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Ashley Bickerton, Whose Art Evoked Humor and Wonder, Dies at 63

Ashley Bickerton, an artist’s artist almost as well known for quitting New York as for his colorful oeuvre of mixed-media provocation and mischief, died on Nov. 30 at his home in Bali, Indonesia. He was 63.

His gallery, Gagosian, said the cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he had learned he had just a year ago.

Mr. Bickerton achieved renown early, appearing alongside Peter Halley, Meyer Vaisman and Jeff Koons in an influential 1986 group show at Sonnabend Gallery in New York. The show was considered a landmark of “Neo-Geometric Conceptualism,” or Neo-Geo, a half-joking term for a group defined by its love-hate relationships with consumerism, the art market, machines and the techniques of its Conceptual, Neo-Expressionist and Minimalist predecessors.

As Mr. Bickerton recalled in a 2003 interview, “We were cool — or cold — and we were against ‘them.’”

Writing in The New York Times, the critic Roberta Smith described Mr. Bickerton’s pieces in that show as “the most bumptious, engaging and least didactic on view.”

They included a wooden plank marked with golden enamel silhouettes of toilets and sinks that he labeled “abstract” (“Abstract Painting for People #3”) and a luggage-like box, painted with a wild mix of logos — everything from Marlboro cigarettes to the New York public television station Channel 13 — that he signed with the name of an alter ego: “Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles).”

But in 1993, Mr. Bickerton left the scene that had feted him, landing briefly in Brazil before settling in Bali. Whether because of his strong association with a particular late-1980s moment, or because of the New York art world’s own insularity, the decision was one he was steadily asked about for the rest of his life. Over the years he gave various explanations.

An avid surfer who had spent his adolescence in Hawaii and most of his peripatetic childhood in the tropics, Mr. Bickerton cited his comfort with Bali’s weather and his interest in its waves. He mentioned a discouraging dip in the art market, and in his own reputation, after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and an accumulation of social obligations, like attending “your ex-assistant’s boyfriend’s opening,” that had made it hard to spend his evenings painting.

Mr. Bickerton’s “Abstract Painting for People #3” (1986) was part of a group show at Sonnabend Gallery in New York that was considered a Neo-Geo landmark.Credit…Ashley Bickerton, via Gagosian

Then there were the burdens of early fame, and the indelible Neo-Geo label itself, which he had never particularly liked. (He preferred “Commodity Art.”) But last year, in a characteristically forthright interview with Los Angeles magazine, he mentioned what might have been the most salient factor:

“Divorce,” he said. “Nothing makes people change geography like love.”

It can confirm geography, too. In Bali Mr. Bickerton found love again, and he recently had a daughter. He is survived by his wife, Cherry Saraswati Bickerton; their daughter, Io; and two sons from prior relationships, Django and Kamahele; as well as his mother, Yvonne Justin Bickerton, and his siblings, James Bickerton and Julie Bravata.

Critics remarked on a stylistic shift after Mr. Bickerton settled into a studio on the lushly forested southern side of the island. His already bright colors became more tropical and his finishes more elaborate as he took up hyper-realistic painting. Other work from his nearly three-decade Bali period included heavily edited and painted-over photographs of grotesque busts, which he had also sculpted; unnerving sendups of himself as an obese blue tourist with an entourage of naked women; and pieces that used plastic trash gathered on the beach, either floating in resin or embedded in the surfaces of abstract paintings.

He made translucent resin sculptures resembling rectangular chunks of ocean water and flotation rafts that contained emergency supplies including a cowboy outfit, an Elvis outfit or a cast of his, his wife’s and his daughter’s footprints. When A.L.S. left him unable to surf, he worked on a perfect-wave-themed screen saver.

His funniest — and most conceptually aggressive — series may have been his “wall-walls,” sections of gaudily colored aggregate wall that could be mounted on walls of their own.

“In search of the art object as an irreducible idea,” he said about these works, “what could be more obvious than a piece of colored wall to sit on a wall, to take up space and to proclaim meaning? But this just highlighted the fact of their essential meaninglessness.”

Despite the diversity of its media and approaches, Mr. Bickerton’s work had several clear through lines. There was the consistent tweaking of the viewer’s expectations, the obsessive workmanship leavened by an obvious irreverence toward formal polish, and the inside-baseball quality, the way he depended on an engaged and informed audience to discern satirical jabs at Donald Judd’s boxes, Willem de Kooning’s women or Anselm Kiefer’s grandiosity.

Most significant, though, was the rippling current of instability that ran through all of it — the sense that, as an artist and as a man, Mr. Bickerton was perpetually reconsidering his position.

“My work,” he told The Brooklyn Rail this year, “has always been a search for identity, an understanding of a dynamic self in the context of an ever shape-shifting larger world where all meaning is fluid and relative.”

Mr. Bickerton’s work — like “Codswallop & Doggerel,” a 2019 oil and acrylic painting — often subverted the viewer’s expectations.Credit…Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate and Gajah Gallery

Ashley Bickerton was born to English parents on May 26, 1959, in Barbados. His mother was a behavioral psychologist. His father, Derek Bickerton, an influential linguist specializing in pidgins and creoles, had a Ph.D. from Cambridge University but called himself a “card-carrying autodidact.”

The family pulled up stakes frequently, alighting in Africa, the Caribbean and Guyana before settling in Hawaii, where his father found an appointment at the University of Hawaii when Mr. Bickerton was 12. He later recalled that he grew up “speaking five dialects of English, none of which was comprehensible to the next,” and was frequently the only white child in his class. (As an adult, his accent was more or less English.)

After studying with John Baldessari and Barbara Kruger at the California Institute of the Arts, from which he graduated in 1982, Mr. Bickerton moved to New York, where he entered the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study program, got a job assisting the artist Jack Goldstein and quickly moved to the heart of the art scene — until he left.

Recently, he had been experiencing a New York resurgence. After well-reviewed exhibitions this year at Lehmann Maupin, which had been showing him since 2006, and the East Village artist-run space O’Flaherty’s, Mr. Bickerton was picked up by the mega-gallery Gagosian and began planning a debut solo show for 2023.

By that time, though, what had started as a difficulty doing squats, or leaping upright on a surfboard, had been diagnosed as a rapidly progressing neurodegenerative disease — a chilling diagnosis, but one with which he rapidly came to terms.

“I consider myself enormously lucky,” he told The New York Times shortly before his death. “It’s an incredible luxury that I can sit here on my big veranda on the hill overlooking the Indian Ocean, spend time with my wife and daughter, work on my computer, think, dream and put my life in order.”

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