By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST March, 2023
War assisted at the birth of Modernism. “We did that” Picasso told Braque upon encountering a camouflaged tank. Braque, the Cubist, and the Expressionist, Otto Dix fought on opposing sides of that bloody battleground, the Somme, during the First World War, the war which created Dada. David Richardson has been equally motivated by war but very differently. A career officer in the Marine Corps, a colonel in Iraq, who has been until recently working for the administration on the oversight on weapons of mass destruction, Richardson has been a lifelong painter. His work in the show which opens on March 16th at the AMRM gallery on East 69th Street are abstractions, but his precisely considered use of such symbols as arrows, circles, Zeroes and Ones, loads them with meaning. But meaning just what?
The Zeroes and One clearly reference the binary code that is the language of AI. “But there’s something deeper I was going after. It’s kind of the myth of progress,” Richardson says. “I mean that AI has been sold to us as this great progress but really it’s going to entangle us more. We were probably at our freest and best and smartest 15,000 years ago when we were hunters and gatherers.”
Richardson’s other symbols include crosses, also arrows and circles. And many come from reading maps. “In the marine corps I read maps the whole time,” he says. These signs are the pictorial lingo of war. “I lived with the myth of war since I was a little boy in Chicago." His father would sit in the house with his World War II comrades every Sunday, drinking and talking. “I grew up with the myth of what combat was because I would hear them talk about it and I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about, what was so enthralling about warfare. Ii’s a smoldering turd and I wanted to find out what it was that keeps us so fascinated by it.”
Richardson was lastingly impacted by reading Homer’s Iliad as a youth, then at college by Memories, Dreams, Reflections, co-written by Carl Jung, the Swiss psycho- analyst, Freud’s heir, then rival. “It really rang true to me when he wrote about archetypes and how we live by myth,” Richardson said. “We all have some ideal that we want to be, it’s based on something whether its a childhood dream or something that we discover as we go along and it changes.” Myth is his subject matter. “I think I’m in a good place to be as a painter because that myth we live by is fundamental to who we are,” he says. “It’s as fundamental as food, water and shelter.”
For Richardson, war is the prime creator of myth. “There’s some dignity in an act of courage and that is what elevates somebody to a mythic status’” he says. But it’s not nowadays the norm. “I don’t like the word warrior,” he says. “We’re not warriors today. We’re employed by the state to fight wars.”
Hasn’t the Ukraine war revived the warrior myth? “That’s to do with the resilience of Zelensky,” Richardson
says. “There was no Zelenskys in Iraq, there was no Zelensky in Afghanistan. Zelensky has become a modern myth, probably not seen since Churchill.”
Richardson’s Trojan War paintings, which include the earliest of the works at AMRM, were born of his belief that a number of his fellow Marines conformed to Homeric archetypes. The canvases are abstractions built from
luminous oblongs, with a somewhat heraldic effect, as if on a shield, “They are taken from the stones I saw in Japan,” Richardson says. “Stones to mark buildings. I wa fascinated by them. They put those numbers written on stones. They’re rain-streaked and they’ve got moss growing on them, it’s a very natural type of thing. So when I came back I started painting them. I was re-reading the Iliad at the time because I was teaching a class about ancient warfare at George Washington University”.
Richardson also paints strong figurative portraits, mostly of emblematic artworlders, like Warhol, Leo Castelli and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he reproduces playing card images, such as the Ace of Spades on raw oblongs of corrugated metal. He has bullet-holed both these series with shotgun blasts so he imported both these adds to art-making directly from the battlefield?
Yes and no.
“It began when I was trying to get to the bottom of warfare.,” Richardson says. “And that took me a long time because I had to go into combat to figure it out.” The. combat was in the city of Ramadi in Western Iraq, where there were several months of intense fighting in 2006. “And in combat what I was fascinated by were the patterns that gunfire made everywhere in the city.” Richardson says.
Richardson didn’t paint in Ramadi or elsewhere in Iraq but had packed and used a sketchbook. His men were aware off that? “They knew about it. They knew I went away and drew” They didn’t think artist were kind of freaky? “Oh, yeah. Oh yeah.”
Richardson duly returned to the US and civilian life. Ramadi was just a memory until ten years later when he had to execute a graphic for a book cover and it all came sweeping back. “The art things that I picked up in the war”, he says. “The gunfire and the corrugated tin and shooting plywood with a shotgun. I remembered how fascinated I was by the gunfire in Iraq, how we would mow a building down, essentially with small arms fire. They’re just made out of flimsy concrete. And the patterns that gunfire made everywhere in the city of Ramadi. We just tore the place apart with then shooting at us and us shooting at them. And I used those patterns in the shotgun paintings.“
David Richardson is by no means the first artist to have used a gun as an art-making tool. Niki Saint Phalle hired a marksman to nail paint-filled balloons at the US Embassy in Paris as part of a troupe of artists that included Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Jean Tinguely in 1961. So did the Brit artist, Piers Secunda, who began making Cultural Destruction Shot Paintings in 2009, so has another Brit artist, Antony James. But Colonel David Richardson’s gunplay is both a hit and a myth. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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