The atmosphere around the Pop International Galleries, on Soho’s main drag, West Broadway in New York City, was prickly with expectation just before sunset on Monday, June 25. On the door was a small printed sign that said: “Private Reception.” Outside, rows of journalists with cameras and microphones snaked around the gallery entrance; to their right stood a line of guests behind a velvet rope, nervously shifting their weight from one foot to the other, anxious to get inside. A public relations guy, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander, walked back and forth across the front of the gallery, looking over journalists’ heads, constantly checking his watch while conferring with his many mini-skirted minions. “He is coming at 7 p.m.,” someone in the crowd said; “no, it’s 7:15 p.m.,” said another. Finally, the appearance we all waited for was scheduled for 8 p.m. Whispers went through the jittery crowd as the time approached: Is that him? No; but it sure LOOKS like him. Is Paul coming? Is his wife, Barbara? What do you say to a legend? What do you say?

This crowd was in anxious anticipation that night for the arrival of Ringo Starr, a name as familiar to most people as their own. Ringo, the good-humored drummer for the legendary Beatles and the last to join the group; Ringo, the hapless sadsack in A Hard Day’s Night (which he also titled); Ringo, one of the longest-running solo shows in the music business; Ringo, a much-adored cultural icon. And the reason for the party was that Ringo has been making computer-generated art since the late 1990s, an activity he developed on the road when he was stuck in hotel rooms and which serves, as he puts it, to keep him sane; and this very art was on display (and for sale) at Pop International Galleries. A portion of the sale proceeds from these pieces go to the charity that Ringo and his wife Barbara Bach founded a decade ago (around the time of his great friend and fellow Beatle George Harrison’s passing) called The Lotus Foundation. And Ringo was coming, with a little help from his friends, to celebrate the exhibition’s last formal night.

But even before he set foot in Soho, his friends were busy working the crowd. Steve van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s drummer and Silvio Dante of HBO’s The Sopranos, arrived, sporting a red leather jacket and trademark head scarf, graciously greeting people, shaking their hands, and posing for dozens of smart phone photos. Some of the guys on Ringo’s current All-Starr tour, which had played in New Jersey the previous weekend, were also much in evidence, including  Mark Rivera, who used to play with Billy Joel and his band, and Steve Lukather, a former Toto band member and one of the most sought after guitarists  in the business. Rivera was talkative, mostly about his new album, due out in a few months, and said he was “blessed” to have Ringo playing on it. Todd Rundgren, who started the band Nazz in the 1960s in Philadelphia, and had huge hits like “Hello, It’s Me,” and “I Saw the Light,” swaggered in, the top of his head bleached platinum, and worked the whole length of the press line. Asked if he ever got back to Philly, he said, “You bet — whenever I can.” He also said he kept in touch with Carson von Osten, one of the original members of Nazz, but that von Osten was “running around the world for Disney,” for whom he has created comic books and characters for over three decades. Billy Squier, who had some huge arena hits in the 1980s such as “The Stroke” and “All Night Long,” also showed up with his gorgeous wife, a former German women’s soccer star, looking tan, happy, and healthy. He probably had the shortest trip to the gallery of anyone, as he lives on the Upper West Side in the elegant San Remo.

It is amazing how much people long to be in the presence of fame, as though some of its magic might rub off. While Ringo’s pals dominated the red carpet (which was only a narrow cement sidewalk outside the gallery), almost no one saw the rather large, bald muscle man come up the sidewalk, check the entrance, and touch base with the public relations crew. This, of course, was Ringo’s bodyguard, and within seconds after he showed up, the Beatle — looking dapper in a dark gray outfit and sunglasses — seemed to appear out of nowhere at one end of the press line, smiling and flashing the peace sign. The whole street leaned suddenly in Ringo’s direction, pressing toward him for a word, a glimpse, a touch. He spoke to a few people for three minutes and then was ushered through the gallery and into the back room.

That, however, was not the end; the press crowded into the gallery with all the guests, many of whom had bought some of Ringo’s work or won tickets from radio programs. It was very hot and steamy and the revelers pressed toward the back wall, where Ringo eventually emerged from the gallery storeroom and sat for staged photos. The gallery owner said a few gracious words about what a “once in a lifetime” experience it was to have Ringo there, as people pressed closer and closer. After his handlers, and some of the event organizers, failed to get the crowd to un-crush, Ringo himself got up and asked everyone to move back, promising that he’d be out on the floor to mingle as soon as he could. Finally, the throng loosened and, in turn, this gave everyone some room and time to look at the art.

Ringo, while not an artist on the level of Picasso, has a warm heart, sincere political sentiments, and more than his share of humor. Much of the work is reminiscent stylistically of Yellow Submarine: blocky, childlike, using very flat, simple planes of color and straight lines to convey people or objects. The subject matter ranges from psychedelic, multi-colored guns tied in knots (called Knot for Violence), done in versions of one and two guns, and with the word “imagine” written across the gun barrels — perhaps an homage to another one of the Beatles, John Lennon; the most popular was a huge star that seemed to be exploding, both in color and black and white versions, appropriately called (again, depending on the version) Starr Art, Starr Spin Art — you get the picture. Among the other favorites at the show were A Elaphant Foot (Ringo’s spelling), which is simply one elephant leg on a colored ground and which at least two people bought during the show; and pictures from his so-called Drumhead series where a blue or red face stretched over a drum is accompanied by a caption like “I feel hot” (the red ones) or “I feel blue.” Yet another, called Bad Finger, shows two people, one with a blue face (remember the Blue Boobies?) looking at another person who is showing off his splinted finger. The work was created in editions of anywhere from 8 to 100, and it seemed to be selling with the speed of a new Beatles single in 1966. The Lotus Foundation supports women’s and children’s rights, as well as the protection of animals, and its coffers got a hearty boost as the evening wore on, with pieces selling roughly between $600 and $5,000 dollars apiece.

Although Ringo did not get a chance to speak to everybody, it was great to be in his presence and in the presence of so many truly historic rock ‘n’ roll personalities. The art was fun, remarkably un-self conscious by the standards of the mainstream art world, and the whole event helped causes which sorely need help. At a moment when things are anything but innocent, Ringo — the idea of him as much as the man himself — brought us back to a time of nostalgically bright, clear colors and solid outlines, and a time when things were definitely simpler. It was beautiful.

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