The Bar Project: Voices from an Artist's Community

by Francie Lyshak

 

Francie Lyshak Brad Ellis Evan Lurie Joe Vojtko
Lavinia Coop Steven Harvey John Lurie Tony Nunziata
Ray Dobbins Gary Indiana Larry Mitchell Bette Bourne
  Richard Morrison Allen Frame  

 

Bill Rice

Actor, Painter

 

 

Bill Rice and Taylor Mead in a Gary Goldberg Play

Bill Rice and Taylor Mead in a play by Gary Goldberg (Photographer Unknown)

(Link to Paintings

by Bill Rice)

Invitation to the Salon/Saloon Show

 

Steven Harvey on the Salon/Saloon Exhibition at Bill Rice's Studio

Steven: So my experiences at The Bar were somewhat limited, but I did go there after a couple of functions. Probably the great fun experience that we all shared was in circa 1984 when we did the Salon/Saloon show at Bill’s place. We made some exhibitions, maybe of your work, maybe of Richards work. But the Salon/Saloon show was different because it was a big group show and somehow it was slightly organized by committee--in that Richard worked on it, I worked on it and Bill was the sitting potentate, in the sense that it took place in his studio.  It was really fun because there were almost 50 artists in it. I got a number of ideas from doing the show. One was that if you had enough time in someone’s studio, you could always find a work that was interesting. So we would say,  “I don’t know what I’m going to do.  I’m not so crazy about their work.”  Then I’d go there and dig around, and lo and behold there would be something that would look good for the show. It was fun because it was a mixture of people--everyone from Jack Smith, the avant garde photographer, who just sat there. I remember him sitting on the floor with this black and white xerox’s, drawing with Elmer’s glue, then dusting them with glitter.  The Xeroxes they put up, he was working on them there. You know a bunch of people would then go on to become more successful, like Bob Goldberg, Chris wool, Barbara Ess. There were a number of people who were up-and-coming artists at that point and then there were people who were like secret artists, like my friend Anna Reinhart who made the movie with me.  She’d always made work but never showed it. See this painting. This painting is by my aunt, Ann Harvey. This exact painting was in Salon/Saloon. It was an unfinished painting. I stretched it on a panel of wood.  I just got it framed because I’m showing it to somebody. We had Ann in there. We had just a wonderful variety of people.

Francie:  How were those people found?  Where did they come from?  Were they your friends?

Steveen:   It was all consensus.  They were people that Bill knew, that Richard and that I knew. It seemed like we had an equal quotient. That’s why it became such a large show.  It was sort of curatorial by committee with the three of us. I’m sure that it was probably Richard and me in a certain way. It’s Bill space and he’d be sitting over the whole thing. He would have people he wanted in it too. It’s hard for me to remember honestly. But I do remember that sense of it being organized collectively, which for me was very important.

Evan Lurie on Bill Rice:

I lived at 9 E. 3rd St., which is next to a vacant lot that is next to Bills building. I remember seeing the backyard for the first time and being just astonished that this sort of magical fairyland thing was back there.   I guess I don’t remember whose idea it first was to do theatrical plays back there. But I remember the first time that I was at Bill’s apartment thinking,  ‘Okay, this is it. This is Bohemia. I have arrived!’ It was almost why you came to New York. Bill seemed older. Not a lot older. In 1980 I would have been 26.

Walking through that apartment, you felt like you were walking into at time capsule. There were holes in the floor, and the clocks all had the wrong time, and then there were his paintings.   I’d known him as this professional curmudgeon almost. I didn’t realize that he painted at first, until I guess one drunken night after the bar closed and a bunch of us went to Bill’s. I don’t remember who I was with; but that was probably the first time that I was there. Then I saw the work and I remember seeing that tree painting, which I saw again when Stephen Harvey had that show recently.

Ray Dobbins on Bill Rice:

As I got to know him better, I start to think, ‘This guy’s wonderful.’ I’d always admired him. It didn’t take very long to get to know that this was one of the persons with the most  peculilarily New England temperment.  He was taciturn, ironic and incredibly well read and knowledgeable.  He was self-educated essentially. I don’t think he went to university. As far as I understand, he moved to New York City more or less the year I was born in 1947. Certainly by 1948 he was down in this neighborhood. At the time he was a painter and he was quite young himself because he was born in ‘32 I think. He was about 17 or 18 years old when he left home.

He worked for the Democratic Party on the Wallace campaign, which was in 1948. Wallace represented the labor movement. He got accused of being a communist. A person didn’t have to be a communist to be in left-wing labor unions; and he wasn’t a communist, but he was probably a democratic socialist. It was a real important election. At the convention there was a southern candidate who was a racist, a pro-segregation kind of thing.  He was a senator.  After he died around the age of 90, it was disclosed that had a black daughter.  The candidates were kind of awful, but Wallace didn’t win. Bill kept involved in radical politics.

He lived with a lot of interesting people. Almost all of his friends and lovers were black and involved in jazz. James Baldwin and him were roommates for a long time. Even when they separated and were not living together, they still had the same boyfriends and stuff. He was very close to him and to Sarah Vaughan.  He was also close to the guy who was a jazz singer with this deep jazz voice. I can’t remember his name at the moment.

Gary Indiana on Bill Rice:

I can’t remember at what juncture that happened. I also don’t remember when I met Bill Rice. The earliest memory that I’ve been able to find was in a kind of review at Theater For the New City. I can’t remember if it was one of the Halloween shows, but it was called Voidaville. He came out and did this character called The Depressionist. I don’t remember if I had met him before but I had no idea what he was like. When I saw this, I just totally fell in love with him, of course. Once Bill and I got to know each other we were definitely friends for life. There was no question about it. Bill and I understood each other, in a much deeper way than a lot of people that we both knew understood either one of us. Rather than be exclusive of other people, I would just say I had a unique relationship with Bill. Part of it had to do with the fact that we were both intellectuals. Bill knew history. I knew history. Bill knew more American history than I did. I knew more European history. But we knew about things. We knew about the history of culture.  We knew about the history of pop culture. So there were a lot of things that Bill was preoccupied with that other people probably thought was quaint or interesting, but they didn’t ever get into it. I could get into it really deeply, because there were things related to it that I was interested in as well.

This is the thing, I miss him so because he was one of the few people I could talk to about certain things and now he’s gone. There were things that I will never be able to talk to anybody about, that I talked about with Bill. I can give you one example.  Many years after I first knew him, (I think it was around the 9/11 time, so it’s quite late) I had been obsessed for years with this movie, The Shanghai Gesture by von Sternberg. I wanted to put the original play on, which was by a guy named John Colton who written it in the 20s. Bill actually had a copy of it. Not only that, I think I was trying to somehow put together a production of it in Baltimore with Sharon Mist and Susan Low and all these John Waters people. When I was still mulling that over, Bill called me up and said, “Oh you know what I have, I have an old wax recording of Florence Reade and the musical they did of Shanghai in ‘21. (Ultimately I wrote a novel called Shanghai Gesture.) It was things like that. You know, sometimes especially as you get older there are fewer and fewer people that you can reasonably hope that will interest themselves in things that interest you, simply because you are interested in them.

There were many, many things that if I ran across anything related to them, I would save it for Bill.  I would put it aside to share with him--books, lots of books. It was mostly Bill who introduced me to things. For instance, he introduced me to this writer, Thomas Beer who was really a celebrated writer in the 20s. Scott Fitzgerald liked him a lot.  He was always published in the Saturday Evening Post.  I still think he’s one of the funniest American writers ever. He’s been out-of-print for probably 40 years. It’s nonfiction/fiction mélange.  It all comes from Dos Passos--the cross-section of society and the camera eye.  It was called Mauve Decade.  It’s about the 1890s. It was a fantastic book. I’m just giving you an example. There were many things that Bill put me onto that I was unaware of. I think I did the same for him maybe with some things. We were both very curious people. We had a certain kind of curiosity. Maybe we didn’t perceive that in a lot of people we knew. I don’t mean that other people had no curiosity. I just mean that we had a certain kind of curiosity, almost pedantic. Look at what Bill did for money. He went to the library to do research for Eddie Burns. Bill was used to dig into research. I’m the same way.  I could get lost in research forever. That’s why I’m trying not to do too much of it; because it will take over my life. I get so fascinated with stuff.

Steven Harvey on Bill Rice:

My sense of Bill was having met him through Richard really and just hanging around with him in his place, just going to visit him, look at paintings, talk to him about painting. At one point I remember we traded paintings. I gave him a little oil on cardboard that I did, like a drawing or landscape. He gave me a torn sheet of paper with a figure in a window that I liked very much. It was that lovely moment between the 70s and the early 80s that was free time in New York. You know what I mean.  There was no money, there was no control, the culture industry was on the ropes. It wasn’t really that active. There was a sense of there being an exciting ability to live in the margins. There were all these wonderful things going on.

Bill was involved with painting, theater and film. We did several projects together that  Bill helped me to bring to realization. Bill had this famous policy of saying ‘yes’ to everything. He would say ‘yes’ to anybody who would say, “Do you want to do such and such a show or performance?’ My friend, Anna Reinhardt’ and I came to Bill.  We had been working on a movie that was based on a Beckett novel, a short novel, with my father, Jason Harvey, and this other guy Ray Eagan, who is an exfireman/artist. They play these two characters in Beckett, Murcy and Camiae. We just basically filmed all over New York, wandering around, kind of getting lost.  It was about going to a lot of places and getting nowhere. By the end of the movie and after we finished Ray was gone and Jason left.  We still had all this film. We never had a really good soundtrack. We tried to get Bill to actually record some of it for us. He was going to do a voiceover as a way to deal with a film.

Then more successfully, albeit briefly, we did another thing.  Joseph Not Vital, the artist, was doing a show at a nightclub about John Hartsfield, the German avant-garde inventor of photomontage in the 30s. Hartsfield was a very influential artist who went from doing Dada to a very politically inspired photomontage during the Hitler era.  He was an anti-fascist in Germany. So for Joseph I created a little slideshow of pictures of Hartfield’s montages with audio. I had Bill recorded a text that I had worked up for him for the slideshow.  It was from various sources, but mainly Ralph Vanejim who was one of the Situationists. It was very political and ended up with a quote from Vanejim about the definition of nihilism that is  “The movie’s over. The audience gets their hats and gets up to go home. No more coats. No more home.” That’s the end of the movie. Bill read it. It was just like death. He had that beautiful dry voice that was so remarkable. He could read the phone book and make it affecting.

Steven Harvey on Bill Rice's Art

Steven: I always love Bill’s paintings because Bill has a really refined sensibility as a painter. We used to make jokes about the fact that he kept his work so poorly, so that it was always physically distressed in a sense. It was part of the aesthetic. There was nothing about the shiny and new in his work. It was all about the older, the failing, in a certain way, the fragile--as I know now, having looked through a lot of his stuff since he died.  It’s a continuum. His work goes back to the 50s. He dies after 2000, so this is fifty years of work. There’s a beautiful continuity in his ability to draw and the peculiarity of his vision.  His work made a great impression on me. I loved it from the beginning, from when I first knew him.

Francie:  Maybe you could comment on one aspect about his work that I think was extraordinary. He didn’t paint in a studio that was brightly lit with lots of spotlights. There was a certain quality of light to his work and there was a certain quality about how it was lit and the environment.

Steven: Right. There was something.  The word tenebrous comes to mind. It was a shadowy environment. There were piles of things. You felt that he just picked up a picture, touched it with some paint, then put it back in a pile and came back to it some other day. Though I’m sure that wasn’t his actual way. I’m sure it was a little more self-conscious than that. There was a sense that he always had music.  There were always these old scratchy jazz records, often without sleeves in stacks, which he listened to on vinyl. His work has that quality of the shadowy, the tenebrous.  Often his figures come out from gloom. There’s a lot of dark paint. There were also a lot of paintings that have a lot of color in them. Of course he was lucky because he had his subject. Francis Bacon, the painter, said that a lot of people will paint all their lifetime and they will never know what their subject is. Bill had his subject. It was the city. It was the young men in his neighborhood, on the streets, walking around in the night. So he had his subject and he just kept nailing it over and over again for periods of time. He just kept going back to it in different ways.  If you look at the progression in his work, he ends up doing photographs and collages. We haven’t really seen the depths of all his work yet-- like those last ones, those photos printed on weird papers, they haven’t really been shown.

Francie: No, they are in the archives, a lot of them.

Steven:  Every ten years or so he had a show.  He had a show at Patrick Fox, and then with Bill Stelling, who took over Patrick Fox’s space. That’s the 80s. Then in the 90s he has the show with Richard Milazzo at Janis Gallery on 57th St and then the show at Mitchell Algus. Every 10 years or so he had an important show.

Francie:  He wasn’t someone who was out there beating the sidewalks trying to get shows.

Steven:  I think that also is another attractive part of his character; because he was a person who wasn’t careerist. Except that he was ambitious. He was very ambitious actually aesthetically. He had figured out some practical points like this say ‘yes’ thing with his acting. He ends up in a lot of film and performances because of that, whereas some actor underground could sit in his apartment and never act. And he had interesting friends asking him to perform. He did a lot of work with Taylor Mead and film for Jim Jarmusch.  That turned into a significant body of work. He’s a little bit like that as a painter. He’s not overtly careerist. But he has this ambition in his painting. I think he’s thinking about Bonnard.  He’s thinking about Watteau. He’s thinking about truly great painting of the past, which is the yard stick that he’s measuring himself against.

Francie:  He spent a portion of the latter part of his life thinking about the Picasso.

Steven: I’d almost partition that off because it was a separate conceptual project that he did. In a sense I don’t see Picasso having much influence on him as an artist.

Francie: Intellectually on some level he had this preoccupation with the painting Les Demoiselles D’avignon.

Steven: He was doing an analysis. He had a theory. This was a painting that originally was supposed to have been of a brothel. I believe that he thought that there were male figures in the thing. He thought that it could have been a male brothel and that Picasso himself might’ve been gay. I think that was the presumption of the detective work that was being done along those lines. Ulla Dydo could really address this. So in a sense it’s different from what I consider his painterly influences. This was a big project for him in the last studio that he had, on the block by The Bar on 4th Street, in that basement space. That’s a little bit later though I’d say.