Richard McGuire: Art for the Street – 1978-82

September 27 - November 4, 2018

Opening: Thursday, Sept. 27, 6-8 pm



Richard McGuire. Incident Instantly Becomes Memory (Ixnae Nix #1). 1979.
Spray paint and crayon on newsprint, 24 x 18 in. 
© Richard McGuire. Courtesy Alden Projects, New York. 

Preview and Book Release at
Printed Matter's NY Art Book Fair (PS1 MoMA)

September 21 - 23
Room E, Ground Floor



Richard McGuire: Art for the Street – New York 1978-82 is a revelatory exhibition focusing on two strains of protean artist Richard McGuire’s early work: the Ixnae Nix street drawings and his original art created for band posters, including Liquid Liquid, the influential downtown post-punk band for which he played bass and co-founded. The exhibition opens September 27, 2018 from 6 - 8 pm at Alden Projects and contains 50+ original works in spray-paint, crayon, collage, and silkscreen (through November 4, 2018). A newly released 144-page book published by Alden Projects, Richard McGuire: Art for the Street – New York 1978-82 (2018) accompanies the exhibition. Edited by Todd Alden with a foreword by Luc Sante, this is the first monograph on the artist’s early work, including black-and-white photographs (1979) which McGuire commissioned his friend, Martha Fishkin to take alongside McGuire after periodic nights of wheatpasting, registering the (formerly) gritty downtown New York contexts the Ixnae Nix works occupied, including St. Marks Place, Houston Street, and White Street. Organized by Todd Alden in collaboration with Richard McGuire, the exhibition also includes archival materials indexing both the early downtown New York contexts, and the artists associated with McGuire: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Al Diaz, ESG, Bush Tetras, Konk, Alan Suicide, Y Pants, UT, Tseng Kwong Chi, John Sex, Test Pattern, and Samo Is Dead Jazz Band.

Richard McGuire arrived in New York on July 3, 1979, and that same year, befriended a young Keith Haring, who quickly became an early promoter of McGuire’s Ixnae Nix street works. Haring subsequently included McGuire in several exhibitions he curated at Club 57 (1980), Mudd Club (1981), and Danceteria. (McGuire’s 5 x 7’ Ixnae Nix drawing for Haring’s 1980 show at Club 57, Sudden Anatomy [1980] is in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.) The artist also befriended Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1979, whose band––later called Gray––shared early stage bills with McGuire’s at a Broome Street loft space called A’s (both shows 1979); Basquiat’s band was then billed as Test Pattern and Samo Is Dead Jazz Band. Basquiat loved the music of Liquid Liquid, according to Maripol, particularly the song “Cavern,” which was included in two key scenes of the film, Downtown 81 (released in 2000).

McGuire created the recurring Ixnae Nix avatar by applying spray-paint through a hand-made stencil, itself ripped from a newspaper sheet and surrounding this black, spectral silhouette with elliptical, hand-drawn poetics in crayon and all caps on different-sized newspaper sheets; ultimately, they were wheatpasted on the streets of lower Manhattan between July 1979 and early 1981. The prankster-like character’s name derives from the word “ixnae”––Pig Latin for “nix”––rendering his full full name a double negative; like the tag “Liquid Liquid,” it also doubles as a tautology. “…The Ixnae Nix drawings” [were], as Luc Sante writes, “posters that advertised nothing but themselves. They followed a formula: newsprint sheets of variable sizes that include a rectangle within, usually aslant…inside is a silhouetted figure, generally in motion, surrounded by a brief text that, like Latin inscriptions, is unpunctuated and paced without regard for the beginnings and ends of words, so that reading it requires a bit of decoding (although most of the phrases begin at lower left and run clockwise). Taken together, the Ixnae Nix drawings might represent something like a subjective diary, one that the passerby can identify with.”[1]

“A shadow is a strong and simple graphic,” McGuire explains. “The titles evolved from a Burroughs-esque cut-up method — just grabbing selected phrases that caught my ear. I would make lists. Later, I made a stencil. I would see what worked best with that image as a ‘sound picture’.”[2]  Incorporating cryptic phrases such as “Moved Then Set on Fire” (1979); “Holes and Corners” (1980); “Doubles are Inevitable” (1980); and “Different Nervous Rhythms (1981); McGuire’s Ixnae Nix drawings transmogrify the layout and content of quotidian newspapers into personalized tabloids in which the central silhouette appears with “a crypto-mystical graphic style, a great touch,” to borrow Glenn O’Brien’s 1981 praise in Interview magazine.[3] The stream-of-consciousness poetics of McGuire’s Ixnae Nix drawings share explicit aesthetic dialogue with Basquiat and his early poetics, but later, these conversations arguably go both ways. McGuire’s Incident Instantly Becomes Memory [1979], to name one, shared a pivotal stage with Basquiat, Haring, and others at the New York / New Wave show, curated by Diego Cortez at P.S. 1, Queens in 1981, and clearly anticipates some of Basquiat’s later pictorial developments. The Ixnae Nix drawings also confabulate with Keith Haring’s early street-based work, particularly with the latter’s Xeroxed collages of cut-up newspaper headlines, which he began in 1980. McGuire stopped his wheatpasting activities in early 1981—around the same time that Haring first began making chalk drawings in the subway.

To be clear, McGuire had seen Basquiat (and Al Diaz’s) SAMO graffiti on the streets in 1978-79 before they ever met, and decided to make the street his canvas. “The SAMO graffiti was different from the work I saw on the subway,” McGuire remembers. “Instead of just a tag, it had something to say; it was usually funny, occasionally a bit poetic. I saw the SAMO graffiti as street poetry. It inspired me. I appreciated the word play and the “sound” in Jean-Michel’s work.”[4] As Luc Sante writes, “The Ixnae Nix drawings were, in other words, a kind of graffiti, at a time when graffiti, city-wide, was evolving from simple tags to complex statements. You could also make a case for how their evocation of the petroglyphs parallels the music McGuire’s band was making: polyrhythmic percussion and indecipherable chants. Both of them forego Western culture in favor of something more ancient and physical and unmediated and wild.”[5]

Tallying the accomplishments from his first three months in New York in his private journal on September 17, 1979, McGuire noted that he had already: wheatpasted 48 Ixnae Nix drawings in four separate batches; taken 80 street photographs of Ixnae Nix drawings; played a show with his band, Liquid Idiot at CBGB; recorded a second acetate (never released); and distributed his first self-published, 45 rpm record, the eponymous Liquid Idiot (1978) at the artist’s book store, Printed Matter (edition of 300).

The second focus of this exhibition is Richard McGuire’s band posters. Around 30 original collages and maquettes for band publicity at Alden Projects were executed in a variety of techniques, mostly collage, ink, and Letraset, but sometimes with airbrush and silkscreen.[6] In contrast to the sometimes sloppy, DIY, “post-punk” approach so many other artists deployed, McGuire’s band posters stand apart: first, they don’t eschew professional techniques. Second, each is specific to its own task. Many are steeped in history, evoking a myriad of references and different pictorial approaches, ranging from the typographic and geometric emphasis of the Productivism of Russian Constructivists to the collapsed spaces of Japanese artist-designer Tadanori Yokoo. Luc Sante writes, “McGuire’s fliers were noticeably more stylish than the bulk of the competition. You could tell that he had spent a lot of time looking at El Lissitzky’s and László Moholy-Nagy’s collages of the 1920s and had absorbed their geometry, their shifting perspectives, their use of negative space. He never sought historical irony for its own sake, but employed the past as a given, an available raw material, an element of the landscape.”[7]

One highlight in Alden Projects’ show is a 34 x 22” silkscreened poster for Liquid Liquid’s September 17, 1981 show at tiny Tribeca club on North Moore named the Cavern, which later became the namesake for the song, “Cavern” so titled because it debuted at this specific show. “We are mostly known in DJ culture for our song ‘Cavern,’ which was ‘appropriated’ by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel for their recording ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ [1983],” McGuire recalls. “It’s now a hip-hop classic. When it was first released on the Sugar Hill label, the song was attributed to Grandmaster Flash, but that soon changed to Melle Mel, who was also part of the Furious Five and did the rapping. The song relies heavily on my bass line. Since then, many others have used this hook with a range of legitimacy.”[8] Before Liquid Liquid could claim royalties, the Sugar Hill label claimed bankruptcy. McGuire’s 1981 poster for the Cavern announcing the only show Liquid Liquid ever played at the Cavern “is pure Pop and echt-post punk––the price is the dominant item.”[9] The example at Alden Projects is one of three extant examples.

Another highlight with another surprising back story is McGuire’s boxing style poster (17 x 22”) for the August 9, 1981 double bill for the “Konk vs. Liquid Liquid” show at Tompkins Square Park, announced in black and red silkscreened titles on yellow paper. Richard McGuire explains: “I remember visiting a boxing center on East 14th Street called the Gramercy Gym. It was like something out of the 1940s. I went there to study the posters on the walls and take design cues. The idea, of course, was to have one member from each band [e.g. Konk and Liquid Liquid] pose, with each person invited to come up with a catchy stage name and costume…The show was in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, with an audience of well over five hundred people. A Village Voice reviewer wrote that ‘the hottest thing next to the weather was Liquid Liquid.’ So I guess we won that round!”[10]

The conceptual and graphic likeness to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s boxing style poster, made for the latter’s collaborative exhibition with Warhol at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985––four years after McGuire’s double bill––is unmissable. Shifting the axis to a vertical orientation, Basquiat replaced the artist-antagonists––Liquid Liquid’s Scott Hartley and Konk’s Scott Dawson (who also played trumpet in Basquiat’s band, Gray)––with Warhol and himself, who were correspondingly staged in boxing pose and dress, photographed in black-and-white, and printed on a yellow background with corresponding red and black titles (all caps). McGuire remembers: “In 1985, Al Diaz asked me, ‘Did you see the poster Jean-Michel just made for his show with Warhol?!’…I can’t say if my poster gave him the idea or not,” McGuire opines. “I do know that Jean-Michel was well aware of it. But hey, I was riffing on some unknown designer at the Gramercy Gym, so there you go!”[11] The history of art is littered with ideas and concepts that are borrowed, sampled, or copied. But an inescapable irony remains: Richard McGuire is on the other side of two cases of notorious cultural appropriation from around the same time.

McGuire’s sleek, typographical poster for Liquid Liquid’s show (together with Mofungo and Y Pants) at CBGB, New York on September 7, 1981 marks just how dramatically the artist’s affiches can vary in style and approach from poster to poster. But it also clarifies how little his posters resemble those by others. For McGuire who made all of the art for all of Liquid Liquid’s records, posters (as well as two videos),[12] the art for band publicity was always on par with, and indistinguishable from fine art. Distinctions between high and low were erased: his art was for the street.

The exhibition at Alden Projects explores Richard McGuire’s art for the streets of a very different New York City. He dreams of “an art that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum”;[13] he dreams of Russian Constructivists’ negative spaces; of petroglyphs from New Mexico; and of Outsider art alike. McGuire’s art for the street was transmitted in designs and signals for all, but through frequencies found somewhere…left-of-the-dial. Even the distribution of the Ixnae Nix works followed none of the codes of either uptown graffiti or downtown conceptual street art. McGuire recalls: “My system was to always make two poster drawings of each title: one to paste in the street and one to keep for my archive. After making the two versions, I would never distinguish between the ones I made first or second. I considered both as “one.” But of course each is always unique.”[14]

How is it possible that works of this finely tuned wit, of this effortless originality, of this infinite variety and made with this fully encompassing generosity…how is it possible that these Ixane Nix drawings and those Liquid Liquid posters––having visibly shared the streetscapes and other formative stages of No Wave New York with Basquiat, Haring, and others––how is it possible that that these perfect secrets have been kept for so long?

© Todd Alden 2018

***

Richard McGuire was born in Perth Amboy, NJ in 1957 and received a B.A. from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. McGuire’s Ixnae Nix character was developed in a series of shadow performances at Rutgers and elsewhere, including one P.S. 1, Queens on April 30, 1978. He wheatpasted Ixnae Nix drawings on the streets of New York between July 1979 and early 1981, also exhibiting them in numerous group exhibitions including: Club 57, Mudd Club, Fashion Moda, South Bronx, Franklin Furnace, White Columns, P.S. 1, Queens, Danceteria, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Selected early solo shows: Franklin Furnace (1981 and 1982). Two-person exhibition: Tony Shafrazi Gallery (with Philip Smith) (1982). Selected recent solo exhibitions: The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, CT (2018-19); Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany (2016); and The Morgan Library & Museum, New York (2014). McGuire’s work has been recently included in group exhibitions including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Drawing Center, New York; Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton; and the Reina Sofia, Madrid. Museum collections include The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Morgan Library and Museum, New York. McGuire is a founding member and bass player of Liquid Liquid, the post-punk, New York band for which he produced all of the art for the band’s records, posters, and videos. He directed two short films, Peur(s) du noir (Fear[s] of the Dark), (2007, Prima Linea) and Micro Loup (2003) for the omnibus feature film, Loulou and Other Wolves (2003, Prima Linea). He is the author of several children’s books and the highly acclaimed graphic novel, Here (2014, Pantheon Books) which has been translated into at least 20 languages. This is McGuire’s first solo exhibition at Alden Projects, New York.

***

The fully illustrated book, Richard McGuire: Art for the Street – New York 1978-82, edited by Todd Alden with a foreword by Luc Sante, is published by Alden Projects, New York (2018, 144 pp.) in a first edition of 1000 softcover examples. Available for purchase from Alden Projects ($40). This book is also printed in a deluxe hardcover edition of 100 boxed, signed, and numbered examples containing a unique painted and drawn work by Richard McGuire.






[1] Sante, Luc. Richard McGuire: Art for the Street – New York 1978-82. Ed. Todd Alden. New York: Alden Projects, 2018, p. 4.
[2] Richard McGuire as cited in ed. Alden, op. cit., p. 11.
[3] Glenn O’Brien, Interview (April 1981, p. 71).
[4] McGuire as cited in ed. Alden, op. cit., p. 13.
[5] Sante, op. cit., p. 5. 
[6] The band posters themselves were typically off-set printed or Xeroxed in a quantity of “around 100,” according to McGuire. Conversation between Todd Alden and Richard McGuire, August 28, 2018.
[7] Sante, op. cit., p. 4.
[8] McGuire as cited in Alden, op. cit., p. 17.
[9] Sante, op. cit., p. 4.
[10] McGuire as cited in ed. Alden, op. cit., p. 21.
[11] McGuire as cited in ed. Alden, op. cit., p. 23.
[12] McGuire discusses his two videos: “The first was for the song ‘Groupmegroup’ [1981], which was inspired by Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958), and constructed by collaging found footage of gymnasts and acrobats, films of underwater life, and a documentary about Berber drummers. MTV rejected it! I made the second in 1997 for ‘Cavern' by licensing and adapting a black-and-white film by Oskar Fischinger, which had lost its original 1927 soundtrack. It fit like a glove
to our song and it played at many festivals. Moby was a big champion, playing it often on his MTV show,” ibid.
[13] Claes Oldenburg, as cited by Richard McGuire in ed. Alden, op. cit., p. 10.
[14] McGuire, as cited in ed. Alden, op. cit., pp. 10-11.