For all of the usual grabby pomp of the Armory Art Show, which returned this year wearing its social-justice good intentions very much on its made-to-measure sleeves, one of the more profound booths was a quieter one, and easy to miss: Kenny Rivero’s solo presentation of melancholic, dreamlike drawings, titled “Palm Oil, Rum, Honey, Yellow Flowers,” at the Charles Moffett Gallery. According to the gallery, the 29 drawings (which had been exhibited at the Brattleboro Museum earlier this year) were all “executed on discarded, paper-based memorabilia (like wedding albums and record sleeves) that Rivero intercepted from the trash, mostly while working as a doorman” in a prewar apartment building that the artist described as “epitomizing the wealthy subculture of Old New York.”
Rivero grew up in Washington Heights in the 1980s and ’90s. He knew he wanted to be an artist or musician. “New York was very dangerous then,” he told me when I met up with him at his cluttered studio in a building now lively with artists in Port Morris, the Bronx. “I was getting robbed and getting in fights with homeless people.” His parents both worked for a pen factory (making the kind of pens that have logos of restaurants or companies on them) in what is now the McKibbin Lofts. For high school, wanting to get out, he went to a boarding school, which, he said, “I kind of applied to behind my parents’ back,” at the encouragement of the director of his middle school.
But “I got kicked out my junior year and didn’t come back senior year,” he said. “I was having panic attacks” as a scholarship kid among the children of the very wealthy. “I didn’t understand how to insert myself into that space.” Back in New York, he and his friends hung out on the then-derelict High Line. He got the apartment-house gig thanks to a friend’s father, who was the building’s super. “He said, ‘You can fill in on off shifts or whatever,’ and I just ended up staying,” Rivero said, “It’s a very hard kind of job to get; everyone is family or knows someone. It was good money — I was really young, and with Christmas tips, I’d make six grand.”
The building he worked in, the Petersfield, where a two-bedroom currently is asking $9,125 a month, was full of cultured and privileged residents. It was while working there — first as a student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and, later, as a student at Brooklyn College, where he majored in music, and then at SVA, from which he graduated — that he came upon a trove of old catalogues from Marlborough gallery that a tenant was throwing out. “Before that, I was into comic books and graffiti,” he said. “I was thinking of going the illustration route. I didn’t understand that I could do work that wasn’t in support of something else … Growing up, going to museums, I thought art was something that happened already.” The Petersfield gave him a strange intimacy with its residents, and not just from having to walk their dogs; he sometimes would have to sort through the effects of the elderly who had died and see a whole life boxed up to be thrown out. “There was this designer who lived in the penthouse, and she was the third generation to live here. It was like The Great Gatsby.”
“My drawing developed at that job,” he said. “This was before phones and Wi-Fi.” Lacking other forms of entertainment and distraction, “I was drawing all the time. I couldn’t read because people might need something. The midnight-to-8 a.m. shift was very quiet, so I would draw. And residents would come by and talk to me about what I was doing. Sometimes people would want to buy my drawings, and I’d say ‘Sure — ten bucks!’”
Put off by the competitive egos in the music scene, he transferred to art school at SVA. And the doorman job “had its drawbacks,” he said. “My boss was really racist. He had a name for me and everything. It was really bad.” Eventually he left. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was that I was sitting at the front door reading and someone came up and waited for me to open it. There was nothing in their hand; there was no need for me to help.” His boss “told me next time get up and open it quicker.”
He became an art handler. Though, after dropping a Henry Darger, he decided that was too stressful and got a job instead as a custodian at David Zwirner gallery. “That became a mini grad school to me,” he said. “I came in and opened up the place in the morning before everyone else was there, but I got to meet all sorts of people. And when I was applying to grad school, one of the partners suggested that I talk to Lisa Yuskavage because she went to Yale.” Rivero got in and graduated with an MFA in 2012.
Mostly, he considers himself to be a painter; the drawings were always more personal, a way to process the clutter in his head. Flipping through some of the drawings at his work table in his studio — some are stuck together, and motifs and characters recur, often dating from his childhood. “A lot of the women are women in my family,” he said. He sees them adding up to “this larger world-building post-apocalyptic, magical New York,” he said. “Where different worlds which tend to be separate are intertwining.”
As for the Petersfield, he stopped by earlier this year. “And, no lie, the super said, ‘You need a gig?’ And I was like, ‘No!’”