“I might be dying, I don’t know,” says Ashley Bickerton in a phone call from his hillside-home/studio compound in Bali where he’s been dealing with a neurodegenerative disease that has left him weak and wheelchair-bound. It’s a stark announcement in the run-up to his September debut at the ascendant Hollywood- and Seoul-based gallery, Various Small Fires, which began representing Bickerton in June.
“I don’t want any pity. I’m not really in the mood for that shit,” he says with resolution. “Life is to be lived and got on with, and I’m busy—too busy—for that.”
When not in Bali creating vibrant paintings and sculptures celebrating this existential joie de vivre, the 62-year-old British-born artist and his wife and child share a home in Mount Washington. Bickerton has been unable to climb the 80 steps to the entrance for months, but his approach to art and life remain as vital as when he first gained notoriety as a young leader in the so-called neo-geo wave in New York in the late ’80s and ’90s, alongside Jeff Koons and Peter Halley. His Tormented Self-Portraits (1987-88), one of which now resides in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, combined steel, leather, and rubber sculptural facades festooned with logos from The Village Voice, Bayer, TV Guide, and Marlboro to iconic effect, sending up the Reagan era with expressionistic, if minimalist, flair.
Over the decades, Bickerton has embraced a wide range of materials and approaches, from utilizing coconuts and resin in hanging assemblage sculptures of sharks to Turneresque paintings embedded with beach flotsam and high chroma portraits of hybridized humans.
“I’ve changed the outward stylistics on purpose, but the internal machinery, the engine itself, has never deviated,” Bickerton says. “I do not want to be a slave to a signature identifying brand look. I don’t want to be Clyfford Still making Clyfford Stills forever.”
He’s adamant that no one associates his work with “surf art,” especially after he first decamped to Bali in 1993. But that same year he did create a mathematically precise monochrome sculpture about tidal physics jokingly titled Waves Generated by Damien Hirst Thousands of Miles Away Breaking on a Reef in My Head. That piece was a nod to “those crazy drunken days when [Hirst] was snorting up half the Peruvian Andes in the bathroom at the Groucho Club,” Bickerton says with a devilish laugh.
The question lingering now is not whether Bickerton will ever surf (or party) again, but whether he will live long enough to see an intelligent, historical reappraisal of his work. He’s both cynical and optimistic about it all.
“Aren’t we all just perfumed, ornamental poodles walking around on our hind legs for an uncaring plutocracy to mild applause?” he says. “Still, I take my role as a plastic philosopher seriously. We can do things like Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen have done for me. We can shape and color other peoples’ experience and provide emotional structure to how they perceive things. Those are the good parts.”
Below, read our full interview with Bickerton.
How are you doing?
I don’t know if you know, it’s not public, but I’m also not keeping [my illness] secret. I’m kind of in the waters here. I’m in a wheelchair now.
Suspected motor neuron disease.
Are you OK right now?
I might be dying, I don’t know. It happens. Someone was saying write your biography and I was saying I can do that later when I’m totally immobile.
Are you able to make work?
Well, you know, part of my work has been sitting at computers designing things and then overseeing it. I do everything. In my studio I’ve got 12 small canvases, but I haven’t been able to go to my studio for four months because I live on a hill and I can’t access [it] or I can’t get back up the stairs. I’ve been in hospitals pretty much half the time over the last five months in different countries.
It started five months ago.
Oh no, no, no, no, no. I first noticed it about a year ago. When I was in L.A. I noticed that I couldn’t do squats as well but I thought it was just from sitting in quarantine obsessing over Trump over the computer. They locked down the parks so we could no longer go for our walks, the beaches were shut down so we were just sitting around the house and Trump was just raging and like many I just death scrolled on the internet half the time. So I attributed it to age and atrophy when I couldn’t do the squats. I used to do 30 squats regularly and the lag time before the muscles regenerated to do it again was like a week whereas on my upper body doing pull-ups it was two days and then you feel stronger, and this time it was a week and I didn’t feel stronger. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t take it seriously until I got back to Bali and I tried surfing. I was doing the pop-up maneuver, which is going from prone to standing in one jump, and I couldn’t do it. I could maybe get up into a squat position, but I couldn’t push up from a squat position or something would go wrong. I tried to surf eight times and it was too discouraging. I had all these friends paddling out with me [with] this look of confusion and horror and pity just looking at me struggling to just do basic stuff. But it was during that time that I built my last show, so I was very active, I was running up and down the stairs to my studio still and ripping cardboard and painting. I knew something was wrong by then, but we thought it was some kind of stenosis from sitting at the computer for too long.
Which show were you making at that time?
The one I just had up at Lehmann Maupin, the open face Flotsam paintings. The latest incarnation. It was a small filler show because I was supposed to be on the schedule to have a much bigger show, then COVID put a kibosh on all the scheduling and we had to reshuffle the deck. So this was a placeholder till my much bigger show next year. Now I don’t know what the hell is going on because I have to come back to L.A. to go to Cedars-Sinai.
Last time we talked you were moving to L.A.
I bought a house there with 80 stairs and it is now rendered completely useless to me. I cannot get into my house. It’s a nice house, I love it, but it’s too much. If it were 20 [stairs] maybe I’d figure out a way, but it’s 80 so I can’t even use my own house.
Weren’t your kid and wife in school here.
My wife was in law school and she was getting a degree from USC…and my son is in school right now. He’s at our house.
In Mount Washington?
Yeah. School is online right now, but he’s in college in Santa Monica.
So starting a year ago everything changed.
Well, yes. The beginning of it, but it didn’t really change until the first of the year. It’s gradual but it’s all quite alarming because it’s all happened in a year. When I first got a cane my wife looked at it and went, “Oh my god”—now that seems quaint. There’s wheelchairs and walkers everywhere. We have a team full-time remodeling the house for disability access, so since I live on a hill, we’ve had to build a ramp all the way down to the garage so I can go to the car still. I live on a steep hill so there are stairs everywhere, and they’re stairs that cut into the rock so they’re not ergonomically scaled so it was a perfect metric to measure my decline because I could see which steps I could no longer do. One of the more difficult things is that every time we make a new adjustment it only lasts a certain amount of time before it’s rendered obsolete. Like, we changed the grade of the kitchen steps and the amount of them and put a railing on, but I can no longer do it, so we built that for nothing. [Laughs] I’m waiting on my electric scooter so I can actually go back to the studio. The road has been built down to the studio, but I haven’t got my cart yet.
So you were planning this L.A. life…
I wasn’t planning an L.A. life, per se. I realized that the actual secret to life is living in two places.
But you were coming back to America in a sense.
Yeah, I think what we settled upon was that at one point my wife wanted to move to L.A. and I remember at one point being at a traffic light and I saw a guy about my age sitting in another middle of the road car stuck in traffic looking utterly miserable. I suddenly saw myself and my potential future, and I said, “Hell no, I can’t”—the endless sea of concrete, the haze and the smog, I’d just shoot myself, but I’d also been wanting to kill myself in Bali going on and on in this endless grind of holiday stupidity and vacuousness that accompanies so much life here. But when I was living in both places, I realized that was the answer. You live in both places because you actually love both. You stay there just as long as you still love them and you get out before you start detesting them, so you get the best of L.A. in the wintertime. The high desert is the perfect temperature for backcountry hiking, and I wasn’t there to surf there so I don’t really care about that part. We got stuck there in lockdown, so I’d go out to Malibu to watch during the less severe stages of lockdown when they’d allow you on the beach, but I get to surf all year and in Hawaii on the North Shore at my mom’s house. Since this accident has happened I used to bounce back and forth between surfing and art but my priorities are very, very clear and really spelled out in very graphic detail in where I stand. I have no great sadness knowing that I will probably never surf again, but if you took away my ability to make art, I would probably end it right now, right away, posthaste. I don’t know how I would exist without it. It’s who I am, it’s what I do, it’s how I breathe. I would just see no inspiration to function without it.
So what is happening with this show in L.A. at VSF?
The show in L.A. is already made. I was hoping to get some new pieces…but we don’t know what will happen with me. I could be good for years. I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about artists who have been wheelchair bound, those present and those in the past, and there’s quite a few of them. It doesn’t stop us; it kind of goads us on. Dan Flavin lost his legs in the end. Frida Kahlo and then Yinka Shonibare, Chuck Close—there were quite a few.
Can you tell us a little about the work in the new show?
Basically, I am attempting to bring my work full circle. There seems to be bifurcated understanding of my career, which itself seems to be bifurcated in generating that reading. There are those who loved what I did in New York in the ‘80s and early ‘90s and they think I lost the plot when I ran off to Indonesia. Then I was equally surprised to find out that there was an equal number of people who knew the work I’d done subsequent to coming to Bali and who saw my earlier work and went, “Hmm, boring.” I change the outward stylistics on purpose, but the internal machinery, the engine itself, has never changed, it has never deviated, but I do not want to be loyal to a style, a slave to a signature or identifying brand look. I don’t want to be Clyfford Still making Clyfford Stills forever—I want to just speak, but it’s now time to pull my work full circle and come back around in a way while still moving forward, of course, and embrace things I ran away from.
So what is the thrust of this show and this full circle.
I didn’t want to throw away my Bali work so I kind of moved it in a slightly more conceptual direction than I had been of late. I had some long talks about going back to certain pieces. When I did the show with [Damien] Hirst I redid a Self-Portrait with Logos and had long discussions with many friends, some who were vociferously against redoing a piece with that kind of presence, doing an updated version and then I had other friends like Hirst himself saying, “Hell, it’s your fucking language why do you kowtow to people who want to create false histories. They want markers for history when it’s organic and it’s yours.”
Is that what made you want to leave New York?
Yes, precisely. Its curatorial laziness, its editorial laziness. Artists are dynamic and functioning in many ways and shapes over time but you’re often given a window of being fashionable and that’s marked and indexed into the dialogue of this so-called history and then you’re placed and we move on unless you’re one of the market darlings and then you become something else, which is a trading chip in a plutocratic pissing contest.
You were in both positions.
Oh, I’ve never been a market darling.
But you were on the cusp of that.
Yeah, but I never caught on. There’s something in my work that disconcerts the collector mentality. As I’ve said before you can move too slow or too fast, but to be absorbed and put into use by the trading class by the art buying class you have to evolve at just the right speed, you can’t scare them but you also can’t bore them.
Did you have these conversations with Damien Hirst? He seems to have moved at the right speed.
No, Chris Wool is the perfect example. Chris is a friend of mine and I actually like Chris’s work, but I do see it as being the perfect speed, just hip enough, just piss-ass elegant enough the perfect mixture of downtown heroin chic with piss-ass designer elegance. Moving just the right speed he does each cluster of work and each grouping just long enough and evolves just enough so that it doesn’t scare people off but keeps them…it’s the perfectly calibrated career move. Damien is much more erratic than that. Put Wool and Hirst together and Damien is much more erratic. He wanted to be a hands-on painter for a while after years of fabricating, he wanted to have what Bacon had. He tried his hand and got lambasted for it, and that was after these photorealist paintings where he did a Koons move with the hired hands making the paintings, so he had a lot of things that didn’t go over.
Was there one catalyst event that pushed you over the edge and made you leave New York?
Yeah, but it was probably as much personal as it was professional. I had just had a bad divorce, and when we were pulled up our mantel, it wasn’t a gentle fading while the next fashion absorbed the klieg lights—it was an angry exorcism because we were seen to have come up too quickly, so there was a purging, a reactive getting rid of this. We were on the tail end of the ‘80s wave that produced graffiti, neo-expressionism and we were on the tail end of that. Then right in the second or third year, we came into some kind of prominence as the Gulf War swept in and I remember watching all that footage of the smart bombs going down airshafts and thinking it’s over. I’ve seen more historically cataclysmic events that haven’t shifted art, but there was something about that moment that marked the end of something. We’ve had more cataclysmic moments—9/11, the election of Trump—but there was something about the timing of that war on the tail end of the Reagan ‘80s, the mercantile machinery in overdrive, I just knew there was going to be a purge. And New York is like that, it takes delicious delight in launching young things out into the stratosphere only to shoot them back out of the sky. That’s its sport.
But I didn’t answer your question. That’s not what drove me out.
Divorce. Nothing makes people change geography like love. They either move somewhere for love or move somewhere else against love. So the town soured on me and I saw older artists like ghosts endlessly making the rounds of openings and some of them went on to be reasonably known.
Lately I’ve been stalked by shamans. Since this is concurrent with a show. I haven’t made any announcements, a lot of friends know, but others don’t. I post a lot on social media but I don’t show pictures. People just think life goes on. I don’t want any pity; I’m not really in the mood for that shit. Life is to be lived and got on with and I’m busy, too busy for that.
My inbox is abuzz with people named the Wandering Guru and Raven from Portugal sending photographs of Tibetan Buddhist scripts and various other gurus, Andrew the Shaman from Cornwall sending numerological codes for me to incantant after waking and before sleep. The shamans don’t seem to care about the precise diagnostics, whether I’m suffering from specific neurodegeneration. I’m the child of two professors, I stand on that side of things, but the Greek root of the word science is ignorance which means I don’t know so to be truly of the scientific mind one has to be open so instead of reading Raw Story everyday and hearing again how vile Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are I thought I could better spend my time incantating numerological codes or listening to gurus play the flute, so it can’t hurt. There are things we simply don’t understand. My wife Cherry and I adhere to functional medicine, which is holistic medicine, and we believe that western science has the answers for things deadline with trauma. You don’t go to a healer for an auto accident you go to the ICU but for other things western medicine is married to big pharma, which itself is a corporate entity with its own interests, and it doesn’t always work toward the same end as an ill person might want.
Western medicine has become one of your Self-Portraits with Logos.
Yeah, but functional medicine would take into account every single aspect and diet would be a part of it. And with neurological diseases people are unwrapping how mitochondrial DNA is at the center of the entire picture and it is the battleground upon which any fight is to take place so the idea is to turbocharge the mitochondria so it can do the work and pick up and turn things around so I’m on a very radical diet it’s called the Wahls Protocol Paleo Plus, where I eat nine cups of vegetables a day, leafy greens, colored and sulfur vegetables, no carbs, no sugars, no dairy, no a lot of stuff, and no fruit or berries. And, actually, after years of being an on-and-off again vegan, I’m eating meat again but all organic, grass-fed and wild-caught that we have to import from New Zealand or salmon from Canada because it’s all based on our hunter-gatherer forebears. It involves the paleo diet and ketosis.
Do you feel better?
Well, here’s the deal. I’ve suffered from chronic fatigue for 40 years, and it’s something friends don’t know because they see you out waving around with a bottle in your hand having a great time what they don’t see is the next five to seven days you spend in bed just beat up because you got yourself hammered and you’re dysfunctional for a week after that, not because you’re hungover, your system is just depleted so they don’t see that because you have no desire to be out there because you’ve retracted into your womb, tomb, womb. It’s not manifest publicly and so 40 years of that. Why do I have that? We spent a lot of time running around the South American jungles as a kid. In this case, me being me the wildest of the Bickerton kids, I never bothered to wear shoes and running around the jungle I picked up a parasite which riddled me so badly that my entire system was just overrun by this parasite that was millimeters from entering my heart and my brain. I would have been dead, there was no cure, and nobody could do anything about it. Finally my dad, in desperation after we went to every doctor in Guyana, where we lived at the time in South America, they’d gone to every doctor including one who said it was psychosomatic and he turned to a biologist friend who sent a blood sample to Jamaica to his colleagues over there at a lab and they immediately knew what it was it was a rare parasite that was very new and there were only four cases in Jamaica at the time and none recorded in the South American mainland. I was apparently the first and we got a prescription and within a week or two I was better.
The reason I bring that up, and I haven’t thought anything of it until recently until the doctors asked me did you have any serious childhood traumas and I said,” Well as a matter of fact I did. When I was about ten years old I had this thing…” And they said, yes, that is often a link to autoimmune problems. Autoimmune problems can often be stimulated by a childhood trauma something you have below the age of 15 years old. So to the best of my understanding I had this disease at ten, went eight years until I went to art school at 18 and then I started getting my regular chronic fatigue episodes and they lasted 40 years all the way until now. They were getting worse over time; you get sick more easily. Before, you had to not sleep for a night, go out drinking, smoke too many cigarettes, but then you go on a vegan diet and being very careful about meditating and eating well and you have a little stress and you break down so I think my system just gave out; it just buckled under the relentless onslaught of these physical challenges. But did the diet make me feel better? Will it help with the neurological disorder? I don’t know. But I don’t get the chronic fatigue attacks now that I’m on this diet. When I was in L.A. I was on a pretty stringent vegan diet. The difference between this diet and that diet is like five random people heading towards you on a street and this diet is a team of Navy Seals heading toward you in full combat gear and face paint. This diet is hard and heavy and dense and formidable.
So how does this affect the work?
I’m making work all the time. I’m working on my website. It’s not public now, but being marginally OCD I’m having to rebuild every damn photograph because some of them need to be rebuilt. If you go back before a certain age that goes back before digital, even with professional photographers, the photos are abysmal before Photoshop could alter lighting. They have dust balls all over them they’re grainy, so there was one piece I thought was important enough that I spent two days rebuilding it almost from scratch in photoshop but I used parts of other pieces that were similar, I’d lift corner brackets off another piece.
That’s an interesting anecdote. You’re sort of known as this live-every-moment-and-let-the-work-go-where-it-will kind of guy, but you’re spending two days on a Photoshop rebuild.
Weird, huh, can you spend some time unwrapping that one? Because I can’t. That’s a mystery. I love artists that just go, but the anal part…First you’ve got to grapple with where you’re at and I realize this is my story now. I think it was [Yuval Noah] Harari who said in Sapiens that even a severely ill person will adjust to their condition and have the equal amount of happy and sad days before their illness because we’re just wired that way and I’m kind of realizing that too now and this is my story and this is the story I need to live and it doesn’t alter in any way with what I’ve wanted to say but it possibly enhances the lens through which I’m able to see that because the work has often dealt with existential issues, being human, being on the planet, mortality. I’m only using that mirror in context of the illness I don’t think I’d use those precise terms if the illness wasn’t in the discussion but it is now the challenge that I face and the story that I have to tell and there’s a bit of urgency now because I don’t know how much time I have. There’s the issue of death. If I have ALS proper which is what Stephen Hawking had you’ve got a two year life span on average if I have one of the other motor neuron diseases it could be four years if I have something like MMN multifocal moto-neuropathy which is still a possible diagnosis then I might have a longer time to live but with possible severe handicaps. So I don’t know what I’m dealing with yet. I do know that the challenge as a sculptor is very interesting. The research is all my wife, she’s the medical research goddess and spends a lot of time on the forums and that’s not where my brain works properly but when it comes to figuring out the physical space I need to operate in with severe disabilities that’s a challenge I like a lot. How do I work with walkers, walking sticks, and wheelchairs? How can I alter architecture to make it functional and these are all things a sculptor can think through, but that’s not the work itself. There is an urgency to get things done, to speak. One of the things I’m involved in is my Ocean Chunk series and I like to think of it as a facsimile, a cutout, of the way a Catholic will think about a crucifix above their bed. It becomes the locus, the avatar of their projection, of their stability, of their balance of their warmth of their needs and my little Ocean Chunks work that way, for whatever the hell it is that I believe in, which basically, I guess, is just waters of world in the larger gaia and, more specifically, that the warm embalming fluid of tropical water as we return to the amniotic sac.
I think the art happens within the floating architecture. You’re framing the device for this Turneresque moment.
I’m glad you brought him up. But some of them are getting much more simple the latest ones. They’ve got to remain somewhat abstract because I really don’t like model building in art. I’m a big admirer of the Boyle family. But where it falls short is the model building aspect. I don’t want to do models of the ocean. There’s a whole lot of people who have done these coffee tables kind of like blue resin as water over some submarine topography to make these coffee tables and it’s kind of kitsch and I’m like fuck people are going to say I’m ripping them off or going down this kitsch alley but then I’m like, “Wait you did these in ‘93!”
Is there also this indexical language because of your father as well?
I think it relates more to being a surfer. My dad was not a surfer. I will never do surf art—it’s as lame or idiotic as doing golf art or tennis art and I can’t imagine anything more riddled in poverty of vision than tennis art or golf art, but surf art, it’s silly to do.
Is the work calming down and becoming more pure in a way, more stripped down?
That’s interesting. One reason I went to the gurus is that one thing they can help you win against is a very dire prognosis with a serious disease: one of them is diet; one of them is modern medicine; and one of the key things is the mental game, and that’s where I’m the weakest. Could it be my self-destructive mechanism? I’m trying to investigate that. I’m trying to focus meditation on that. I’m not very good at it. One of the problems I have is just baked into how my brain works and that’s the double-edgedness. It’s almost like if you’re a born-again MMA fighter everything is lined up for god going toward a single end with no internal conflict. Internal conflict is my motor. Belief, disbelief, having several different contradictory thoughts and belief systems inherent in one idea is what it’s all about and it always has been. I don’t know if that bodes well for my fight against disease. I might want to have a more simple internal mechanism that’s more straightforward and I’m trying to address that. How that will play out in my art, I don’t know. I don’t know, but there has been a greater shift toward empathy and obviously a move toward being less reckless.
How reckless were you before?
Fiercely I suppose. Not with the technique, but in the places I went, yeah. Because it was dangerous is what made me go there, for a quote unquote old cis white guy to be continually lured into dealing with gender and race I did it because it was difficult, because it was a no-fly zone.
Maybe this goes at this idea of you as a forever outsider.
I don’t see it that way. I was as inside a player as you could get at one point.
Was it just the Bali move?
People tend to look for simple indexes, simple markers because the landscape is just so absurdly busy and active so it’s easy to slap on these handy labels and cubbyholes to shove things in. For instance, my first show of gnarly figurative [pieces] in 1996, people thought, he’s gone off to an island, he’s Dr. Moreau. Actually, I dreamed up this entire show in New York, but because New York is so fraught with interruptions, I had to go far away to make labor-intensive work like this.
It’s also the lazy thing of saying you’re a foreigner in a foreign land making work about foreignness.
The truth is that this is where I’m comfortable. I remember coming back from Bali and ending up in Gavin Brown’s Passerby bar and I was hearing conversations all around me that sounded just like myself and it made me deeply uncomfortable. They were smart, analytic, open-minded, questioning philosophical voices, asking certain questions that echoed in my mind and it made me deeply uncomfortable. I’m far more comfortable being the other.
That’s what I’m saying. You have been put in that situation as a kid and you put yourself in as an adult so maybe this half-L.A., half-Bali situation is living precariously and maybe that’s what most drives the work.
Yeah, I wish somebody would shine a curatorial light and probe with some intelligence on it all but unfortunately I haven’t been the subject of any curatorial bukaki party, though that could all change. For some reason I’ve never set as well with curators as I have with the collector class and I don’t really understand why. As far as I can tell my work is as probing and questioning as any out there and I’m relentless in that regard but curators, they can be lazy, too. I remain optimistic; unfortunately now time might be limited. I’ve long thought I’d be around to see it, I’ve had several good go arounds, several comebacks and sooner or later it will come back around again because I think the entire operation has been so singular that it’s just a question of finding the receptive moment where things all come together and I’ve seen things come into focus more than once and oftentimes there are moments of historic revisionism that are driven by larger forces—like feminism, like race, like sexual orientation—but there are many others too, and it’s just a reason to pull focus on you and that’s really what the art world is, pulling focus.
Maybe this fall show is part of that.
I’m just now beginning to think I won’t see it in my lifetime because I don’t know how long my lifetime is anymore. Before, since both my parents lived to 90, I thought I had a good 30 year push. I’m 62. My mom is 92 and my dad died at 92, so I just figured genetics were in my favor for another 30 years push. Look all of this said and how I talk about the passion for fighting for the attention of the visibility of my work and my voice at the same time one can’t help but realize how absurd this is all is. What are we, perfumed ornamental poodles walking around on our hind legs for an uncaring plutocracy to mild applause? What exactly are we doing? But I take my role as a plastic philosopher seriously. I’m a philosopher who doesn’t trade in words, I trade in plasticity and visuals and chroma.
But that’s important.
That is important. We’re not just perfumed poodles. We can do things like Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen have done for me. We can do that for other people. We can shape and color their experience and provide emotional structure to how they perceive things, and those are the good parts.
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