Monday, October 4th, 2010

Seeing the World Differently: Bill Berkson’s lectures on art and poetry

Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006 by Bill Berkson

Bill Berkson lecturing on Guston at the American Academy in Rome, May 2010
Bill Berkson lecturing on Guston at the American Academy in Rome, May 2010

Along with Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Frank O’Hara (who was his great friend) and John Ashbery, Bill Berkson is a poet who writes art criticism. He writes about his painter friends, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, and also about Chardin, Cézanne, Piero della Francesca, Hans Hofmann, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers and Vermeer. And about the writings of W. H. Auden, Walter Benjamin, Ted Berrigan, Tim Clark, Dante, Edwin Denby, Kenneth Koch, Carter Ratcliff, James Schuyler, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. Berkson is a good list-maker:”Frank O’Hara was born in 1926, a good year for births, it turns out: Marilyn Monroe, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Wallace Berman, Joan Mitchell, Fidel Castro, Tony Bennett, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Michel Foucault, Morton Feldman . . . Pretty good for openers, no? Doubtless, there are more.” (p. 77)

This marvelous Baktinian exercise in dialogic exchange, which includes generous excerpts from Berkson’s own poetry, and art writing, is compulsively quotable. “Artists you know as friends and heroes and teachers die, you miss their company, and what compensation there is, larger enough to matter, arrives in the form of a wider, deeper—larger than life, one would almost venture to say—sense of their work, what it amounts to, where they took it, and how increasingly distinct as well as necessary it feels to be.” (p.109)

Who is being addressed? You, the reader? But what then is sudden about this so carefully crafted address?

Lecture two, “Travels with Guston” is close up commentary, a series of word paintings, a prelude to a gallery walk-through, about one of his favorite artists. If this be not I/The Studio shows that “Guston didn’t switch styles, there isn’t that much style to go around.” (p.26) Attar “has been famous for its beauty for so long. And you know how that can sort of put things out to pasture” (27). The painting, he adds shows why “Guston has nothing to do with Monet, but maybe more to do with Turner. But he preferred to speak of Piero della Francesca and Rembrandt . . .” (p.27) And of Shoe (Cellar) Berkson writes: “You have those crazy shoes that have been everywhere else, clomping around. Now they’ve arrived sole-first, here” (28). Because the book contains no illustrations, inevitably one needs to ponder his phrases, whose relation to the paintings feels both oddly elliptical and very precise.  “You can ponder these Gustons, or you can recognize how true, see the humor, and let them pass. But not dispose of. Curiosity isn’t really ponderous. These pictures are not the kind to let your mind go off on tangents. They really want you to stay and talk.” (p.33)

Emphatically not art history, this certainly isn’t normal art criticism. No one else, except maybe Adrian Stokes, whom Berkson loves to quote, writes even a little like this.

Art writing is a strange sort of creative literature. Within the commercial art world, it is a comically marginal activity. But doing it well is oddly difficult, as every editor knows.  And so it is surprising that there are very few really good art writers. When we praise Diderot, Pater, Adrian Stokes, Roger Fry, Clement Greenberg and Arthur Danto, we acknowledge that whatever our disagreements with their tastes, they are grand writers. Berkson belongs in their company. Do you think I exaggerate? Well!, we art writers are much given to hyperbole. And so read for yourself and tell me if I am correct.  Koch’s conception of poetry, Berkson writes, “made me see not just poetry but the world in and outside poetry differently.” (p.94-5)

Sudden Address will, I think, do the same for you. Tell me if I am wrong.

Bill Berkson, Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006. New York: Cuneiform Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-9827926-0-5. 109 pages. $14.95