Artwork: Rex Ray. Best of David Bowie, 1999 ISO Records (r) Sketch for David Bowie at the Berkeley Community Theater, 2004
San Francisco in the early 1990 was covered by the shroud of death, as AIDS swept through the city, devastating a generation. Those who lived through the epidemic were forced to come to terms with the unthinkable: to carry on understanding the depths of the absence and the lives stolen from us.
Artist Rex Ray (1956–2015) exhibited a piece at the final show at Kiki Gallery titled “Waiting for a Fax from Yoko,” which featured an unplugged fax machine set on a podium. Outside the gallery, Clifford Hengst sang as Yoko Ono, accompanied by Ray’s guitar feedback—and together they performed until the police came to shut the whole thing down.
By the time of the performance, Ray had already been working as a graphic artist, trained before the advent of computer technology. He designed the first ACT UP! logo before they adopted the Gill Sans logo, “Silence = Death.” He abandoned the group when strangers arrived at the meetings talking about using bombs.
Although he work was not overtly political, he understood the stakes and the forces at work. But he refused to abandon the importance of beauty, a central element no matter what he did. His style, which embraced the influences of the Arts and Crafts movement, Fluxus, Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, organic and hard-edged abstraction, pattern and textile design, and Op Art gave his work mass appeal, landing him commissions to design album covers for David Bowie, U2, Björk, Radiohead, and R.E.M., and collaborations Apple, Dreamworks and Swatch, among many others.
In celebration of Ray’s magnificent career, Gallery 16 in San Francisco, which represents the Rex Ray Estate, has just released Rex Ray: We Are All Made Of Light, a sumptuous monograph that chronicles the artist’s career. In conjunction with the book, SFMOMA is Paul Klee and Rex Ray now through October 9, 2017, creating a visual conversation across time and space.
“[Rex Ray] invented a way of working as an artist that was singularly his own,” Gallery 16 founder Griff Williams observes. “How many of us can say that? How many of us can ignore our critics and truly follow our own particular sensibility? Rex did that every day. Not without self-doubt—he had that for sure. Not without failure—he was frank about his failures as well. But he lived his life and made his work guided by his determination, focus, and grace.”
This grace is evident on every page of the book, in the works, the photographs, the memories, and the stories Williams shares with us. In the late 1990s, Ray began to take up collage, crafting masterpieces from paper, scissor, and glue. In each of the works, there is a wonderful feeling of being overcome, of being swept away, of giving one’s self fully to the pleasure of color, form, pattern, and design that mesmerizes the eye and invokes a deeply peaceful state.
In every image there is an internal sense of rhythm, melody, and harmony, a delightful syncopation that makes one feel they are literally seeing the sound of music. Perhaps this can be in part attributed to the hand of the artist evident in every aspect of the work. Ray’s meticulous collage process came about from the pleasure he derived of cutting shapes from magazines, including his own commercial work that he then reassembled and layered onto wet canvases. He was quick, spontaneous, and intuitive, imbuing his free flowing forms with an organic touch that come from being completely in the moment.
Williams writes, “The sheer volume of Rex’s studio output between 1995 and 2015 was staggering. He was commissioned by Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Levi’s, the Rosewood and Strand Hotels, the Outside Lands Festival, Apple, and countless others. He made thousands of works, numbering each on the back. The magnitude of work was of some concern, as I felt it would ultimately devalue it. But Rex insisted. He saw it as a way of maintaining a connection to the populist forms of art that inspired him early on.”
For his insistence in doing it his way, we are left to behold it all, the joy, wonder, and breathtaking pleasure of a Rex Ray original. Whether creating commercial work or fine art, Ray knew what it took to capture your attention, feed your imagination, and keep you hooked. For that we can take wonder and delight in the ability of We Are All Made of Light to capture the optical opulence of his work in the dreamiest of books.
All images: Courtesy of Gallery 16.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.