Believing the Hype

We all have our little secrets, and it's out-of-the-closet time with one of mine: Try as I might, I find it hard to dislike Dan Rizzie.

There are plenty of reasons to cast a hypercritical eye on the SMU-educated artist, currently the subject of shows at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary and Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art. There's the hometown hype, for starters. It's been a decade since he quit Big D for more hospitable climes, namely the chichi east end of Long Island, and nine long years since Rizzie, now 49, had a solo show in these parts. Yet if Rizzie's gone, he's not forgotten--not by The Dallas Morning News society page, anyway. Of 84 news articles in major papers mentioning Rizzie, more than 50 are DMN items about charity auctions or gossip column sightings, especially plugs in Alan Peppard's column.

In any other case, being party to such silliness would constitute grounds for a good slapping-around in print. But in Rizzie's case, I find myself making excuses. After all, there is the cultural insecurity thing; we Texans never love our homegrown talent until it moves East or West, whereupon we suddenly feel the urge to reclaim long-neglected bragging rights. Absence makes the media and the collectors grow fonder, and sometimes those aren't even two separate categories; both Peppard and the Belo Corp. own Rizzie's work and have loaned examples for the MAC's Rizzie retrospective.

Shameless boosterism aside, there is still good cause to be wary of Rizzie. For those who have forgotten or were too young to know, Dan Rizzie was the local poster boy for the overhyped '80s contemporary art market. Those were simpler, more innocent days, a time before FSLIC and the RTC and recapture were part of the native tongue, a time of $87 million Van Goghs and, more to the point, $300,000 Basquiats. A time when art was an "investment" along with I-30 condos and exotic tax shelters. A time when many otherwise sane people believed in things that were too good to be true, including the kind of art-world promotion that, for a brief time, transformed an immature, unproven painter working in the provinces into a minor celebrity.

Indeed, the ink on Rizzie's MFA was barely dry when he started having museum shows--first the Dallas Museum of Art, eager to promote local artists in Big D, then Fort Worth, then Brooklyn, and New York, and from there the world. He was included in the 1983 Corcoran Biennial. He was feted as part of the Kimbell Museum's "The Artist's Eye" series, and in 1990 had his own show there. He was part of LA County's Third International Art Expo in 1988. Whether through gift or purchase, his work landed in the collections of prestigious museums, including New York's Museum of Modern Art.

There were notes of caution. The critics weren't always wowed by the brightly colored, recycled and simplified cubist collages that were his trademark; a Los Angeles Times reviewer, for example, pronounced Rizzie's work "pleasant but unchallenging."

But the faint praise hardly mattered. Following Warhol's maxim as if it were a playbook, Rizzie parlayed his largely unearned recognition into minor fame. His darkly handsome, macho Marlboro-Man-with-a-brush looks didn't hurt. In 1988, he appeared in full-page ads hawking, of all things, Haggar slacks. In '89 he became a Dewar's Profile, his pretty-boy mug gracing ads and billboards across the land. He did Christmas cards for Neiman Marcus. He painted the columns at the Starck Club, did a mural at 8.0. His fame brought more recognition, which brought collectors, which brought gallery sales. There was a period in the late '80s when any Dallasite with cultural pretensions, from law firms to hoteliers to individual would-be aesthetes, simply had to own a Rizzie.

It didn't just happen, of course. Rizzie's too-much, too-fast career symbolized something else very 1980s: a reputation built the new-fashioned way, on shortcuts. Once upon a time, artists' careers were built slowly, based on reputations laboriously made in a local artists' community and in academe. In bigger art communities, such as New York, small, obscure notices led to bigger, more important notices; experimental venues led to the outer ring of galleries, which led to an inner ring; and from there to museum recognition and a (more or less) sophisticated collecting public. It worked that way here in the sticks, too--the primary difference being that the art press was smaller, the notices more difficult to come by, and the ring of important galleries minuscule.

It all changed in the '80s, when buzz became a sure-fire shortcut to success. And Rizzie, above all his contemporaries, seemed to understand this. He was no monk in the studio, standing by stoically while his dealers doused him in the gasoline of media attention and easy money, then struck a match. He hobnobbed with celebrities, toadied up to tastemakers, actively sought exposure and endorsements. He vacationed in the Hamptons, went to parties, and dated famous women, including former Saturday Night Live cast member Jan Hooks, into whose East Hampton home he moved in the early '90s.

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Christine Biederman