Bill Rice, “Bar” (1987), oil on canvas, 15 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches (all images courtesy Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects)

New York has recently become the most expensive city on earth. Though street life here can feel like moving through an airport mall a lot of the time, the city is still grimy and grim deep in its overpriced bones. Carbon-colored dust languishes under the subway tracks, caked onto every upturned, neglected edge. There was a time when a soiled atmosphere was general across New York City; in Bill Rice’s paintings it seems almost a coauthor in his strange concoctions of dirty air and darkest night, shot through with flashes of color. The casually sinister streets and balconies hint at danger but are soon revealed as nostalgic records of his total enrapture with the denizens of the men’s detention shelter across from his crib on East 3rd Street and the surrounding empty lots, the humping cars and grunting trucks that pass though like strange beasts seen through the blinds of The Bar and, before that, The Old Hundred, where he always claimed the same seat for the evening, almost like a sentinel.

Bill Rice’s paintings, currently on view at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, are glimpses of East Village life — the old East Village of crime, abandonment, and cruising, of obscure figures with good muscle tone, surreptitious oral favors in the parks and alleys, stoop-front sales, and hanging out. His surfaces are slowly built up from thin layers of oil paint with an occasional putty-like vector or a colored stripe or, at times, a skeletal architecture or diamond-shaped fence pattern. Looking at his works we are moving constantly, roving, scanning the neighborhood where he had lived since 1953, when rent controls were still in place and you could get by on a few welfare checks and some decent luck.

Bill Rice, “Stairs” (n.d.), oil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches
Bill Rice, “Untitled” (n.d.), oil on canvas board, 24 x 18 inches

This extraordinary and largely unheralded body of work comes from an unusual place in relation to the hyper-commodified present: throughout his career, Rice held to the cherished beatnik ethos of not selling out nor promoting oneself. However, he was one of the most generous spirits in the East Village community of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, which produced such important figures as Robert Gober, Gary Indiana, Allen Frame, Nan Goldin, Beth B, David Wojnarowicz, and Taylor Mead. All of these artists, and many others, passed through Rice’s wide circle. A polymath, he performed in the plays of Jim Neu with local stalwarts of the stage, like Black-Eyed Susan; appeared in the films of Robert Frank, Jim Jarmusch, Amos Poe, and Jacob Burckhardt, among others; and collaborated with Ulla E. Dydo on research for the book Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934

Bill Rice was hugely influential in a milieu whose importance looms larger and larger as it recedes in time. It has long been my contention that he should be featured in the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, perhaps the first to be represented who didn’t play the game, working outside of the expected norms of a career track and international gallery representation. We could imagine several rooms of these mysteriously celebratory paintings, a darkened room showing a selection of films he was in, and a video monitor showing tapes — many still extant — of the evenings of performances that he hosted in the lot next to his first-floor apartment, with a full array of gender-fluid and transdisciplinary artists and performers. Rice’s life and art are a record of the creative ferment present in the smoky hellholes of the East Village during one of the most important incubations of American art and a kind of paradise before the realtors arrived. 

Bill Rice, “Woman in Purple Dress” (1985), oil on canvas board, 20 x 16 inches
Bill Rice, “Contract” (1985), oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 39 3/4 inches
Bill Rice, “Man in a Red Shirt” (1984), oil on canvas, 68 x 48 inches
Bill Rice, “Four Men” (c. 1974), oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches

Bill Rice: Around the Corner continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 13. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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