McGuire’s Liquid Liquid
Richard McGuire, artist, illustrator, animator, children’s book and comics author and graphics experimenter, was also a founding member and self-taught bassist of Liquid Liquid, a band dubbed “The Most Important NY Band You’ve Never Heard Of.”
A street artist as well, McGuire created the recurring “Ixnae Nix “avatar by applying spray-paint through a hand-made stencil, itself ripped from a newspaper sheet and surrounding this black, spectral silhouette with elliptical, hand-drawn poetics in crayon and all caps on different-sized newspaper sheets; ultimately, they were wheatpasted on the streets of lower Manhattan between July 1979 and early 1981. The prankster-like character’s name derives from the word “ixnae”––Pig Latin for “nix”––rendering his full full name a double negative; like the tag “Liquid Liquid,” it also doubles as a tautology.
Richard McGuire: Art for the Street – New York 1978-1982 at Alden Projects until November 18 “is a revelatory exhibition focusing on two strains of protean artist Richard McGuire’s early work: the Ixnae Nix street drawings and his original art created for band posters, including Liquid Liquid, the influential downtown post-punk band for which he played bass and co-founded.”
However, the work that was on view is also documented in a 144-page book published by Alden Projects, Richard McGuire: Art for the Street – New York 1978-1982. Edited by Todd Alden with a foreword by Luc Sante, this is the first monograph on the artist’s early work, including black-and-white photographs (1979) which McGuire commissioned his friend, Martha Fishkin to take alongside McGuire after periodic nights of wheatpasting in (formerly) gritty downtown New York, including St. Marks Place, Houston Street, and White Street.
Organized by Todd Alden in collaboration with Richard McGuire, the book recalls the early downtown New York artists associated with McGuire: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Al Diaz, ESG, Bush Tetras, Konk, Alan Suicide, Y Pants, UT, Tseng Kwong Chi, John Sex, Test Pattern, and Samo Is Dead Jazz Band. This book is also printed in a deluxe hardcover edition of 100 boxed, signed, and numbered examples containing a unique painted and drawn work by Richard McGuire as well as two vintage pressed 7″ records self-published by Richard McGuire (1978 and 1980). To purchase the soft cover or deluxe hardcover edition, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I asked McGuire, a valued friend, to tell us more about his life, art and period he inhabited.
Richard McGuire, 1980. Photo by Julie Wilson.
The Alden Projects exhibition and book is a record of posters you did when your band Liquid Liquid was playing gigs. The posters are a precursor to your work as illustrator and author. What makes them unique in terms of the work you’ve been doing since? The exhibition consists of the posters I designed for my band but also of the “street art” I was making at the same time. A few days after I arrived in NYC (moving from NJ in July 1979) I started pasting up original drawings on the street. I was in my early 20’s when I was making these stencil-drawings with spray paint and crayon. They featured an alter ego character named Ixnae Nix. Even though I was creating these drawings and the band posters at the same time and often pasting these up on the same night stylistically the two things were very different.
The posters were designed for walls, but you had a strategy for posting. Can you explain that? The band posters were usually printed in editions of a hundred or so. I usually wheat pasted them up in the neighborhoods I frequented: the East Village, SoHo, Tribeca. Thats were all the clubs and galleries were. I had a system for making the stencil-drawings, they were always in an edition of two, one for the street, and one for me to keep for my archives. Thank god I had the foresight to have them photographed in the street the following day after a night of pasting them up. They would soon be covered up by other posters in the course of the next 24 to 48 hours. The gallery produced a portfolio of these photos taken in ’79. It’s great to see them hanging next to the drawings I saved.
Photos by Martha Fishkin, 1971.
These images are more abstract than your later work. What were your influences at the time?
I was responding to my surroundings, I was influenced a bit by graffiti which I saw as kind of a “folk art”. While in school I was very interested in indigenous art, as well as raw “outsider art”. Bill Traylor and Martin Rameriz both made a big impact on me. I was very excited by the very early work of Claes Oldenburg, I also I loved Jean Dubuffet’s work. The stencil-drawings I was making have a rough look, I made the stencils by ripping them out of newspaper pages. The band posters were influenced other things that I found graphically exciting, I loved a lot of the Russian Constructivist artists, Rodcenko, Tatlin, El Lissitzky, I made collaged images with dramatic angles. I loved Japanese posters from the 60’s, artists like Tadanoori Yokoo. There were so many influences, I was attached to whatever packed a punch visually like boxing posters, supermarket signs, sometimes just experiments with type. I have never been overly concerned about creating a “brand”, the idea always dictates my approach and everything is filtered through my own sensibility.
How do you feel about looking back retrospectively at such “young” work? All this work is pre-digital, I’m showing the mechanicals that the posters were printed from. Many are collages with hand drawn type, sometimes I’m using Letraset (rub-on) type which I don’t think exists anymore. Some of the posters are printed with silkscreen, others were are printed offset, I was unsatisfied with the result of xerox machines, I could never get a strong black. I found an offset printer in Chinatown that was inexpensive and could print small runs. What hits me the most when seeing this work again is the energy behind the mission I was on. I haven’t seen this work in years and never all together. It’s coming up on forty years ago that I came to NYC, I arrived on July 3, 1979, and two days after I arrived I started pasting these drawings up in the streets. The band played it’s first show at CBGB a month later on August 2nd. I was playing shows steadily with the band and also showing work in exhibitions that were mostly in clubs and alternative spaces around the downtown scene. I became friends with both Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat and showed with them in group shows. I think the work holds up.
I’ve long admired your clash of music and art. Can you describe how these forces come together?
I was always attracted to music growing up, although I never had any musical training. There was a piano in the house and I would make up songs and record them. Once the Punk scene exploded it seemed just about everyone was forming a band. The whole idea behind punk was that anyone could do it. Forming a band with friends came about naturally. I actually formed three different bands, each had a different objective, but there was a lot of overlap of members. The exhibition covers record sleeves and posters I designed for all three. In every case I never showed a photo of what the band looked like, it was always about creating a strong graphic to make a viewer stop and look. I was excited about creating a record, at first it was mostly about making the object, designing the sleeve and the label. I found out how a record was manufactured and brought it through the entire process. I found a guy who had an machine in his garage that etched the grooves in wax, I took that to a place to make the plates and press them into vinyl. By ’81 the music was being released on 99 Records, a small NY label. For the next few years the band (Liquid Liquid) became my main profession, we were playing more often, and we started playing tours in Europe.
The book itself feels different in tone. Its more a document than an experience. Your later books are experiences – narratives, etc. What for you is the difference.
The idea to create a book came about after the show was conceived. This is the first book the gallery has produced. I worked together with a couple of young designers, Scott Langer and Patrick Slack. The idea for the show came from conversations with Todd Alden of Alden Projects. His gallery is concerned with ephemera and recent history and is all about weaving narratives. I’ve seen some amazing shows there. I saw a fantastic show of all the posters Ed Ruscha designed in the ’60’s for the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. I saw another great show of the early street art posters that Jenny Holzer had made. Every time I went to the gallery we would get into conversation, and one day Todd asked me if I would like to do an exhibition. I was thrilled and honored. The book and show feel like a “time capsule”, it’s limited to a few years that were very vital years for me, and it means a lot to have this work documented.
What’s next for you? I have a few ideas for projects that have been brewing for a while. I have another exhibition up right now at the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut, that will be up until January 2019. It’s a collection of small sculptures I made over the previous year along with a six page “visual essay” that was made for the catalog. I would love to make another book, another film, maybe even record some music, there is always something that needs to be done.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.