One evening in 2010, I went to see the artist Richard Patterson in his studio, a storefront on Parry Avenue. The buildings felt like a strip of urbanity plopped down on an abandoned concrete landscape that fell away from the front door toward the ghostly deco silhouettes of an empty, moonlit Fair Park. Through the walls, I could hear the noise from a bar a few doors down. In the apartment above us, someone was plucking single notes on an electric bass. In a corner of the studio, two of Patterson’s vintage motorcycles sat emptied of their oil and gasoline. At the time, he was re-creating one of his own paintings, copying it stroke for stroke from a photograph, and the process was driving him mad.
A large canvas, 10 feet wide and 7 feet tall, sat on a huge easel. On it, there was a half-realized image of a helmeted racer on a motorcycle. The rider was a scaled-up image of a plastic figurine covered with globs of multicolored paint. From across the room, the painting looked like a photograph but for the unfinished sections, which revealed an undercoat of monochromatic taupe.
Patterson stands 5-foot-6, and today, at 51, he can come across as a bit of an imp when he’s full of energy and chattering away, flashing a puckish grin paired with a Peter Pan glint in his green eyes. But there was no sign of that Patterson on the evening I visited him. He looked weary, the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes running deep, his posture stiff, in part the result of an autoimmune disease that has wrecked his spine. I could tell at a glance that he wasn’t doing well.
That Patterson could even attempt to remake such a large, technically complex painting was a testament to his abilities. Working from a photograph, he can manipulate oil paint so that his canvas becomes a perfect reflection of it. He uses this hyper-styled trompe-l’œil to appropriate images from advertising and films—girls in bikinis or blond men on motorcycles, scaled-up tiny models of plastic soldiers or toy minotaurs. The conceptual tension in Patterson’s art comes from rendering the stuff of a disposable contemporary culture with the exacting skill of a Renaissance master. In both content and execution, it is a mash-up of the high and the low, highly refined cultural sensibilities and sexually charged kitsch finding equal footing on his canvas.
But Patterson’s process is painstakingly slow. His paintings require anywhere from 500 to 2,000 individual color mixes, and what looks like the mere fade of a centimeter-wide shadow can be the product of six or more shades of color. The thin edge of an object just a foot long can take upwards of nine hours to paint. He makes on average only four or five pieces a year.
With the large canvas in front of him that evening, he was attempting to make a painting that was a copy of a photograph of a painting that itself was made by blowing up a photograph of a painted miniature toy. Patterson’s work often delights in meta-removes that bring together the disciplines of painting, photography, and sculpture, but that particular project was simply a product of necessity. The original piece, Motocrosser II (1995), was one of five Patterson paintings owned by the famed adman and collector Charles Saatchi, and it was destroyed in the Momart art storage fire of 2004. Another collector had asked Patterson if he could re-create the painting for him. Short on funds in the wake of the 2009 recession, Patterson had taken on the onerous commission.
The painting came to dominate his life. Every day he dragged himself to the studio and confronted the reality that he was copying himself. The process required him to retrace steps on the canvas that he’d first made as a young, rising star working in a studio in the Hoxton neighborhood of London, operating at the center of the most vibrant art scene on the planet. Patterson moved to Dallas from London, via New York, in 2004, and the painting seemed to symbolize everything that move had meant. He was on the far fringes of cultural urbanity, living in a city that isolated him from the art world he’d known. He understood Dallas as a place of cheap imitations, and his own work had begun to feel false, desperate. Like his motorcycle man in the painting—a speed demon frozen in paint—he was trapped.
Richard Patterson doesn’t think I should begin this story with the bit about his re-created painting. In the five years since I first met Patterson, I’ve interviewed him numerous times, often with an idea for a story he would later tell me he didn’t want me to write. I was long ago added to a list of people in Dallas—artists, curators, real estate developers, magazine editors, museum directors, museum directors’ wives—to whom he regularly writes long emails, hilarious missives that read like the kind of essays Andy Kaufman would have written if he’d had a secret fascination with fast cars, salami, and urban design.
Patterson is a famous painter, but he’s also a good friend and one of the best writers I’ve ever met. It was those latter two attributes that made me think writing about him would be easy. But now I realize they make writing about him quite the opposite. No one knows how to write about Richard Patterson better than Richard Patterson.
“I think there is an identity issue,” he tells me. “I am the cloven viscount, the Calvino story, where he is cut in two down the center, and he has a good half and a bad half, and the bad half is written about all the time. I’m still trying to relocate my other half.”
So if you don’t start with the re-created painting, where do you start? Patterson is a British artist who has been living in Dallas for 10 years, a painter who was part of one of the most seminal art shows of the last 30 years (Damien Hirst’s Freeze exhibition), who was once represented by one of the most important galleries in the world (Anthony d’Offay), who is collected by museums, and who has rubbed elbows with Mick Jagger and Gerhard Richter.
But that’s just Richard Patterson the famous artist. There’s also Dallas Richard, married to writer Christina Rees, known for rolling up every day at the Murray Street Coffee Shop in Deep Ellum in his green 1994 Jaguar XJS 4.0 Coupe. Dallas Richard will set off on incisive and riotous tirades on any number of topics: Dallas’ stunted cultural sensibility, its terrible food, its superficial collector base, the crass character of its patronage, the incompetence of its drivers, the pushiness of its waiters, the banality of the contemporary art world, the idiocy of driving Lexuses, and the superiority of Jaguar motor engineering. Patterson is Dallas’ underground satirist. If his wit makes you see this city more clearly, it’s because it removes the plank from your eye that may have made living in this city bearable.
And if the meticulous nature of his art doesn’t make it obvious, he’s a perfectionist and a control freak. As I go about reporting this story, I get the feeling that Patterson is attempting to report it for me. He orchestrates scenes, sends email compilations of his own favorite quotes, and tries at one point to assign his own photographer to take his portrait. He has definite ideas about how his story should be told and how it shouldn’t. He doesn’t think the re-created painting should take center stage. He doesn’t want the story to portray him as a cranky git, the old artist codger who goes on and on complaining about Dallas, as Dallas stands aside not quite knowing what to do with him.
“I think it should be as colorful as possible—the story,” Patterson tells me on the phone after I’m way past deadline. “I have chosen to make it funny. Laughter really is my antidote for some of the things that are going on here.”
You could start with one of Patterson’s many hilarious tales. Like the time before he had ever shown in a gallery, and he was invited to a luncheon with a legendary London art dealer, and, trying to impress the stylish set, he wore furry Norwegian ski boots in the middle of the summer. Or an anecdote about hanging with a young, not-yet-famous Damien Hirst, who drove to Charles Saatchi’s house in a black cab to drag the collector to Freeze. Then there’s Patterson’s impression of Mick Jagger getting up from the dinner table to talk on the phone with his baby sitter, which you really have to see, the way he imitates Jagger’s iconic strut and mimics the rock star’s accent while talking about diapers. One of my favorite Patterson stories involves Dallas collector Kenny Goss showboating at an exhibition dinner, flanked by an entourage that included his hairdresser and accountant, while an artist at the end of the table sat with his 12-year-old daughter as she scribbled in a coloring book. Some of these stories are exaggerated, some may be partially invented, but they’re all funny as hell and strike hard at something true about their characters.
But then, listening to all of Patterson’s stories, you realize that very few of them are actually about Richard Patterson. Rather, the way Patterson describes his journey from a quiet village in southern England to the upper echelons of the international art world, and finally to Dallas, he sounds like a character from another Italo Calvino novel, The Baron in the Trees. That book tells the story of a boy so disenchanted with the real world that he climbs up into a tree and spends his life living among the treetops. He becomes a reclusive ascetic, but this affords him a singular perspective on events transpiring below. In a way, this is how Patterson has lived his life, standing off to the side while watching a world of wealth, hubris, vanity, love, lust, pride, honor, and ambition blur into an absurdist smear.
This part of the story starts with Donald Campbell’s 1962 Bluebird-Proteus CN7 motorcar. In its day, the Bluebird was the most spectacular piece of engineering on the planet. Rocket-shaped and impossibly long, the curving front end comes together like puckered lips, gulping air through an ovular black mouth into its powerful Bristol-Siddeley Proteus turboshaft engine. The car had a tail like a dragon, huge black tires that were taller than its body, and a cockpit that held its driver inside like a coffin. And when Campbell drove the Bluebird on July 17, 1964, smashing the 400-mph barrier for the first time in human history and demolishing his own land-speed record, its futuristic arc of blue steel traveling at that speed must have looked like an azure torpedo violating the rules of physics that were trying to weigh it down.
What does it do to the brain of a 5-year-old boy to see the enormous, phallic Bluebird in front of a little row house as he held his mother’s hand and walked up the lane to the town center to buy fresh haddock from the fishmonger? Town councils might consider passing ordinances to protect the young citizenry from such a sight.
“I thought that every town had a Bluebird,” Patterson says.
That Patterson grew up a neighbor of Donald Campbell, who kept his Bluebird parked in his driveway in Leatherhead, Surrey, is one of those biographical tidbits that you can either toss off or swallow whole. You could say that car is responsible for Patterson’s lifelong fascination with British racing culture, with the heroic masculinity of its daredevil drivers, with the sexuality suggested by the guttural rumble of a Triumph motorcycle’s engine. You could say that car put the notion in his head that there’s no line between exquisitely crafted automobiles and the best sculpture. You could say the car led him to expect the very best from the everyday.
But for that Bluebird, however, Patterson’s childhood was unremarkably English. He was the second of four brothers who grew up in a middle-class home and attended good public schools. He showed a propensity for painting in his teenage years, and attentive teachers directed him to art school. He landed at Goldsmiths, University of London, in the mid-1980s. The number of soon-to-be-famous artists in the school was staggering: Liam Gillick, Sarah Lucas, Mat Collishaw, Gary Hume, Angus Fairhurst, and faculty that included Richard Wentworth and Michael Craig-Martin. But it was a Goldsmiths student three years below Patterson, Damien Hirst, who would brand the scene and shove it into the international spotlight.
Even while still at university, Hirst displayed an intuitive, preternatural knack for exploiting the art world’s appetite for showmanship and sensation. He was only in his second year when he organized the famed Freeze exhibition in 1988, an art show in a warehouse in the London Docklands featuring artistic nobodies whom Hirst promised he would make stars.
“I think he is one of those people who genetically doesn’t experience fear,” Patterson says.
Hirst was right. Freeze is credited with launching the so-called YBA (Young British Artist) generation. Not long after Freeze, an art-collecting feeding frenzy gripped London, and many of Patterson’s friends and classmates, including his younger brother Simon, who had followed Patterson to Goldsmiths, signed with top galleries. But Patterson found himself in a rut. He was slightly older than the other YBAs, and after graduating from Goldsmiths, he couldn’t figure out how to continue his artistic practice. He told people he had given up art, but he couldn’t pull himself completely away.
“It was a bit like a bad drug addiction,” he says. “I kept going to these openings, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And, worst of all, it really got under your skin when someone did something that was half good.”
It was around this time that he began to date another Goldsmiths artist, Fiona Rae. “Fiona lit a fire under my ass,” he says. He rented space in a building on Hoxton Square, in East London, where his friend Gary Hume already had a studio. And Rae, who was already represented by Leslie Waddington’s gallery, introduced Patterson to the high-class art set. Waddington held a regal position in London’s gallery world, having made his name showing modern masters such as Josef Albers and Frank Stella. Running with Rae and Waddington meant bumping into people like Leo Castelli at lunch and trips to Paris and New York. Patterson went shopping with Waddington’s wife in her black Bentley. “It had this incredibly leathery leather, like it was from Georgian time,” he remembers.
It was clear from the beginning, though, that if Patterson was going to be in a relationship with Rae, Waddington expected him to become a successful artist. “That was the subtext,” Patterson says. “I had to do something to buy my way into this new society, to earn my place at the table, literally. And my stomach was constantly tense.”
Then, in 1995, Patterson created his breakthrough painting, a piece called Culture Station no. 1, Zipper. Fifteen feet by 5 feet, it is a large-scale painting made of multiple panels, mostly monochromatic canvases arranged in a geometric configuration. But a center piece is a perfectly re-created photograph taken from a 1960s motorcycle ad. A girl in a white bikini stands with her perky rear to the viewer, hands on hips, looking back toward a man on a motorcycle whose face, in Patterson’s appropriated version, is cut off by the edge of the frame.
“As soon as I’d drawn it out, I had this huge surge of confidence,” he says. “Once I realized I could reproduce an image, I realized it could all be part of this synthesized language that gave it this post-postmodern homogeneousness, which felt right.”
Word got out about the painting. People wanted to visit his studio. One night at a party in Gary Hume’s studio, Patterson found himself dancing with a brown-haired woman.
“I hear that you’ve done this really interesting painting,” she said. “Can I see it?”
Patterson said no, which he thought made him seem cool. “If she had been really great-looking, I probably would have said yes,” he admits. “Because everything back then seemed to turn on that kind of patheticness.”
Later that night, Rae asked him what he and Sadie Coles had been talking about.
“Who is Sadie Coles?” he asked.
“That brunette you were dancing with,” Rae said.
“Oh, she wanted to see my painting,” Patterson said, flushing, and he told Rae he hadn’t let Coles into his studio.
“Jesus Christ! She works at Anthony d’Offay,” Rae shouted.
At the time, Anthony d’Offay was perhaps the most important gallery in London, with an artist roster that included many of Patterson’s idols, such as Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Roy Lichtenstein, Anselm Kiefer, and Willem de Kooning.
“And I thought, fucking hell. That’s so typical of me,” Patterson remembers.
Within a few weeks, though, Patterson had finagled a second meeting, and Coles suggested an exhibition in the d’Offay project space that following September. It was the hottest slot on the calendar, and Patterson would share the bill with German painter Gerhard Richter. And just like that, Patterson’s art career went from hanging in the wings of success to charging straight at its center with the breakneck speed of a Bluebird-Proteus CN7. New York dealers such as Larry Gagosian, Mary Boone, and Luhring Augustine were calling. There were parties, celebrities, sports stars, vintage motorcycles, the best restaurants, and a white Triumph racing jumpsuit—a replica of the suit Evel Knievel appropriated into his stunts—with “Patterson” spelled across the back in big block letters.
“You lose friends, and you think you’re gaining new friends,” he says. “And I had become this slightly nightmarish Ricky Gervais character. You catch yourself saying these things, like, ‘I’m so tired and I have to go to another one of these bloody events, and fucking Ed Ruscha is there, boring as fuck, and so much Champagne. I can’t drink any more Champagne, I’m so sick of it.’ ”