In Memoriam: Rex Ray, 1956-2015

Rex_at_WorkSince his death from late-stage lymphoma in early February, San Francisco artist Rex Ray has been eulogized in many media outlets; by his publisher, Chronicle Books; on the website of his friend and admirer David Bowie; and recently by Douglas Coupland, another good friend, in an obit for Artforum. Among other things, Coupland recounts Ray’s time spent as a City Lights cashier. Although Ray described himself as the “world’s bitterest clerk,” City Lights wouldn’t have been the same without its association with Ray. He doubled as a graphic designer for our publishing house, putting his talents to radiant use for numerous City Lights book covers and catalogs.

If you’re an aficionado of erotic literature, you may be familiar with Ray’s cover for our edition of Georges Bataille‘s Story of the Eye (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1987):


Or if American surrealism is your thing, Ray’s work for Bed of Sphinxes (1997), one of our Philip Lamantia volumes, might ring a bell:


The Lamantia cover is the one that most reminds me of Ray’s gallery work, with its off-center flower bulb/minaret abstraction and its reconfiguring of the stars and stripes as a nova-like explosion of light and color. Indeed, Ray himself recognized a strong continuity between his commercial work and his work in the fine arts. Having run his own graphic design firm for years before he began exhibiting paintings in galleries, Ray gave his large-scale canvases some of their look and feel by mimicking the conventions of computer design software: the brightly illustrated solids, conveyed through hard edges and firm bounding lines, strike one as a distinctly digital-era style (in concert with titles, meant to sound like either fake anti-depressants or genetically modified plant names, that give yet another nod to the era in which they were created):

prednisporata (2012)
mbongothe (2007)
bryoria (2006)

Many of the tributes to Ray’s life and work have included vague references to his “1960s-style psychedelia.” Given that Ray not only practiced but studied art, however, my guess is that there is a lot more going on. Ray’s method for his gallery works was essentially one of hand-painted collage. He layered materials like wood, linen, or denim with acrylic and spray paint before filleting them free-hand with an X-Acto knife and reassembling the pieces onto canvases under a coat of lacquer to form the finished works. Apart from the uncanny resemblance to Joan Miró’s painting style, Ray also displays the conscious avoidance of brush strokes that was a signature of New York School painters such as Jane Freilicher and Helen Frankenthaler; the sharp color palettes of the Bay Area painters Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn; even echoes of the astounding geometric tile mosaics one finds in Ottoman mosques:

mylopronesta (2001)

When Ray first moved to San Francisco in the 1980s to attend the Art Institute here, he lived out of his car and went into Tower Records every day for a week, asking for a job until they gave him one. Ultimately Ray dropped out of his graduate program to pursue freelance design gigs after he’d had enough of the reigning “aesthetics of ugly” being touted by his art instructors. But Ray’s obsession with music continued, leading him early on to cultivate a number of clients in the music industry for his graphic design work. He made concert posters for Patti Smith, Radiohead, REM, Beck, Oasis, and many others, culminating in his creation of this iconic image of David Bowie, a reference to the chameleon-esque stages of the musician’s public image, commissioned by Bowie for one of his late-career album tours:


The Bowie commission was a double-edged sword for Ray. At the same time that he realized it probably marked the zenith of his commercial design career, he also noticed that his expanding reputation in the commercial art world brought him to the attention of larger companies that offered him projects with diminishing degrees of freedom in executing them. These increased restrictions were what finally convinced Ray to begin concentrating on gallery work. One evening Ray picked up a glossy magazine that featured one of his corporate jobs and began cutting it up, rearranging into a collage abstraction what had been leeched of his original intent by endless input from the company’s marketing department. Soon enough, he realized that the magazine collages he was making constituted an original style. It wasn’t long after Ray expanded this practice to wall-sized canvases that his work was being exhibited at San Francisco’s Gallery 16, which continues to represent him.

Still, our former bookstore clerk didn’t forget us! As Ray’s gallery career took off, he continued to accept modest commissions from City Lights. But now his designs were more heavily imbued with the distinctive abstractions that he’d pioneered in his collage paintings:




The poet and artist William Blake claimed that the human imagination is our direct intuition of an eternal reality underlying the physical world of generation and decay. For Blake, every fully achieved painting, sculpture, poem, or drawing is a representation of some aspect of the same permanent reality, sensed with the inner eyes of the human heart and soul. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the lush geometric color fields of some of Ray’s paintings would be fit landscapes in which to romp and repose for eternity.

The weekend before his death, as Ray left his apartment for the last time to enter hospice care, he typed a Facebook post that belongs in any collection of witty last words: “Rex Ray has left the building.” It is an appropriate epitaph for someone who loved music as much as Ray did; but at City Lights, whenever we delve into our backlist or look at a poster on the office wall, we’re convinced that he decided to hang around.

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