, Laurie Anderson’s symphonic subversions and sets of Arto Lindsay’s Ambitious Lovers. The Knitting Factory for Sonic Youth and Eric Bogosian’s physical poetry. Filtering in and out of nights of drinking, dancing and prowling. Pausing to chat with Taiwan born artist Tehching Hsieh tied to performance artist Linda Montano. Or being drawn into David Hammons’ Bliz’aard Ball Sale at St Mark’s sidewalk market.
Everything mattered under the cover of darkness. Chimeras eeked out of the most pitiful strangeness. We were incapable of being blasé in our efforts to become cool at being ourselves. Writing about the surging tide of Hip Hop culture in our downtown lives meant writing my body into the heartbeat of the street. Nights of getting high on histories of our own making began with the physicality of the sound track. Atmospheres, ambitions, attitudes and artistic shifts were a shared beat felt intensely among us. Every night a galaxy of awareness landed in our heads. By morning, only some of it would be gone. This story is not a bar crawl though.
“You are so goddamned white, lady! You are the Philadelphia Cream Cheese of whiteness”. The word Phil/a/delph/ia sounded like an object.
I wanted to take off the red suede Santini e Domenici high heeled shoes I was wearing. They were perfect for standing around looking fabulous in, not so great for walking on broken glass. Heading to an event at Nature Morte in the East Village, the lights changed at Delancey Street. I became trapped on the Bowery’s central medium strip usually hosted by an elderly drunk in a frilled pinafore apron over a grubby woollen suit. He was not there that day. I was wearing a tightfitting sky-blue Missoni cut-away dress generously exposing my hips and belly. I could make a dash in a break in the streaming afternoon traffic. Or walk up the concrete central aisle towards Houston Street.
My shoes kept my mincing pace carefully in check. Avoiding clots of hot summer afternoon human tension on the steaming pavements on either side of the road also meant being visible to traffic travelling to and from the Brooklyn Bridge. A risky conspicuousness I kind of enjoyed chancing, visibility as a form of defiance, yet resolutely vulnerable as I gingerly made my way over the layers of litter and glass. With the city as my fantasy lover, I longed for its adoration. But New York’s reciprocated desire meant being objectified, disdained, disappeared. At the Spring Street corner, an angry thirtyish man began taunting me from the east side of the street, capturing me in his narrative along the lengthy stretch from Rivington towards Houston Street.
“Lady, you are so goddam fucking white! Your feet can’t even stand on broken glass.”
He wore soiled ragged pants and a torn plaid shirt. One of the itinerant out-of-it souls constantly floating to the surface of the Bowery in those early 1980s years. My boyfriend, then husband Gianfranco Mantegna and I lived on Delancey Street. On the next corner, Glenn Branca and Barbara Ess lived across from Willoughby Sharp’s fortress, while John Giorno and William Burroughs were further down the street. No one took street commentary personally. But I was alone, trapped on the central aisle, a focal point of attention I’d gamely initiated but now regretted.
My interlocuter’s curly black hair stuck out from his head in cork screws, his feet were bare on the hot concrete sidewalk. He kept pace with my cautious steps, trumpeting his displeasure, foul, jeering, truthful. “White, white, white!”, he screamed. “Too white to bite!” In the middle of the Bowery’s surging traffic, I was physically safe from this human canon’s fierce outrage but it wouldn’t pay to get any closer to his righteous fury. He cajoled and hollered at me as if trying to engage some of the other drunks and homeless people sheltering in the shade of the buildings on his side of the street. Hoping they’d pick up his “White, white, white! Too white to bite!” chant perhaps. Yes definitely. He wanted attention for his attention to my whiteness.
Passing drivers honked and catcalled. A trucker yelled out of his window. The angry man’s tirade continued for what seemed like an eternity. A blush spread through my body; even my stomach reddened. I was beyond mortified. Daunted, my sinful skin shone bright with shame. He was right. How could I be so white?
Eventually the lights changed at the corner of Houston Street. I crossed onto Second Avenue. The man kept pace with me. His taunts were overwhelming, my bare skin prickled with self-administered ignominy. Why had I dared exhibit myself on the Bowery’s tawdry long-distance catwalk in this foolhardy way? To iconicize myself into a cliched blonde fleshpot. As I continued towards East 2nd Street on firmer pavement, his voice faded into the crosstown traffic sounds. In a bodega at the next corner, I finally caught my breath in the soured air of sprouting onions and rotting plantains. Then I paid for my cigarettes and went back onto the street. My tormentor was gone.
I met Gianfranco early in 1983. So much, although never all of my NY life was in his exceptionally knowing company. The ultimate cultural escort, he shepherded my induction into the ecology of the European and American contemporary art worlds. He was shamelessly optimistic about modern culture and how art could change the world. Gianfranco’s air of careless bohemian freedom belied the intensity of his artistic experiences. In the art he made and collected, he took risks seldom taken elsewhere in his life. He was bright, vivid at times, light spirited, sensual, humorous, acute.
Gianfranco’s elite aristocratic Italian comfort zone crumbled like an ancient monument in 1964 when he was photographed with Andy Warhol at his first European opening at Obelisk Gallery in Rome. When the image appeared in the Out and About pages of La Stampa, Gianfranco was given the option of not being seen at anymore underground art events, or quitting his job. It was too good an offer to refuse. He knew his family would appreciate him standing up for something he believed in. It was time to get out of town. He joined the Living Theater’s caravanserai and never looked back.
By the time he arrived in NY in 1969, he’d appeared in several Italian friends’ films. Antonioni’s Antigone (with the Living Theater), and earlier, in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. With a shrug of his shoulder, the brief profile of my lover as a young Roman hipster lounging on the Spanish Steps as Nico dances by, is gone. He inhabited an era I loved. Pier Paulo Pasolini, Lena Wertmuller, Bernardo Bertolucci and Fellini’s films changed my world in my late teens. I dreamed of accompanying their creative rejection of convention. For Gianfranco, it was a way of life. Maintaining an air of indifference and effortlessness mattered to him. One of the original 1960s Roman paparazzi, his portraits of cultural rebels and heroes were always beautifully found, a trove of identities covering decades from an insider’s viewpoint. He’d crashed at Keith Richards’ flat in Paris during the 1968 uprisings and been busted at London’s Round House (with the Living Theater) for on-stage nudity later that year. Nearly fifty years old when Guillaume Gallozzi introduced us, silvery haired and blessed with an exquisite arced nose, Gianfranco still fitted most of his 1960s outfits from his youth. The velvety leather pants and neon pink shirts he’d danced with Nico in were preserved in boxes stacked in tidy layers. It was a speed freak’s ideal of order softened by the pot haze of his morning toke.
Unsurprisingly, his shrewd conceptually orientated art works had little commercial viability. Long gestations led to abrupt manifestations of his ‘Documents of Resistance’, a series of expressions of deprivation and pain. These rare art performances were richly bizarre. In 1975, his ‘Surrounded Manhattan’ (by bridge) action-performance saw him temporarily arrested. Gianfranco’s full length photograph of himself on a Service Nationale route march in the early 1960s matched the bold stride of his friend Joseph Beuys ‘La Revolutzione Siamo Nois’ (We Are the Revolution) print made a decade later. The pair hung together in our loft space for many years, comrades advancing unforeseeable change.
To celebrate my thirtieth birthday in 1986, Gianfranco devised a tribute to Beuys by hanging upside down at Plexus, Sandro Dernini’s performance space on West 25th Street. Dressed in a boiler suit, dripping honey slowly down his left arm onto the floor before throwing Kiehls “Smoke” essence onto fluttering cloth strips tied to a forest of standing fans. It was a hot night, the room soon filled with Gianfranco’s subversive aroma, the music darkened and the lights went down, as if at sunset. Smooth.
A few weeks later, artist and Y Pants musician Barbara Ess asked us to participate in one of her Fugitive Enigmas pinhole camera shoots, saying we were the most modern couple she could find that Sunday morning. Posing me kissing Gianfranco against a wall turned us both on. At exhibition openings, night time events, on the sidewalks, on the dancefloor, at the bar, downtown tribes affected inventive characterizations of creative misfits, emboldened with dangerous late modernist ideals. Sometimes I wore a vintage black polkadot Dior dress trimmed with a 19th century lace collar. My body could be anything beneath its perfect billowing shell of silk. It was a dress for when night meets daylight anew. In dramatic contrast to the lithe club dancers wearing little more than g-strings and glitter, boots, big hair and fabulous makeup. Costume is communication; from the moment I arrived, New York indulged my love of dressing up. In my early twenties, seeking signs of myself through others’ eyes, clothes were a special language for me, part of finding myself as a young person. In a city that believes in the mystique of appearances and stares longingly at all kinds of attire, clothes soon became part of my identity as a woman.
Whenever we met, former Warhol Factory superstar, the poet, painter and flaneur Rene Ricard would finger my white lace collar noting its Austrian origins with the practiced authority of an ancient couturier. Rene was perfectly at ease singling out my ensemble for attention. Charm cloaked his vivid intellect and generous critical insights into artistic values of all epochs. In these exchanges, we gratified each other’s immediate needs. Mine to be noticed and included, his to display his far-reaching knowledge. It was a pleasure to catch his lavish attention and watch others respond to him. A polished social operator, always conscious of the impact he made, Rene could be as charming as Edit and just as deadly.
In Radiant Child, Ricard’s ground breaking 1981 Artforum essay, he showed me how to love the emotional language of graffiti.
“Any Tag by any teenager on any train on any line is fairly heartbreaking. In these autographs is the inherent pathos of the archeological site, the cry down the vast endless track of time that “I am somebody,” on a wall in Pompeii, on a rock at Piraeus, in the subway graveyard at some future archeological dig, we ask, “Who was Taki?”
Radiant Child was the first time Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work was drawn into critical circles in such a forceful predictive manner. The essay is a lamentation too, a warning of excess and the risk of waning integrity. It is a masterful piece of writing heralding Basquiat’s ascent and some of the pitfalls that lay ahead.
“When you're climbing a ladder, don't kick out the rungs.”
Whenever we met, Rene made his ritual inspection of my outfit, my pearls too, before alighting upon our shared initials, relishing the jewel of our double Rs, a blessed cocktail conversational cue at a street art event, he might have added.
‘We become our name. I have spent my life becoming my name so that it would somehow protect the ‘Radiant Child’ it has been created to arm…’
Words to live by. And then someone else would engage his attention and he’d be gone.
One night in early 1982 at Books & Co. I went to hear Rene read. I knew no one when I entered the bookstore’s crowded upstairs room a few blocks from my first gallery job on Madison Avenue. Half of the downtown art world were there to hear Rene, their clarioneering champion art critic of a poet’s uptown debut, I’d later learn.
‘(Y)ou have no choice but to look at things in this way… Does His Voice Sound Some Echo in your Heart… John Wieners (from Radiant Child by Rene Ricard, ArtForum 1981)
A year or so later, Rene read his work at the Danceteria launch for his Tiffany blue covered slim volume of poetry and stilled the crowded room with his polished reveries. He was destined to become a great poet, yet doubt often impeded him. As his drug habit advanced, he hustled drawings Jean-Michel gave him to raise cash to score. The beneficiary of these dirt cheap artworks often haggled him down a few bucks for the fun of it. But their painfully one-sided relationship continued for years.
There were times when Rene looked soiled and lost. He could be grandly wretched, though his rapier tongue was never tempered by humility. Still no one else I knew in those years behaved with more grace and nobility in the creative defense of artists than Rene Ricard. When he rescued the elderly tongue tied Beat poet John Wieners at St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in the winter of 1984, Rene’s patient tenderness melted my heart.
It was a rare NY appearance after decades of absence. The reclusive Wieners travelled from Boston to read his new work to a room full of dedicated fans. Dressed in crumpled chinos and a long sleeved shirt, the celebrated Beat poet took a few moments to settle into his chair on stage after Rene’s lavish introduction. Rene looked sleek and well rested, wearing a close-fitting navy fine wool suit for the evening. His tribute to Wieners and his poetry would prove a hard act to follow.
Placing a plastic shopping bag beside his chair, John Wieners withdrew a couple of typewritten pages, as if at random. He read through several poems before ceasing abruptly, mid-sentence. After a little more shuffling, he became quite still in his seat, staring at the stage floor. The silence lengthened, the audience and our host were increasingly uneasy.
From the stretched-legged languor of Rene’s brightest on-stage listening pose, he now sat straight upright, clasping his hands between his knees, a paragon of concern. John Wieners seemed to have literally floated out of the room. Soon the audience’s shuffling and subdued conversations became louder. Finally, Rene reached under Wiener’s chair and retrieved the pages of poems. With a barely perceptible nod from the great man himself, Rene began to read his poems for him in a perfectly weighted pitch, his mid register Boston accent carefully enunciating every word. I heard John Wiener’s masterful Poem for Painters narrated in Rene Ricard’s beautiful voice that night, the only time I’ve listened to it in such perfect company.
“America, you boil over”. ("Poem for Painters" by John Wieners)
Rene Ricard’s reflective ideal of the artist’s essential presence in society guided my perceptions of NY from a moral point of view. He wouldn’t dream of letting his poet hero down even when the great man seemed to flee his words. John Wieners and his poetry were part of Rene’s formative life code. Eventually he resumed reading a page from Rene’s outstretched hand. “Here, take it, it’s yours”.
‘One must become the iconic representation of oneself in this town, one is at the mercy of the recognition factor and one’s public appearance is absolute’.
When I first met Rene Ricard in 1982, I took his advice about one’s public appearances liberally. Punk glamour was my default style setting. But on measly gallery salaries, it took ingenuity and daring to dress for underground success. I felt I’d only ever partially achieved this ritual obligation until a woman at a party uptown accused me of ‘cheating’ for wearing a vintage silk nightdress over a pair of Levis. I realized that my ‘style’ was projecting a unique personal language after all.
I changed the way I looked again in Nice in the summer of 1985 when I had my long blonde hair cut into a sunny Riviera bob. Gianfranco burst into tears when I met his train from Rome later that evening. “Cara, mia hai rotto il cuore!”, he cried. (Darling, you’ve broken my heart!) Italy infuriated him. He’d been at the office of his magazine for a week in Rome and was already sick of it. NY was our natural home he believed. Our white enamel painted door-dining room table was headquarters for the art and photography magazines he filed for as US editor in a series of gigs he’d held down for some years when I first met him.
At the heart of Gianfranco’s unhurried journalistic pursuits lay his fascination for the slowly unveiling saga of the US space industry. His by-line, Corrispondente Spaziale (Space Correspondent) delighted him. The gallant technological innovations, the immense scale of the many rocket launches he attended and the food served onboard US spaceships appealed to he and his Italian readers. Powdered yogurt, dehydrated noodles and vegetables. His returns from Houston and Cape Canaveral during the height of the early 1980s US space program were celebrated with orbital meals assembled from space food souvenirs.
The effort of survival in Manhattan never outweighed the pressure he felt in Rome, the ancient city of his birth. He was my collaborator, my lover, my closest companion. He lived in a self-imposed exile, though never as an expatriate. Then when depression and alcohol overcame his spirits, his graceful, groomed open-hearted demeanor, the historic legacy of his acute moral discipline, even his prodigious knowledge of international art began to dissolve into an abstracted angry man caricature. He started throwing paintings out of the windows of our 2nd floor loft in manic tantrums. I tried to thaw into myself, eliding sideways from his emotional assailment. I had a brief affair in another country, further separating myself from my poor miserable husband’s increasingly ugly furies. I was overwhelmed, incapable of dealing with his illness. I was failing at our marriage, I knew. The years of carrying his doubt, addiction and inertia had taken an awful toll. An English friend, Andrew Crocker died suddenly, Jean-Michel Basquiat was found overdosed in his Great Jones Street loft. The early 1988 fall NY art season was filled with invitations to memorials and funerals for friends dead from drugs or AIDs. Francesco Clemente sat with us at Basquiat’s memorial. ‘Another one later this week’, he said grimly. We couldn’t miss farewelling our loved ones yet I felt barely present. European art magazines commissioned obituaries for the artists I’d known and loved. Publishing in these elite pages was a career break that did nothing to alleviate my deep sense of loss.
Gianfranco and I held each other in our grief and rage. It was agonizing. Our lives were blowing apart amidst these incredible sorrows. Drug overdoses and the American government’s denial of thousands dying untreated of AIDS left me feeling ashamed, powerless and deeply saddened. Feelings that have never left me. There have been so many lost. This story is saving me. Failure is its fondest witness.
Artistic success bred a kind of tough love even when everyone was doing drugs in gallery back rooms at openings. By the late 1980s, Edit and Rene were no longer automatically invited to intimate post opening soirees. “The Dinner. Who is going to The Dinner?” Rene canvassed hopefully as if looking to share a cab to an elite event he felt he belonged at.
Twilight of the Gods/ After tapdancing too long on Olympus/ One should find a quiet retreat in Parnassus/ Outside the shade of some other monument. (R.R unpublished poem to Edit DeAk ca 1985)
There were dizzying heights to be scaled for the ambitious. Many did not make it. In the intervening years since Edit and I had last met, we’d lost close friends. Gianfranco, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rammellzee, Phase 2, Richard Hambleton, Guillaume Gallozzi, David Wojnarowicz, David Rattray, Duncan Smith, Nicholas Moufarrege, Edit herself, Rene Ricard, Barbara Ess and Willoughby Sharpe among so many others. All gone.
It was a warm Spring day in April 1989. I was on my way to an appointment with my therapist on West 12th Street. For her sessions, Dr. Rebecca lay on a leather Barker lounge as if watching a TV show. She was relaxed though alert, her teeth ruined from years of speed and neglect, her long hair greyed and untrimmed. Yet she was the chosen interpreter for my rapidly unravelling head space. I couldn’t make sense of my world any more. Spiritually, I felt as though I was wading through treacle. Although I was succeeding where I’d previously failed dismally, my writing was being published and I could afford to get away from the mess NY had made of itself and me. But I was miserable, lost and increasingly disassociated from myself.
As I make my way towards my appointment, I’d been running the upcoming conversation through my head, as if rehearsing what I wanted to hear myself saying. I’d lost sight of myself again in the maelstrom of dead friends and my failing marriage. I needed a break from the tsunami of doubt coursing through my veins and a safe place to think aloud.
Ahead on Lafayette Street, I could see Rene sitting on a doorstep in the sunshine. His long legs outstretched on the pavement, his sneakered feet shuffled rhythmically as though dancing. He was wearing faded Levis, a pink washed out zippered hoodie and his Confederate style cap. Nodding sleepily in the warm sunlight and yet noisily mumbling to himself, his presence was hard to ignore as always. As I drew closer, Rene stood up, arms outstretch as if to greet me warmly as usual. I started to reciprocate his gesture. Then he shrank back, his body curled in fury and began screaming at me. Rene was seriously angry. He was waiting to be paid for some drawings. The buyer, a mutual acquaintance was a rude unmannered asshole for keeping him waiting again because obviously he himself had appointments to keep. In other words, Rene needed to score. I apologized for such appalling treatment of my artistic spirit guide. Caught in the woeful slipstream of his amnesic bitterness, as if I’d faded from his affections altogether, Rene started cursing me. “He’s turned you into a fucking bitch art whore”, he screamed. Jarred by his toxic mood swing and the force of his legendary mercurial temper, my face reddened, tears welled. I bolted across the street in front of a moving taxi. There was a screech of brakes, a door slammed, the sound of two cursing voices merged into a murderous operatic crescendo as I reached Broadway. There, by simply turning a corner, I instantly escaped the wrath, rage and thunderous fulminations being hurled at me.
For as long as I’d known them, Gianfranco and his best friend, the poet David Rattray had staged strategic revenge parties for their various departed ex girlfriends and other nemeses. David had a massive sized head and an unusual style of recitation for his poetry, rich, rude, infuriated. His grand physical stature never quite matched the temperament of his words, yet he was a man of exquisite old worldly gentility, a leading translator of Antonin Artaud’s poetry and an avid student of Sanskrit. Soon after I’d met him, David invited us to watch him demolish his recently departed lover’s cowboy boots. On the street corner opposite St Marks, he read a poem about revenge before lighting a match to her precious hand-stitched leather boots crammed full of firecrackers. A cheer rang out as her memory exploded in smouldering lumps of hide all over the pavement.
Now various intimate items of my own began showing up on my doorstep. Files of writing notes punched with tiny circles, letters from old lovers, their words underlined in inky pen marks and in one bizarre secret late night delivery, several pairs of my panties plied into a knotted chain of lacey cotton were left dangling from the doorknob of the friend I’d taken refuge with. As if to emphasis my agoraphobic shrink’s warning that to recover my authentic identity as a woman, I needed to strip the language of allurement from my emotional vocabulary. To shed the trappings of seduction she told me I needed to start wearing panties not lingerie. It was bewildering to feel so disassociated and yet newly empowered by my emotional survival. In the ten or so years since I’d arrived, NY had entered my bloodstream. It was the safest sanctuary for my dangerous ideals. My heart was connected to its arteries. But now it felt like a war zone.
*all quotes from “Radiant Child” by Rene Ricard, December 1981, Artforum USA. WM
Tasmanian based writer, curator and art critic Jane Rankin-Reid writes fiction and critical essays. An amanuenses to the artist Rammellzee, she is 1980s New York legacy graffiti artist Koor 1’s biographer. The former Keeper of The John Deakin Archive (UK), she has worked as a foreign correspondent, editor and columnist in newspapers, art magazines and journals in the US, India, Nepal, Japan, Europe, UK and Australia. A US Editor for ArtScribe UK, Art+Text Australia and Senior Writer at Tehelka, New Delhi, her essays and feature articles have been published in Le Monde, The Guardian, the Australian Financial Review, the Mercury Tasmania and First Post India, among others.
It Would Take a Diagram is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Color of Night, Jane Rankin-Reid’s unpublished memoir of the 1980s downtown New York art scene. Photo by Caroline Darcourt, Paris, 2021view all articles from this author