Dwight Ripley (c) 1962
Of all the glamorous figures present at the creation of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery -- all those painters, poets, and lovers – none was more glamorous than Dwight Ripley. He “looked and acted like a handsome international playboy,” according to the gallery’s director John Myers. He was “a genius,” said Tibor de Nagy. “He’s always pinching or patting my ass,” wrote Clement Greenberg, rather proudly, to a friend.
Ripley (1908-1973) was the gallery’s patron. He was also a pioneer in the use of colored pencil when that medium was considered fit mainly for hobbyists. Peggy Guggenheim, who once called him her fiancé, showed his drawings in a group exhibition at her own legendary gallery, Art of This Century, in 1946. The filmmaker Marie Menken created a film portrait, called Dwightiana, in his honor. (Her other portraits included Mondrian, Noguchi, Warhol, and Kenneth Anger.) But Ripley’s last solo show closed in 1962, the year Pop Art triumphed in the galleries and changed the dynamics of the art world in New York.
For the remaining ten years of his life, he worked quietly at his drawing table in a renovated mansion just east of Greenport on the North Fork of Long Island. Known earlier for his prodigious appetite for alcohol, he spent his last decade sober. Each year he interrupted the solitude to join his lifetime partner, the botanist Rupert Barneby, on desert and mountain expeditions in search of rare plants for the gardens they maintained throughout their lives. One such garden, at a farmhouse they owned near Wappingers Falls, was the subject of Menken’s underground classic, Glimpse of the Garden. (See below.) When Ripley died, Barneby sold their last garden, scooped up the drawings from his partner’s final decade and stored them in a trunk. They stayed in the trunk for twenty-five years.
Because Barneby was an elderly friend of my own partner, Frank Polach, the trunk arrived eventually with his other household effects at the place Frank and I share in Pennsylvania. It was intrusive, to say the least. Annoyed, thinking ahead to the recycling center or the auction barn, I decided to open it and see what lay inside. I was up all night. One by one I removed the drawings, ranging from poster-sized landscapes down to stationery-sized sketches that had been folded and apparently mailed to friends. I say landscapes, but the drawings were so stylized, so deftly combined with text and other allusions, that even on first sight they presumed you would regard them with an attention more complex and historicized than we might give to ordinary landscape. They were, in other words, remarkably up to date.
Thirteen of these drawings, a series known as the “Travel Posters,” were shown at Esopus Space in 2009. Reviewing them, the magazine Art on Paper observed: “Apparently, Dwight Ripley knew how to keep a secret.”
On Saturday, January 28, there will be an opening reception at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery for a sampling of these once secret works. The show, up until March 10, will be Ripley’s first at his former gallery in fifty years. His friend Judith Malina, founder of the Living Theatre, reported long ago to her diary that he was “kind & hard & terrible & lovable.” His drawings won’t disagree. Does this make them worth a look? I can answer for myself that they seized my imagination as they came out of the trunk, and would not let go.