New awnings are sprouting up all over Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Corner Frenzy, which started out as a laundromat, recently added loud signage proclaiming “Hot Dogs + Ice Cream.” Across the street, at 1000 Manhattan Avenue, things are happening as well. About a year ago, a scaffolding company that presumptuously calls itself Everest enveloped the red brick building with heavy aluminum rails and wooden planks. Two crossing steel beams—one apparently holding up the other—were placed against the building’s façade and onto the sidewalk. At the end of the beam, which is wrapped in yellow caution tape, there is a mysterious wooden box.
At first glance, the structure looked futile, but on closer inspection the beams are preventing the building’s swelling bricks from crashing down onto the pavement. The rain gutter bends along the façade’s perilous curve. To get into the G&R Deli on the ground floor, one is forced to duck under the joists or to circle around the structure to enter the store. The whole thing resembles a Mark Di Suvero sculpture carelessly hammered together by a bunch of mentally disabled teenagers. It looks like a dangerous joke.
Nevertheless, my husband was optimistic. When I pointed out that a group of bums had chosen the space underneath the scaffolding as their hangout, he said, “No, those are construction workers. They are fixing the building.” When I countered that even for construction workers they seemed awfully drunk and in poor shape, he got defensive. “Maybe they are the architects.” I had to point out that one of the “architects” had ankles swollen to the size of logs.
Within weeks the beams were garnished with anti-abortion flyers in Polish and a Ron Paul for President sticker. One day the following appeared in thick black marker on the box:
Wood, Metal, and Mixed Media
97 × 102 × 28 3/4 inches
Who the hell is Paul Richard? I wondered. The Internet was of limited help. “As a result of a server error,” his homepage announces, “all email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org over the past year (anything before February 2004) was not received. If you sent email to that address and haven’t received a reply, please try again.” Discouraged by the fact that Richard hadn’t updated his website for more than three years I put 1000 Manhattan Avenue on ice. But every time I crouched under the beams and weaved through the architects to buy milk at the G&R Deli, I wondered: Who the hell is Paul Richard?
A few months later someone wrote on one of the beams, “PAUL RICHARD IS A FRAUD.” At this point I simply couldn’t hold back. I contacted Richard and he invited me to his studio.
The freight elevator that took me up to Richard’s studio on the West end of Greenpoint Avenue was decorated with a kitschy orange-hued still life. The elevator operator chuckled as he pointed at the thrift-store find, embellished with Richard’s signature. “This is a Paul Richard,” he proclaimed proudly.
Richard, a serious man with angular features that echoed the cross-beam, wore a sober dark suit. His gravity was jeopardized by a large, frantic dog named Ranger who he unsuccessfully tried to restrain. Man, suit and dog looked like they had been plucked from a vintage photograph.
“Do you like clove?” he asked me, offering a cup of homemade spice tea.
Richard didn’t waste any time. He handed me a press release (seemingly prepared for my visit, as it bore that day’s date) titled, “L.A. Museum and Others Yet to Pay Paul Richard.” He paced up and down his studio inexplicably ripping up large drawings as I read.
“The Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles, TBWA Chiat Day, Mother London, and BritArt.com have neither paid nor credited Paul Richard for his art work.
“All have used Mr. Richard’s designated art—attaching museum labels to random objects or sites, presenting them as art. (…)
“Paul Richard is the sole inventor of designated art and has created over 100 pieces since 1996 in Boston and New York.
“In addition to money and credit, Mr. Richard is also asking for the awards mistakenly given to these companies who have presented his art as their own. Richard has billed each company $9,500 for his art services.”
This feud, which was reported by LA Weekly, began more than six years ago when MoCA put a billboard on top of a church building that read “Church with Red Ribbon, 2001/Brick, stucco, stained glass, metal ribbon.” Richard claimed that MoCA—and others—stole his idea of labeling street objects and never got over the alleged theft.
Richard handed me an invoice—also with that day’s date—which he had just sent to PR agent Jeremy Miller from TBWA Chiat Day, an advertisement agency in New York and L.A.
“What do you think?” He asked intensely. “What do you think?”
I stuttered something about Duchamp’s ready-mades, specifically Fountain, the urinal he labeled and exhibited at New York’s Society of Independent Artists in 1917. But the comparison didn’t please Richard. He explained that Duchamp did not label street objects, but found objects. Richard also noted that Duchamp put his work in museums—an entirely different context. But like Duchamp, Richard declares objects made by others as his art. It is unclear how one can own an idea based on theft. Is Everest Scaffolding going to sue Richard for claiming the company’s steel-beam-support-cross his piece of art? I doubt it. Will the Parks Department take him to court for labeling a tree stump on Bedford Avenue? Probably not. Will the U.S. Postal Service take legal action against Richard for putting a plaque on a mailbox on Franklin Street that reads “Untitled, 2008. Metal, Paint, Stickers, Mixed Media and Uric Patina?” Maybe.
“What prompted you to put up the sign on 1000 Manhattan Avenue?” I asked. “That was spontaneous. I was just walking by,” he shrugged. “It looked jerry-rigged.”
Richard has never gotten into trouble for his designated art. He has been arrested twice for his drip drawings, black portraits he makes on outdoor walls, which the police considered vandalism. “The police are interested in the drip drawings,” he says about the series of black portraits with which he adorns outdoor walls. The police were interested enough to arrest Richard twice for vandalism. The charge was later reduced to disorderly conduct and Richard was sentenced to help clean up Union Square Park, a task he claims to have enjoyed. He even made a flyer inviting people to watch him do his community service.
After leaving Richard’s studio I dropped by G&R to buy milk and noticed that Ratna Iyer, the deli’s owner, had attached his own sign to the beam. The handmade placard with a childish drawing of a fish read “JUZ W SPRZEDOZY-ZYWEKARI CZYSZCZENIE NA ZYCZENI – LIVE FISH.”
Iyer, a handsome Bangladeshi, explained the appearance of the scaffolding. A year ago he noticed “an angle in the brick” and was worried about his safety. His landlady Carol Caputo hired Everest to come up with a “temporary” solution, which turned out to be not so temporary. Despite a number of 311 calls, no one has come to fix the site. Iyer explained that the damage was only to the facade and not structural. The scaffolding and the odd looking prop obscured the whole building and frightened potential shoppers from visiting his store. Recently his landlady won a court order for him to move out temporarily until the damage was fixed. With only ten days to clear the store, he had nowhere to store his merchandise or a way to make a living. Yet he seemed optimistic that the problem would be taken care of and he could soon move back in. I asked Iyer whether he ever noticed Paul Richard’s label. “Paul Richard?” He asked incredulously. He has never heard of this man.
“And where are the live fish?” I asked. He whisked me into the store’s backroom to a huge tank with five or six gasping carps and a rusty hammer. One of the foot-long fish had an ugly sore on his mouth. Iyer said that his carps were quite a hit in the neighborhood. The Polish, the Mexicans and the Bangladeshi all loved his carps. Carp stew, roasted carp, baked carp—there are so many things you can do with carp!
A few days after I visited Ratna Iyer and his carps, Richard forwarded me a seven-year-old email:
I read your accusations about MOCA in the LA Weekly.
I called a friend who works there and they said they had never heard of you.
I called a friend who works at the Whitney. Never heard of you.
I called a friend who works at Pace in New York. Never heard of you.
I called a friend who works for Matthew Marks. Never heard of you.
I went to your website.
Your paintings look like bad Schnabel knock-offs.
Your drawings look like bad Beuys knock-offs.
Maybe I’ll contact their representatives and tell them you’re copying them.
You weren’t the first to have the idea of labels. You should be ashamed that you’re trying to claim it as original. If you have any doubts, pick up book about Fluxus. After you read that, pick up a book on Dada.
You’re a joke.
You are now.
You will be in the future.
If you spent more of your time creating art and less of it whining and bitching and making baseless accusations, you might be abe [sic] to make something of yourself.
The email was by a man named James Frey. Richard speculated that it might be the same James Frey whose memoir A Million Little Pieces was later exposed as being largely made-up.
Each neighborhood block contains a thousand little stories just waiting to come alive. Eventually, these stories die. The steel-beam-support-cross story expired shortly after Paul Richard sent me James Frey’s email. Ratna Iyer’s store gates went down for good and the “architects” relocated. Richard recently screwed a fake museum plaque to the mystery box, replacing the handwritten scribble. It read:
97 × 102 × 28 1/2 inches
The construction site is still there. Everest recently made some space for pedestrians, but I prefer to continue to crouch underneath the supporting beams, as I am waiting for the next story to arise or for the old one to continue.
SABINE HEINLEIN is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and photographer who lives in Brooklyn. Her website is www.sabineheinlein.org.