“Rex Ray” was not Rex Ray’s given name.
He was born Michael Patterson, but he wanted to free himself of his past and be the artist he imagined himself to be. So “Rex Ray” it was — an alliterative conjoining that, like “Pablo Picasso,” conveyed an immediate air of distinction. Ray’s art did the same thing: The spirals, curves, and other shapes he planted on linen and other surfaces were timeless escapes into an abstraction of the senses.
Some of Ray’s work looks like reimagined peacock feathers. Or tear drops from Indian patterns. Or reconstituted ovals from Robert Motherwell’s paintings. Or psychedelic jewels. Or a Gustav Klimt dress. Or all of that and more. With his art, Ray had found a language without words that conveyed the wonder people experience when they do learn how to talk.
A San Francisco graphic designer and artist who died in 2015 at age 58 from the effects of cancer, Ray is — posthumously — having his first retrospective, “Rex Ray,” at Gallery 16. SFMOMA also has a smaller Ray exhibit that pairs his work with that of Paul Klee, the Swiss-German artist who also straddled many different art genres.
The SFMOMA exhibit bookends one of Ray’s earliest museum breakthroughs: his inclusion in “In A Different Light,” the 1995 BAMPFA exhibit that featured a wide breadth of gay and lesbian artists. Ray’s piece there, Untitled Episode, was a semi-abstraction of male ejaculate. Ray designed the first posters for the San Francisco chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). But Ray also did posters for Bill Graham Presents — to advertise shows by groups like R.E.M. and the Rolling Stones — and his graphic-design business was very much in demand. Ray’s commercial- and fine-art sides came together in his later work, as in a 2008 R.E.M. poster that mirrors the massive Wall of Sound piece that’s now at Gallery 16. Much of Ray’s best art involved his cutting and collaging his own magazine pieces.
“Rex, in his short life, was able to accomplish some remarkable feats, one of which was to invent a way of working that involved both painting and collage that I just don’t see a precedent for,” Gallery 16 founder Griff Williams, who was good friends with Ray, tells SF Weekly. “His big breakthroughs were really him taking a pair of scissors to his own designs that he would have seen in print. The point at which he would become the artist that people recognize him [as] now was as a reaction to the client-driven projects he was involved in, in the mid-1990s.
“Once he hit his stride as a visual artist,” Williams adds, “he started to incorporate his own work into the designs he was hired for. And there was a value-added thing for the clients at that point, because Apple and Spielberg and Swatch and others who were hiring him were hiring him to do that and were wanting more of him in it — more work that was recognizably Rex.”
A new monograph by Gallery 16, Rex Ray: We Are All Made of Light, details the merging of Ray’s artistic selves. Williams says that Ray, who was born in Germany and raised in Colorado before moving in San Francisco, was able to realize his vision here in a way that he wouldn’t have found in another city.
“I’ve said for a long time that my exhibition program couldn’t have existed anywhere else but San Francisco, coming at a time when it did, and I feel exactly the same way about Rex,” Williams says. “We were at a nexus of technology, venture capital, and political weather-making, and the gay community and graphic-design community.
“It was an interesting place for him to develop,” he adds. “He moved here to create an identity and a family of his own choosing. That’s what he did.”
Through June 30 at Gallery 16, 501 Third St. Free; 415-626-7495 or gallery16.com
“Paul Klee and Rex Ray”
Through Sept. 10 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org.