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Ashley Bickerton, Unflinchingly Honest About His Work and Illness

Conversations with Ashley often veered into humor. “I need levity. If you ask me my politics I wouldn’t say Democrat, I’d say George Carlin.” As his caregiver fed him French fries he grinned and said, “The neocolonial lifestyle.” His speech was punctuated with tongue clicks and um-ahs. He fastidiously chose his words. Though wheelchair-bound, he exuded a soaring jolliness. His big, wry grin had a way of cradling you.

“I don’t have a Why me? or Oh, the injustice of it all, that’s never even entered my head,” he told me. “There’s sort of a weird, detached bemusement, watching all this happening to me, like, Oh, how interesting. And then a continual need to improvise and tackle new setbacks in my physical condition.” He smile-frowned. “You just keep adapting to new indignities.”

He went on: “I’ve lost my legs completely. My hands are going soon. My voice and my ability to eat will fall off, that’s the natural course of the disease. But I’m happy in the moment. I’m much more sanguine about it all than I would expect to be at this stage.”

He knew that his work for the Gagosian show would be his last. He’d designed the paintings down to the last detail, handing the physical labor over to his assistant.

On the last afternoon I spent with Ashley we made our way down to the studio, he in his wheelchair, his three-year-old daughter, Io, ridiculously cute in a pink tutu, chasing behind. In the studio, Ashley inspected one of the paintings from his new “Blur” series. It depicted a muted, distant shape of a face, with a pair of bright blue circles for eyes. “We’re getting so close,” he said to his assistant. “But let’s get it right. These paintings are forever.”

Io was gliding around the studio on her Razor-style scooter, giggling wildly. She pulled up alongside her father. Studying the painting together, Ashley said, “Tell us what we need to do, baby girl. We don’t know. We’re just grown-ups.”

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