Ashley Bickerton, an artist who became the toast of the New York art world in the 1980s, only to depart the scene in a surprise move during the ’90s, died on Wednesday at 63 in Bali, Indonesia. Last year, he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which impacts the nervous system and can prove debilitating.
A representative for Gagosian, the mega-gallery that began representing Bickerton earlier this year, confirmed his death. Gagosian is planning a show of his work for 2023.
“Ashley had a rebellious and singular voice in the art world that continuously captured the ethos of the time,” dealer Larry Gagosian said in a statement. “He remained innovative until the very end, even with his latest body work that is yet to debut. I am proud to have known him.”
During the ’80s, Bickerton became known for a beguiling body of work that parodied consumerist impulses. He made mixed-media pieces that he termed self-portraits, yet they were composed only of logos for TV channels, car companies, cigarette manufacturers, and more. And he at one point even made a brand for himself, SUSIE (full name: Susie Culturelux), which he said would act as an “Index/Name Brand/Artistic Signature” for future art historians.
Yet as his style shifted, he began to elude critics, and in the early ’90s, he left the city altogether, departing for Bali, where he continued to operate a studio up until the end of his career. Thanks to the efforts of galleries like Lehmann Maupin, Various Small Fires, and Gagosian, as well as to artists such as Damien Hirst, Jordan Wolfson, and Jamian Juliano-Villani, Bickerton’s work has had a critical revival in the past few years.
During the mid-’80s, Bickerton became a market sensation in New York. He was featured in a famed 1986 show at Sonnabend Gallery that solidified the Neo-Geo movement, which revived geometric abstraction with a new postmodern bent, and rose alongside his compatriots Peter Halley, Meyer Vaisman, and Jeff Koons.
The works for which he was known at this time were bizarre metal assemblages affixed with elements like leather covering and aluminum pieces. Some invoked the visual language of modernist abstraction, only to suggest that it had lost any transcendence and become corporatized, as Bickerton did in Abstract Painting for the People #3 (1985), in which images of bathtubs, urinals, and toilets in profile are accompanied by the word “ABSTRACT” repeated four times over.
Slick and highly polished, these works looked as though they had just rolled off the assembly line. He called them “contemplative wall units”; others sometimes grouped them under the vague label “commodity art,” used to refer to the many artists who incorporated branding into their work.
Asked to explain what pieces like this one were about, and why he included so many ideas into them, he told Artforum, in a 2003 interview, “My work was culture.”
Critics eyed these pieces with suspicion, even as the market fell hard for them. “Despite its deconstructionist savvy, Mr. Bickerton’s bumptious self-awareness can sometimes seem like little more than the latest version of the wisecracking esthetic that has always had a place in American art, as in, for example, the work of William T. Wiley and H. C. Westermann,” Roberta Smith wrote in a 1987 New York Times review. “Likewise, it is possible to detect beneath his cool hands-off surfaces the same male adolescent posturing that permeated much Neo-Expressionism.”
But, by the mid-’90s, Bickerton had signaled that his work was moving in a much different direction. He began to invoke concerns about the natural environment, in particular the way that humans had subjected it to their own means. Then, as the art market bottomed out amid a recession, Bickerton effectively started over by leaving New York for good.
Ashley Bickerton was born in 1959 in Barbados. His father was an anthropological linguist, his mother a behavioral psychologist. Because of his father’s line of work, he lived an itinerant childhood, spending time in South America and Africa. When his family did finally move to the U.S., they ended up in Honolulu, which he said in a recent Brooklyn Rail interview was a “completely different thing” from the rest of the country. He did not become a naturalized U.S. citizen until the ’80s.
“Is it politically safe in our current climate to say that my work has always been about identity in some form, but given my unfashionable age, race, gender and orientation, it’s not really been encouraged to be seen or discussed that way?” he said in that conversation. “In truth it always has been about that, because being born in the Caribbean and growing up on four continents as the child of academics and almost always the racial other, my situation is particular in that I never understood race in America in the way that Americans understand it.”
Bickerton attended the California Institute of Arts as an undergraduate, and later was a student at the Whitney Independent Study Program. He remained in New York in the years afterward, and would establish a following there.
Once he had made his career with the consumerist works, Bickerton began to push his art in stranger directions that were even harder to parse. He made a group of sculptural pieces that seemed to function as flotation devices; they were emblazoned with the name of his SUSIE alter ego. And he began to focus on the myth of artistic genius, which he exposed as something empty and patriarchal.
In 1993, Bickerton’s work took a sharp left turn when he relocated to Bali, where, as he said in the Brooklyn Rail interview, postcolonial concepts began occupying his mind. There was a shift away from the consumerist imagery, toward concerns about what people had done to the paradisiacal nature that could be found in locales like Bali.
He began to make paintings that seemed to capture materialism pushed to the extreme—they were filled with mostly nude figures who seemed totally unaware of their surroundings, peeing as they smoked cigarettes and often looking monstrous. In one, Bickerton represented himself, with his body looking less like a human’s and more like a snake’s.
Sonnabend’s 1996 Bickerton show, his first in New York since moving to Bali, was savaged. Smith, writing in the Times, called some of the new paintings “unbearably awful” while conceding that others “home in on an American heart of darkness with unusual accuracy.”
The initial reaction to these pieces in New York was one of confusion, but Bickerton has said that Indonesian audiences were equally perplexed by them.
Works from the past two decades have continued this deliberately gaudy aesthetic, which implodes any division between good and bad taste. Recent pieces have taken on the tourism industry in Indonesia, envisioning foreign visitors as grotesque, blue creatures that ride mopeds.
Writing of these works’ appearance at O’Flaherty’s in New York earlier this year in Art in America, critic David Ebony said, “The implications are, as ever, ambiguous, as the images suggest the ruin of what would otherwise be an island paradise—to which the artist seems to lay claim via his prominently plastered signatures.”
There have also been works about the sea, which the artist envisions not as a serene expanse of water but as something that is emblematic of humanity’s worst tendencies: a picturesque place that has been filled with trash.
In 2021, Bickerton was diagnosed with ALS, and he shortly thereafter announced it publicly. He refused, however, to let his illness consume him. “Life is to be lived and got on with, and I’m busy—too busy—for that,” he told Los Angeles Magazine.
Speaking to ARTnews earlier this year, he noted that since his diagnosis, his art has “naturally [been] seen through the prism of my mortality—staring at the infinite. The work I’m doing now will probably be even more so. There’s something sort of ghostly about it. I have no problem talking about it, but I don’t want to be known or judged by this.”
But more than anything, what long motivated his art making was a desire to encapsulate every part of life. He said, “I want to be able to address whatever the hell is going on in the world: a sour break-up, a beautiful vista, a tender moment, a yearning sentiment, or some political outrage sweeping the nation.”