The Chelsea Hotel community mourns the passing of one of its guiding lights, the poet, painter, art critic, and Warhol Superstar Rene Ricard, who died this past Saturday, Feb. 1. The cause of death was cancer.
Rene, who will always be remembered for his quick wit, sparkling intellect, and generosity, passed away at the hospital surrounded by some of his many close friends. Rene, who had lived at the Chelsea Hotel continuously since the early '90s and sporadically before that, was 68.
Rene was probably the most famous remaining member of the (now seriously depleted) Chelsea Hotel community. And no account of the history of the Chelsea Hotel, or of its famous creative energy, is complete without him. In fact, in these dark times when the city, including the Chelsea Hotel, is being carved up by developers, those of us fighting against gentrification, would do well to remember Rene as the very embodiment of the New York artistic bohemia that we seek to preserve. Rene was one of the last of a dying breed, someone for whom money was secondary, and who survived in the city by his wits and the force of his personality and his larger-than-life talent and artistic vision.
Poet, artist, actor, dancer, critic, jack-of-all-trades and all-around wild man, Rene Ricard was born in 1946 and grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He ran away to Boston at age 16, where he supported himself by working as an artist's model, and by eighteen he was in New York City, becoming involved with Andy Warhol's Factory scene. Warhol soon cast Rene in a movie, Kitchen, in which he spends most of his time with his back to the camera, washing dishes, while Edie Sedgwick sneezes and runs a malted machine to cover up the fact that she's forgotten her lines. Rene had a better role in 1965's Chelsea Girls, in which he stars in the "Boys in Bed" episode, rolling around in his underwear with two other boys in a room at the Chelsea Hotel. In his (and Edie's) last film for Warhol, The Andy Warhol Story, Rene embarks on a speed-fueled diatribe, rattling off every nasty thing he can think of to say about Andy. This is the kind of part Rene was born for, and surely it must have been his finest role, but sadly the film has been lost. An art critic in the '80s, in 1981 Rene published "The Radiant Child," the first major article about Jean Michel Basquiat, in Artforum. Rene has published three books of his poetry: Rene Ricard (1979), God With Revolver (1989), and Trusty Sarcophagus Co. (1990), and was portrayed by the actor Michael Wincott in Julian Schnabel's 1996 film Basquiat. Rene brought out a book of his art in a limited edition in 2003.
The King of the Chelsea Eccentrics, Rene gives one the sense of a being not of this world. He flits around the hotel, ethereal-like, on a cloud of his own creation. Tall and gaunt with a wispy goatee, a porkpie hat atop his head, he's a bundle of nervous energy, unable to sit still. Rene is quite learned and knowledgeable about art and culture and many other subjects besides. When he speaks he's agitated, restless, wringing his hands, almost frantic sometimes -- though often he positively bubbles with good humor. His speech can best be described as a sort of off-the-cuff intellectual rant. Though what he says is never uninteresting, and you'll always want to hear more, he speaks quickly and is gone. Blink and you might miss him. If you're lucky enough to run into Rene on the elevator, he will sometimes share a poem, often an obscene or ribald one. He's often seen with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and the mind immediately turns to thoughts of fire. (Source: Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, DaCapo 2007)
The fire, of course, was in Rene's fevered and intensely creative imagination. Like all of us at the Chelsea Hotel, since the ouster of the Bard family in June 2007, Rene had been engaged in the struggle to save his home and his way of life. And though he managed, for the most part, to keep himself above the fray, the ongoing stress -- construction noise, poisonous dust, denial of services, and disrespect -- and the uncertainty connected with the constant threat of eviction, no doubt took their toll on him as well. But Rene was not one to succumb to despair. At the time of his death Rene was experiencing a rebirth in the interest of his paintings, fueled by a successful Vito Schnable-curated show of his work.
Rene's close friend Rita Barros says, "Rene died on his own terms and surrounded by his close friends. We will all miss him dearly. New York will never be the same without him." Whatever happens to Rene's earthly shell, and to the shell of this old Hotel, Rene's creative fire, and the spirit of the Chelsea Hotel that he embodied will live on.
A simple gathering with a blessing to send Rene off in peace, will be held this Thursday, February 6, 2014, from 10:30 am - 12:30 pm at Greenwich Village Funeral Home, 199 Bleecker Street, NY NY 10012