The Geometry of Innocent Flesh on the Bone*
 
BY RANDY LERNER
 
People come at making their art from any number personal journeys- some real, some imaginative; some superbly dramatic and some, like Dan Rizzie’s**, just destined to be the raw material for a far-ranging language of symbols which this show demonstrates have been drawn from memory, observation and I suspect the artist’s subconscious as well.  This body of work cuts-across compositional themes and arrangements which reveal Rizzie’s rare ability to stretch and evolve shapes and colors and surfaces into a signature style that is likely to remain identifiable and lasting.
 
Dan Rizzie’s early life was nearly written by T.H. White himself.  His father was an Airman during the Second World War and went on to a diplomatic career that took his family to many areas of the world that would inform the future artist’s language of symbols- probably most importantly their years in India during which DR was in high school.  As varied and exotic as the travels that would drive and impact Rizzie’s work, however, were the people that coursed through his life as he and his many-decades old friends received their rites and credentials from the streets and studios, bars and buildings of Manhattan just as had several generations of American artists done before them.  Aware of this inheritance, Rizzie evolved a deeply idiosyncratic methodology for arranging his alphabet through a variety of media in collage, easel painting and printmaking- all of which are included in this show.
 
Each of the works shown here were created in Sag Harbor, NY were Rizzie has lived for the last fifteen years.  And loosely knitting them together is a gift that was given to DR by the artist Alan Shields who was a dear friend and also was a ferryboat captain and who lived on the neighboring Shelter Island.  The gift was of a large black steel (anchor) ball connected to a beautiful, rustic old chain that Rizzie hung from a tree branch at the end of his driveway.  This black circle hung in the distance among the branches some twenty feet outside of Rizzie’s studio. What’s more, it was and remains visible through the studio doors which are essentially garage doors although they are made of mullioned windows divided in roughly 16 inch squares.  When put together, one can see that Rizzie was looking at this suspended black ball through a frame, under glass and constantly cropped depending, naturally, on where he stood.  As a result, Vine, etching and Serpentine deal with essentially the same subject but from different angles and distances.  These factors- both physical, visual and accidental created an ensemble that recurs formally and thematically throughout much of the last decade’s work.  It also ties together some of his earlier work and thinking- reinforcing the sense that he is constantly evolving as he connects and layers-on the influences and experiences that have impacted him both directly and indirectly.  Simply, whether the black circles become geometric elements as in Dunce or SABOR, or berries from Vine, Serpentine or Gypsy Moth and Susan’s Garden or more abstracted decorative symbols like in Wild Carnation and Swallow (Untitled), they’ve become a ubiquitous vowel within Rizzie’s alphabet.
 
From the black ball and the green branches, balls and circles of many colors among branches and additional nature symbols such as tulips, chrysanthemums and poppies emerge as central icons which DR both draws, paints, prints and pastes in compositions using various media.  The branches evolve as well into neo-classical scrolls or what Rizzie calls arabesques which again become formal  and symbolic themes, like musical phrases as in Vessel, Mondrian’s Flower, Nizamuddin, Window and Swallow (Untitled).
 
What emerges is Rizzie’s principal compositional device which amounts to arrangements- the ordering of his alphabetic symbols in whole, quarter and endless other divided forms resembling in that way his own applied or adapted musical work. He has abstracted these symbols- of balls, still-lifes, vines and scrolls- and created an alphabet from which he then organizes for the most part flat, in-focus colorific arrangements that succeed because of their relationship to each other, just as do instrumental arrangements.  And to know Rizzie is to know the dramatic affect the music and musicians have had on his thinking, his friendships and therefore his art-making.
 
The title of this essay comes from a line in Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues which I heard DR sing while sitting at the electric piano in his studio.  In asking Rizzie his thoughts about the work in this show he mentioned more than once that the vines and scrolls and stems had become “vascular systems” or abstracted bone- structures for the leaves, flowers and balls and birds.  Whether formally as in Starlings/Orange and Black (etching) or Starlings/Black and White (etching), Raven (etching), Vines (etching) or more in the abstract as in Order of Summer or even Window, the intersection of musical influences, musical composition and language become strongly evident in Rizzie’s work.
 
In Yellow Plum and Susan’s Garden, and to a more limited degree Wild Carnation, Red Rose, Mondrian’s Flower, Window and Nizamuddin Rizzie’s longstanding use of collage amounts to the compositional device at work.  Yellow Plums in particular is one of many, many widely collected collages made from Rizzie’s vast archive of printed flowers and fruits as well as stamps and writing fragments among endless other decorative ephemera.  These tightly cropped sheets and painted circles arranged geometrically around the centered printed still-life perhaps best illustrates DR’s effortless mingling of symbols, media and shapes within an expertly unified image.
 
Across nearly all of the works, to include his prints (and the use of chine colle, in which he glues an additional layer of paper to that which will be printed to enhance the decorative background- Aspidistra, etching), Rizzie’s use of surfaces as a core component in his art-making stands out.  I suspect from his very early interest in collage, which in his case deals directly with the layering and overlapping of materials, he developed a process of preparing his surfaces, which amount essentially to under-paintings, with inks and glues as well as newspaper, stamps and cards bound by thick, milky coats of gesso.  He does this to recreate the bony, textured surfaces that the berries and balls and leaves and still-lifes would be connected to or set against in nature.  He also, and equally importantly, builds up his surfaces to establish a sense of permanence against which his aged and found objects, as well as printed and written fragments, can be fixed.
 
Finally, there is Hawthorne.  I’ve treated this painting last because I think it is the most forward-looking.  It is the latest development in Rizzie’s work and was forshadowed in some prints- especially Starlings/ Orange and Black, etching and____, that were made in a project with printmaker Maurice Payne and friends and fellow artists Stephen Farthing, R.A. and Humphrey Ocean, R.A. in 2004, in Amagansett, NY.  Initially, Rizzie began to abstract the background armatures- whether branches or vines to where they are no longer in focus as they both advance and recede producing a new depth to his compositions.  It is at this moment that Rizzie’s work enters a next stage of evolution; the compositions are no longer flat, masterly choreographed surfaces but rather dimensioned spaces capable of a whole new narrative component because of the layered depth that DR introduces.
 
While a “collection” of DR’s current work, this show also harkens back and looks forward I believe very effectively.  From an emphasis on collage and the use of symbols, surface and color as a device often to stage a central image, such as in Mondrian’s Flower, Red Rose, Wild Carnation and inimitably in Window, to Hawthorne where Rizzie begins to looking around and behind the his structures, we are given a good look into what will be a very real turning point.  Throughout his career Rizzie has relied on his instinct for composition using other various elements- whether random printed fragments or deeply painted shapes and symbols- to complete the image.  His shift toward a more abstract ordering of space and therefore handling of his vocabulary leaves the viewer with much, I believe, with which to look forward.  Finally, and critically, Rizzie has stayed loyal to the symbols that have expressed his ideas and given life to his imagination throughout his career- even in his newest paintings.  And this is why collectors of his work from all periods have the pleasure of seeing elements of their Rizzies throughout and looking forward.
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* “…The Geometry of Innocent flesh on the Bone…” comes from Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues which was recorded on Highway 61 Revisited.
 
 

Dan Rizzie was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1951.  The family is of Italian stock on both sides—its name is apparently related to riccio, the Italian word for “sea-urchin” and “porcupine,” something alive and bristling with spikes.  But he was never raised in the awareness of his Italian origins.  Where he was lucky, however, was that his father not only tolerated an interest in art, but shared it.  There was no struggle over the right to be a painter. The decisive time that pointed Rizzie towards becoming an artist came when, as a State Department brat at high school age, he moved with his parents to India.  His father, who had joined the State Department as a cultural officer after a tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force, was posted first to Egypt, then to Amman in Jordan, to the West Indies, and finally to New Delhi in India.  By then Rizzie was an impressionable teenager, soaking up sights indiscriminately but vividly.  He remembers, in particular, the walls, “whitewashed and stained with betel juice,” the red splashes of spittle standing out against the rough once-white plaster.  Red spit looks like blood, but isn’t.  Like so many things Indian, it is peculiarly exotic and unexpected, at least to a boy from Middle America.  The experience for Rizzie was like receiving a teenage/Asian version of Leonardo’s famous advice to young painters five centuries before: look at the accidental patterns on walls made by accumulated water stains, or by saliva.   “The surface of the place in general,” Rizzie muses, “still exists in every painting I make.” 
This is no exaggeration. He was fascinated by the colors and forms of Tantric art, which he saw in the American international high school he attended in New Delhi.   Rizzie favors quite strongly textured monochrome grounds: he likes gesso, which can approximate the density and close surface of ivory, and uses a thick pigment known commercially as “flashe.”  He takes particular delight in papers that show their age, embrowned and parchment, or that have an open weave resembling that of cloth.  The smaller the painting, naturally, the more vivid this effect becomes. It is not difficult to see in such works the memory-mark of his early experiences of texture and color in India.  Certainly his art—indeed, his entire relation to nature—would be very different if he had grown up with an American shopping-mall beyond the back fence.  There is no “pop” element in his work; he is uninterested in quoting the appearance of commercially manufactured objects.  Rather, his search is for naturally occurring things that can be turned into small epiphanies of themselves. 
But their appearance sometimes comes through other art.  Rizzie went with a party of school friends to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and this seventeenth-century masterpiece, a sublime memorial to love and grief, made an indelible impression on him, especially due to the floral inlay-work of its marble surfaces.  There are direct traces of this in the saw-tooth profiles of Rizzi’s tulips, such as the red and black versions of Stand (2008), or the beautifully rhythmical Order of Summer (2008). 
Rizzie’s father was an Exhibitions Officer with the State Department, and in New Delhi he curated the first show of American art his son had ever seen.  It included work by Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenberg, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg.  “I had never seen a proper art show,” says Rizzie. “I thought, if that’s art, I want to make it.  It changed everything I thought I knew about art.”  Thus, he began to face the immemorial problem described in the 1940s by the Australian poet Erin Malley: “I had read in books that art was not easy / But no-one told me that the mind repeats / In its ignorance, the vision of others.”  The show started an ambition, but offered no clues on fulfilling it. 

For that, Rizzie needed an education. Once back in the United States, he enrolled at Hendrix College in Little Rock, Arkansas.  There, encouraged by one of his art teachers, Bill Hawes—“my first real influence”—went on to graduate school at the Meadows School of Art at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.    The pressure toward abstraction was strong in the art schools at the time, but probably less so in Western ones than in New York; in Texas it could be ignored or faced down. Moreover Rizzie was not particularly interested in current American art-world fashions; to be a minimalist, let alone to embrace the Conceptualism then in vogue, was simply unthinkable--he wanted to make art that would locate himself more firmly in the world and among its images. He was helped in this by the outstanding Texan painter John Alexander, who had also studied (and taught) at Southern Methodist University, and has been a lifelong friend as well as a pillar of strength to Rizzie in moments of self-doubt. The abstract work Rizzie admired had little to do with American abstraction—it belonged more to European and Russian constructivism, particularly to Malevich (which Rizzie grasped, as best he could, from reproductions), and to the Cubist collages of Braque and Picasso—modernist classicism.  Rizzie also adored Matisse, particularly the late Matisse of the paper cut-outs.  In 1980 he was invited to create an exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (Texas).  It consisted of some thirty small collages and one large paper work.  “I titled the show Jazz in homage to Matisse.”
After a few false starts, Rizzie became sure that the way to his own style would have to lie though some modified form of Nature, rather than pure abstraction, to which he did not feel a strong affinity in any case.  Not the human figure: rather, the animal and botanical kingdoms.  This realization both prompted and was confirmed by his move in 1989 to a house in the woods outside the eastern Long Island village of Sag Harbor, where he still lives.  One of the artists who resided just across the bay on Shelter Island, was the gifted collagist and paper-molder Alan Shields, who doubled as a ferryboat captain. Shields, alas, my own old fishing guru, he of the shaven bronze head and preposterously painted fingernails, is dead now, but it was Alan who presented Rizzie with a souvenir of the sea that has continued to appear in his work ever since: a big, rusty-black iron ball attached to a chain that Rizzie hung in a tree outside his studio.  It is a dominant and rather mysterious object, which is glimpsed as a disc from all sorts of angles outside the studio, sometimes half-hidden by branches and leaves, at other times peeping out like a strange oversize fruit or a punctuation mark. It often appears in Rizzie’s paintings, such as Source (2008), where the branches of the tree describe elegant arabesques, fined down to wiry curves; in his prints; and in his collages, such as the exquisite Peony with Vines (2008), where the contrast of the flat black circles gives the cut-out nineteenth-century print of a blooming white peony an extreme, but almost ghostly, richness. It is from the management of such contrasts that Rizzie’s art draws much of its beauty and vivacity. 


Robert Hughes was born in Australia in 1938, and since 1970 has lived and worked in the United States, where he has been an art critic for Time magazine for thirty years.  His books include The Culture of Complaint, Barcelona, Nothing if Not Critical, Heaven and Hell in Western Art, Goya, Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir, The Fatal Shore, The Shock of the New, and American Visions.  He is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, most recently an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He lives in New York. 

Dan Rizzie 
By ROBERT HUGHES