Two Sides of Paul Richard

Written by J. Scott Orr, Photography by Daryl-Ann Saunders

Paul Richard seems to fit in quite nicely with this fashionable set that is assembled on the 44th floor of the Dominick Hotel in Soho. He is wearing a natty black suit, white dress shirt and a dark blue bow tie with the subtlest of gold polka dots. In his right hand, he swirls ice cubes in a glass and his left seeks refuge in his pants pocket. Yes, Paul Richard seems to fit in. At the same time, though, somehow he doesn’t.

Richard is the guest of honor at this rarified location, the reason for the evening, yet he is probably the only person in the room who arrived by bicycle. When he takes to the street to commit his famous drip paint street art, he often dresses in a suit and bow tie. Paul Richard is a complex person, a man of many contradictions, yet one with a singular dedication to his art.

Richard is at once a street artist, beloved by New Yorkers for the self-portraits, skulls, and other subjects he renders lovingly in minutes on sidewalks by pouring black paint directly from the can, and a fine artist whose bigger-than-life oil portraits fetch mid-five figures.

While his work has had engagements in prestigious galleries and taken residence in private collections of the rich and famous, it is also tread upon by common people every day on sidewalks across New York City. It’s even been shown in a K-Mart .

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

Like the artist himself, Richard’s work seems to fit in just about any place.

Like the artist himself, Richard’s work seems to fit in just about any place: sidewalks, galleries, museums, private collections, a bargain retail store. And now, in the 1,700 square-foot, $10,000-a-night, two-bedroom Street Art Suite at the Dominick. Not only is the spectacular space decorated in Richard’s work, it comes with the opportunity to acquire a commissioned piece by the artist. Just another “circumstance” in the colorful, quirky and unpredictable decades-long career of Paul Richard.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“My work has been displayed in all sorts of circumstances and places around the city.”

“My work has been displayed in all sorts of circumstances and places around the city,” he told UP Magazine shortly after his debut at the Dominick. “There is no specific place where it feels most at home, but the different venues can change the accessibility and the way the audience sees the work,” he said.

A Boston native, Richard (pronounced Ri-shard like the famous French-Canadian hockey player) was raised upstate where his father was a sociology professor and his mother did woodworking. He knew early on that art would be his true calling.

“From my earliest memories I’ve always been painting, drawing and building,” he said. As a young student, he sought ways to express scholarship through art. If it was worth learning, the young Richard reasoned, it was worth turning it into art as a means of getting to know the subject more intimately.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“From my earliest memories I’ve always been painting, drawing and building.” 

“In school, I worked drawing and painting into much of my coursework: drawing aqueducts for a section on Ancient Rome, drawing the skeleton for physical anthropology, the hydrological cycle or an amoeba for science, or antiquities for history. To become intimate with something and understand it better, draw and paint it. Move through it with a line,” he said.

Somewhere along the way  he developed a singular talent for clever, sometimes outlandish, outside-the-box self-promotion, which worked well enough to earn him a 2000 story in the Wall Street Journal with the headline “Painter of Prankster.” In it, he told reporter Joanne Kaufman: “I’m interested in calling attention to myself and my art and raising questions about popular culture.”

He’s done things like  holding a book signing at a Barnes & Noble without permission and without a book of his own, affixing gallery-style plaques to everyday items in public spaces, placing clever signs about the city like the time he put a “For Sale by Owner” sign in front of the New Museum.

And then there was the famous show at the Astor Place K-Mart more than 20 years ago, an event that gained him broad media attention and sold every one of the oil paintings he placed on display.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“Sometimes the best place for an art exhibit is an unpredictable venue.” 

“Sometimes the best place for an art exhibit is an unpredictable venue,” he told UP. “The unpredictability of a venue can incline the guest or viewer to spend a little more time scrutinizing the work. For example, if someone stumbles upon an artwork on the sidewalk in a random alley near the West Side Highway in Manhattan, she just might spend a little extra time in that New York moment because of the juxtaposition of that artwork with its location,” he said.

But Richard is far more than a self-promoting scamp. Sure, his art is ubiquitous on sidewalks around New York, but his larger-than-life oils have gained super-sized attention too. (There are two such paintings of faceless invisible men on display in the lobby of the Dominick.) His Bucket Man painting is in the collection of Larry Ellison, the billionaire philanthropist who founded Oracle and his work has been commissioned by Christina Aguilera, Jay Z, Beyoncé and Justin Bieber.

While he acknowledges pursuing two distinct styles, drip paintings and oil portraits, the two are not as different as they may appear. “The drip work and the oil paintings have a different aesthetic but deal with some of the same formal issues to create a representational picture – issues such as contours, landmarks, highlights, shadows, and proportions. The approach to the different styles is the same and includes a methodical ethic, trial and error, and experimentation,” he said.

Many of his oil pieces, including the giant headshot that adorns one of the walls in the Dominick suite, are self-portraits and he often portrays himself in unlikely circumstances like wearing a tutu or falling from a wheelchair.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“I’m creating paintings that are narratives.” 

“In the self-portrait paintings I take on many roles including those where I appear vulnerable or compromised. I’m creating paintings that are narratives. It becomes a theatre where I usurp the identity of director and actor. For the purpose of practicality, I use myself in many of the paintings. The model is always available, and he doesn’t cost much,” Richard said.

Using himself as his go-to model also affords Richard further control over the process, something that would seem to suit his perfectionist nature. Marc Leader, the gallerist at 212 Arts who has been selling his art for years, says Richard is that rare artist who does it all himself.  

“Paul is just a very nice person,” Leader said. “Down to his core he is really an artist. He’s a perfectionist who does everything himself, from stretching his own canvases to controlling the artistic process from idea to completion to promoting the work.” And when is that process complete? “When somebody buys it,” he told one interviewer.

It appears Richard is comfortable with his seemingly contradictory reputations as both a street artist and a fine artist. So, yes, he is very much at home with the artsy set that showed up to greet him at the Dominick the other night. The installment on the 44th floor is just the latest in his career-long experimentation with unique art placement.

“The Dominick show is in the spirit of that experimentation,” – Richard

“The spaces are beautiful and the views are breathtaking. There is no better venue I can think of for this collection. I’ve had shows in many alternative venues. The Dominick show is in the spirit of that experimentation,” he said.

Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine.

Instagram: @bscenezine