Living As Variously As Possible: Bill Berkson, 1939-2016
Bill Berkson was a longstanding and valued friend of artcritical.com. Bill served as our first poetry editor, commissioning a number of spectacular collaborations between artists and poets, including, for instance, his own free form translation from Dante accompanied by images by Oona Ratcliffe. He contributed several significant essays and reviews in our pages and appeared twice on The Review Panel. We are honored to share this tribute to Bill by fellow poet PAUL MAZIAR.
“He talks but he has nothing to sell.” – Edwin Denby, “Dance Criticism,” 1949
Early last Thursday, we received the regrettable news that the poet, teacher, and art critic Bill Berkson had suddenly passed away. Having miraculously recovered from a few serious health setbacks over the past decade, including a double lung transplant, Berkson succumbed to a heart attack. Over the weekend, talking with just a few of his close friends, so many were impressed by his resilience and youthful spirit specifically during this comeback. He would often look very well again, gaining back some of the weight he’d lost, and in general still as sharp and as uniquely vivacious as ever. As painter and friend Tom Burckhardt shared in an email message, “it was wonderful to see his great second act after almost dying from emphysema about 10 years ago.” Over the past few days, many artists and writers have been mourning his death and celebrating his life. A born New Yorker and long-time California resident, there will doubtlessly be celebrations on both coasts in the coming months.
As Bill’s contemporary and close friend the poet and art critic John Ashbery has pointed out, “like his friend Frank O’Hara, Bill Berkson writes about his friends.” This is also absolutely true of both his poetry and a lot of his critical prose. Berkson contributed to and was a corresponding editor for Art in America, was a contributor and poetry editor for artcritical, a contributor to Artnews, Modern Painters, and many other publications. Since his early twenties, Berkson had surrounded himself with visual artists and poets, often collaborating with both. In his lifetime he wrote about a dozen books in collaboration with visual artists and poets, many of which remain in print. His most recent publication, Invisible Oligarchs (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016) is a book of his travels through Russia collected in an Apica model notebook. An entirely Berkson-dedicated publication, For Bill, ANYTHING: Images and Text for Bill Berkson was recently published by Pressed Wafer, chalk-full of writing and visual works from 75 contributors, musing on Berkson’s work and life, including collaborations with some of his friends like Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Bernadette Mayer, and many others.
Berkson was always surrounded by and making new friends. It didn’t matter how young or old you were: with him status went out the window. Burckhardt, who is the son of Berkson’s close friend and collaborator, the filmmaker and photographer Rudy Burckhardt, remembers that Berkson’s “depth of friendship with artists and writers was amazing. Despite this he never came off as egotistical or self important. I had had some passing conversation with him regarding David Park. A few months later he was writing an article for Art in America on Park and asked me for a quote on my observation on how Park used a very specific (and “incorrect “) color for the eye area of a figure but delivered with a loose ham-fisted panache and how it still convinced. I was thrilled to end up quoted in the article as a barely 20-something artist.”
At a reading in San Francisco’s Alley Cat Books art gallery this past weekend, the poet Norma Cole, a close friend of Berkson’s, gave a reading and a dedication, urging Berkson via one of her lovely closing poems: “So keep on/ Proposing paradise”. Cole also gave fond remembrances, particularly of Berkson’s liveliness and joviality just one night before his passing. Wednesday night at the release party for his wife the curator Constance Lewallen’s new catalogue on conceptual artist David Ireland titled 500 Capp Street, Berkson shared a delightful exchange he had with the young children he taught poetry, wherein one of the kids reported, after the group was asked “what are letters made of?”, so imaginatively shouted out “microbes!” The answer of course, in keeping with Berkson’s siding with clarity, his base of practicality which enabled further wild imaginings, “sound,” — going always for an understanding of how and why this or that works.
Another friend of Berkson’s was at the Cole reading — artist Léonie Guyer, who collaborated with Berkson for the book Not an Exit, (2011) went out of her way to share an anecdote with me from Lewallen’s book release party, when he was in cheerful form, talking excitedly about poetry, jazz, and visual art. Said Guyer, “I was reluctant to come out for the reading, knowing it would be so strange and terribly sad to be amongst the poets without Bill. But I was grateful to be there, to be there for Norma, whose reading moved me so deeply. It’s incredible to think just one week before, I was at Bill’s reading — never dreaming it would be the last one he gave.” Guyer shared perhaps one of the last of Berkson’s enchanting remarks about his favorite artists and the phenomena that caused him to write about them with the charm that he did. Berkson commented that “it was De Kooning who said (in a dialogue with Harold Rosenberg) of Mondrian: Where the lines cross they make a little light.” Guyer concluded by saying, “Every time I was with Bill I learned something special. Every moment luminous.”
As a dedicated reader of Berkson’s writings, the unmistakable trait of both his prose and his poetry is his sense of clarity and his use of surprise — a rare and incredibly satisfying combination when it comes to any expressive medium. You can never predict where his writing is going to take you; his is always insightful, relatable, with hints of spontaneity that never went for weird. An unquestionably unique poet, Berkson’s writing bears characteristics of a world traveler with a breadth of affinity and knowledge. As his friend Aaron Simon, a poet from the younger generation of his poet friends tells it, “Bill had such diverse taste. He liked everything from Beethoven to Miles Davis to Cat Power, and he liked poets as seemingly antithetical as Auden and Amiri Baraka.” One is also hard pressed to compare him to any other writers. Berkson had a vast frame of reference and understanding with which he could passionately and humorously ruminate, or incisively lecture, depending on the assignment. His work is the record of a rare sensibility that blends the intellect of a scholar, the imagination of an artist, the experience of a traveler, the gusto of the impresario, and the heart of a hero.
Berkson saw himself as more or less “unprincipled” in terms of remaining as unconventional as possible — to arrive, as it were, to any object or situation “as fresh as possible,” as he remarked to Charles Bernstein in 2014. It was this fresh approach that gave Berkson the kind of attentive eye to bring unique and memorable things to his criticism, and the power of his intellectual mind that could render his tellings in such varied and effective ways. Communicating what’s being perceived was job #1 for Berkson. And it wasn’t all about what he likes. “I am an amateur” he told a California College of Arts class in 2009, “in the sense of a lover of art when it is lovable.”
Berkson has commented on his being aware of the ethics of a writer, and the humaneness in his writing comes from his distinctive tone and the fact that you can trust what he is telling you. Like a confidante, his writing can be friendly but also will tell you the tough thing you might need to hear which others might not say. He asked for “more life” out of art, and he inspired more life in people by virtue of who he was. Bill lived, as his good friend Frank O’Hara asked of himself as well, “as variously as possible” in his writing and in the world.