The best of lives contain a variety of disparate threads. The best moments in a life tend to come when those threads get pulled together.
Roger Ricco is working on and showing his fine art photography and painting in what many still remember as the artist John Pike’s studio. UPS drivers come and go as Ricco, a legendary New York City gallery owner one month into his creative retirement, speaks of artists, famous and anonymous, as well as the complexity of an adventurous life that’s had him living in and around Woodstock for decades.
“Let’s just bounce the ball back and forth a bit,” he says, as a starter, amidst a kaleidoscopic banter involving time spent with some of the art and photo world’s leading lights, years of study with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher based in town, and his role finding markets and appreciation for what’s become known, to most, as Art Brut or Outsider Art.
Ricco was born the black sheep in a blue collar Milwaukee family. While studying painting at the University of Wisconsin’s campus in his home city, he won the American Academy’s Prix de Rome, which saw him passing through New York en route to what would become two years in the Eternal City starting in 1964 at the age of 23.
“I returned to New York not wanting to head back into the Midwest, but also with a real desolate feeling for the art world, wondering how I was going to fit in,” Ricco remembered, speaking about having enough left from his prize money to rent a Manhattan loft and dive head-on into the burgeoning hippie phenomenon of the time.
“We started a multi-media group, The Group Image, and created a scene that became quite renowned in the city at the time. The Grateful Dead used to visit our loft when they were in town. We did musical multi-media shows once a week,” he recalled of his life as a producer, if not a performer. “It was all happening, the music, transformative moments.”
Ricco remembered doing a gig near Woodstock, but also heading up late for the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and ending up snarled in traffic on the Thruway, never making it.
His own art drifted away from the powerful personal expression mantra of the late Abstract Expressionists into something he saw as being more “communal.” Like many in the wake of Abstract Expressionism’s uber-personalities, he sought something anonymous (just as those reaching towards Pop, Op and Minimalist modes did.) To make a living, Ricco started a business doing art restoration, with a focus on primitive sculpture. He and his first wife had a son, and eventually bought land in West Saugerties.
Around the same time his upstate life’s thread emerged, there were other colorful strands gathering parts of his life. As he got to know antique and art dealers working with the sorts of sculptures he’d become adept at restoring, Ricco decided to try his hand at dealing. He took his savings to Europe and bought his own African primitive pieces and upon his return doubled his money. He opened part of his space as a private gallery. In sauntered a southern gentleman by the name of Herbert Hemphill, one of the founding trustees of the Museum of American Folk Art, with “a wooden turtle-like thing” that needed restoration.
“I asked him what it was, where it was from, and what do you mean by folk art?” Ricco recalled. “I started educating myself about what was available in this sort of art in the United States.”
Before long, the budding dealer was scouring antique stores buying up van loads of odd pieces, and discovering he had a good eye. He met a fashion photographer who was collecting and starting to deal American folk art, Frank Maresca. The two men got to talking about doing something together. They came up with the idea of a well-curated show based on their taste, their knowledge of what certain items could sell for. It was a huge success.
Once again, Roger Ricco noted as he shut his eyes in the wood-fired warmth of his Woodstock home, several threads bunched together into a design that helped shape a new chapter to his future.
“My building in Chelsea was going coop and I had to come up with $40,000 fast or lose the space I was living in and running my businesses out of,” he said. “I was introduced to a young woman, Elizabeth Johnson, who upon seeing the work in our ‘pop-up gallery’ said she wanted to buy everything we had, which would work out to $40,000 each… Later, when I went up to Elizabeth’s Fifth Avenue apartment to deliver what she’d bought, she proposed starting a gallery in SoHo. I immediately said yes and went back and sold my restoration business to the people working for me for a dollar.”
“People started to learn about the untrained aesthetic eye,” Ricco explained of his nascent years in the business. “The view of what art was and could be started to change.”
After three years, Johnson moved on to new interests and Ricco joined forces with Maresca to form Ricco/Maresca Gallery. Together the two began publishing now-classic books on the field and eventually started expanding what they showed to include emerging contemporary art and photography.
“The art of the great self-taught artists describes the excitement they feel about seeing things,” Ricco noted. “As humble as their lives were, what I get from their art is their sense of wonder about what they were seeing in, and thinking about the world.”
The gallery moved into a new space in Chelsea just as the art world started making its first pilgrimages into the neighborhood. Everything the two men touched felt like the epitome of contemporary, yet simultaneously authentic, real, and not indulgent or self-referential.
Through it all, Roger Ricco kept at his own art as best he could, always dedicating spaces in his homes and galleries where he could work. But he started to find that his sense of self-criticism had shifted as his appreciation of the raw talents of self-taught artists kept expanding.
“I wanted to make art that captures the fabric of the moment,” Ricco said, standing up and walking towards his home’s great north-facing window and the view of forest, mountain and sky it revealed.
Simultaneously, Ricco’s immersion into the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism were similarly deepening and changing him. He started writing, and continues speaking at public engagements about his experience with the artists he represented and the blurred lines between mental health and creativity. He realized how much of the art world was about scheming, and how much about true creation.
By the late 1980s, he and his family moved to Woodstock full time, with Ricco keeping a space in his gallery where he could stay when needed. He designed a Wittenberg house. Divorce occurred and eventually, with the help of a Woodstock gallerist, he found himself purchasing Pike’s old studio.
He started back at his art, showing his photography work at galleries around the nation. He got back to painting. Eventually, this autumn, Roger Ricco decided it was time to retire.
“I just calculated my age. How much longer did I want to play this game,” he said of his decision to leave the gallery side of the art world. “Woodstock’s always been my favorite place. I never wanted to end up dying in the city; my work and life was always destined to be up here…”
Ricco shows recent paintings, haunting in the ways they mix simply-felt imagery with a sense of the great expanse of art, both past and contemporary. He runs through stacks of large-format photos, some subtle still-lives, others hinting at mysterious narratives. He shows off his working spaces and speaks of deep friendships, things he’s been reading, music he’s rediscovering (while teaching himself to play the piano), and how lucky he was to have gotten into and thrived in the art world when he did, back when such things were still possible for young dreamers.
He acknowledges what he is now doing with himself.
“I guess the bottom line is I’ve always been curious,” Ricco says. “Everything is here.”
The threads led north, in other words. Roger Ricco’s tapestry wove itself around the view from John Pike’s north-facing artist’s window.
And now he reweaves it all, again.