Perhaps I should have known better than to ask New York’s Sonnabend Gallery for what they had on Ashley Bickerton. Such galleries take their archiving seriously and for several minutes my fax hummed like a hive of maddened bees. Bickerton was born to British parents—his father is an esteemed linguist, his mother a behavioral psychologist—in Barbados forty years ago. After graduating from the California Institute of Arts, he moved to New York where he took a job as assistant to the painter Jack Goldstein and began making his own work in his own time.

I happened to go to Bickerton’s first solo outing in 1984 in Soho at the Cable Gallery. He was showing boxy pieces, each decorated with a guttural exclamation—like GUH or UGH—and symbols, together with a few art world in-jokes (such as messages, directed to whoever would be installing the work, written on the back). He moved on to International With Monument, one of the livelier galleries in the East Village, just two years later, in 1988, he was one of four young artists—the others were Jeff Koons, Peter Halley and Meyer Vaisman—in a show at that avant-garde institution, Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery on West Broadway.