In the 1980s Ashley Bickerton took the New York art world by storm, leading a pack of artists that included Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach in the neo-geo movement, a style that critiqued rampant consumerism. His Tormented Self-Portraits series of aluminum and steel wall sculptures (1987-88), lacquered with corporate logos from Fruit of the Loom to Citibank, became symbolic of this get-rich-quick era.
Bickerton, who died at the age of 63 from complications related to motor neuron disease, knew, however, that such a celebrity was fickle and, to the astonishment of many, in 1993 he went up to Bali.
There he embarked on a new chapter of his art, far from the eyes of critics and curators. “You just get processed like a taxonomic artifact, like a butterfly with a pin through it,” Bickerton said of museums and art magazines. “You get labeled and indexed and engaged in some ‘historical record’ construction, and then it all goes on again. It’s suffocating in every sense.
Instead, inspiration came from more prosaic sources: On a bus bound for Acapulco during a trip to Mexico, Bickerton saw a brick wall painted orange and purple. “It was perfect… what’s more perfect than a colorful wall to sit on wall.” The result is a series of sculptures in steel, aluminum and resin, entitled Wall-Wall, and characterized by brick-like blocks of primary color and vinyl texts that poetically describe natural landscapes. As he sat on the shore with his wife while the tide went out near their home, the ocean gave up a huge amount of wreckage, natural and human waste.That debris said all it wanted to say about man’s relationship to capital and to nature.His Flotsam Paintings they ended up as dystopian reimaginings of the seascape genre, with scraps of collected garbage embedded in turquoise oil paint.
Life on the island did not dampen the artist’s social satire. Later Bickerton, once described by writer Paul Theroux as “the connoisseur of non-belonging”, embarked on a series of character paintings of the “Blue Men”, repulsive Western expatriates. Their skin tone is a knowing nod to the exoticism of Paul Gauguin’s 19th-century Tahitian paintings.
In PST2 (2018), Bickerton shows an obese man laughing on a moped while two miserable local women ride in the back; in The Bar (2018), two men sit at a table littered with empty beer bottles while bored women smoke beside them. Each burlap sits in a kitschy wooden frame inlaid with mother of pearl. “My work has always been about identity in some form,” Bickerton said. “But, given my age, race, gender, and unfashionable orientation, it wasn’t really encouraged to be seen or talked about that way.”
Conceived on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Bickerton was born in Barbados; his mother, Yvonne, was a behavioral psychologist, and his father, Derek Bickerton, was a peripatetic linguist famous for his study of creole and pidgin languages. His parents avoided international schools favored by other expats and placed him in local schools. “My brother and I were often the only white children in our school, in Africa, the Caribbean and Guyana in South America… Over the course of my childhood I ended up speaking five dialects of English, none of which were intelligible to others. “
In 1971 the family finally settled in Hawaii, where Ashley perfected her surfing skills. At 21, with American citizenship, she enrolled in the fine arts course at the California Institute of the Arts.
In 1984 Bickerton moved to New York, where he had his first solo exhibition, a series of text paintings, at the White Columns, before embarking on the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art a year later. Although it was featured in a group show in 1986 at the Sonnabend Gallery with Koons, Peter Halley and Meyer Vaisman, Bickerton’s disillusionment with the industry was growing. Donald Judd’s boxes, he lamented, were “discussed in terms of a vessel that contained God. But what was it in the end? It was a fucking brand. These things are traded in some pissing competition between oligarchs. Later he asked, “What the hell was I doing locking myself into an insular feedback loop that lived just to silently reflect a social moment?”
Bickerton first moved to the Brazilian state of Bahia, but the waves weren’t good enough and it proved too difficult to make art, so he went to Bali, building a studio on a mountain near Uluwatu on the Indonesian island. When he wasn’t surfing he was making art and in 1997 had four paintings in a solo show at London’s White Cube, including The Patron, which depicted a frumpy art collector slumped over a sofa masturbating. From then on he had regular gallery shows at the London dealer, as well as in New York with Sonnabend and Lehmann Maupin. More recently Bickerton has been represented by Gagosian, but institutional recognition has largely eluded him, with only a few showings in museum group exhibitions over the decades.
In 1994, however, Damien Hirst curated Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away… at the Serpentine Gallery in London, a group exhibition meditating on life and death that traveled to museums in Helsinki, Hanover and Chicago. Having himself brined a shark in formaldehyde a year earlier, Hirst included a sculpture by Bickerton titled Solomon Island Shark, made that year, which, with exotic irony, featured a rubber replica of the giant fish hoisted on a rope and covered in coconuts.
Hirst, whom Bickerton considered an “obnoxious little monster” before they became friends, would intervene again in Bickerton’s career 23 years later when the British artist opened the Newport Street Gallery, a non-profit space in London. Bickerton’s 2017 retrospective was quickly followed by an even larger survey the same year at the Flag Art Foundation in New York. The audience for these shows was divided. “There are those who loved what I did in New York in the ’80s and early ’90s, and they think I lost the plot when I escaped to Indonesia,” Bickerton said. “An equal number of people knew the work I had done after I arrived in Bali who saw my previous work and said, ‘Hmm, boring.'” Indeed, though varied, both eras were united by a wicked humor and an anthropological interest in how people interact with their environment.
Bickerton is survived by his wife, Cherry Saraswati, daughter Io and two sons, Django and Kamahele, as well as his brother, James, and sister, Julie.
• Ashley Bickerton, artist, born May 26, 1959; passed away November 30, 2022