BooksWeekend

The Liberating Power of Conversations About Art

When I got to know Bill Berkson, my life as a writer was completely changed.

Bill Berkson (1939-2016) was a justly renowned, much published art critic and poet. In the late 1950s, when the Abstract Expressionists became famous and much displayed and discussed in New York, his great friend Frank O’Hara, who was a curator at The Museum of Modern Art, played an important role in the art world. And Berkson, too, a precocious writer, played an active role in that culture.

“The art world I entered in the waning years of the fifties was made up of about three hundred artists, writers, dancers, musicians, theater folk, and otherwise a few adventurous dealers and very few collectors and patrons,” he writes in Since When: A Memoir in Pieces (2018). And then, after O’Hara’s death in 1966, Berkson witnessed the radical transformation of that scene, and continued to write adventuresome criticism and poetry.

Berkson was, he reports “almost certainly the only person who was at both the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 and Truman Capote’s Black and White Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966,” which he attended as his mother’s escort. And Since When has the photographs to prove it.

His mother, Eleanor Lambert, was an important figure in fashion, and so he was gently bemused by my naïve discovery of the fascinations of Armani suits. But apart from one brief visit to his mother’s amazing top-floor apartment on Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I hardly entered his social world. Our relationship involved looking at art together.

Since When and A Frank O’Hara Notebook (2019), both selections of fragments, provide two very different close-up views of Berkson’s writing. Since When consists of mostly brief memories of the many artists, personalities, and poets he knew. We get vivid portraits of Larry Rivers, Willem de Kooning, and John Cage; descriptions of places where Berkson lived, in New York and then Northern California, as well as those he visited (he was well traveled); and some short interviews with him.

A Frank O’Hara Notebook contains a collection of fragmentary texts relating to O’Hara, materials for a memoir that Berkson planned but never completed. One essay is titled: “What Frank O’Hara Was Like.” He was, Berkson concludes, someone who inspired everyone writing about him to use “completely different words than everyone else, and all of them are true, to Frank, and to those people.”

I recall a Joseph Cornell exhibition that displayed the raw materials he had gathered. Of course what you couldn’t see was how he selected and composed these elements. Analogously, A Frank O’Hara Notebook contains full-scale transcriptions of Berkson’s handwritten notes, along with reproductions of diagrams for the manuscript, photocopies of pages from relevant books — including, for example, Arthur Danto’s Sartre. There are reproductions of Berkson’s typescripts, relevant paintings by Elaine de Kooning and Michael Goldberg, and a selection of photographs. You get these raw materials, but you don’t know how Berkson proposed to synthesize them.

In 1993 Brad Gooch published a very full biography, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. It tells the story of O’Hara’s education, his work as a curator, his love affairs and many passionate friendships, and, of course, the inspirations and public reception of his poetry. And the book warmly acknowledges the assistance of Berkson.

What then remained to be told in A Frank O’Hara Notebook? Well! City Poet is a normal biography, a lucid narrative of the poet’s life. Berkson’s never-completed book is something more challenging: an authentic memoir of a writer whose criticism, poetry and, indeed, everyday life was an exercise in the pleasures (and problems!) of enjoying — and recording in writing — the very restless process of living.

Just as Willem de Kooning, who was greatly admired by his close friends O’Hara and Berkson, demonstrated how to create visual art whose essential subject was the activity of making a painting; so Berkson shows in this book how to describe the writing-and-life of O’Hara (and, too, of himself).

In his book, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (Berkeley, 1998), the philosopher Alexander Nehamas argues that writers can construct a self “in the way that literary characters are created.” He argues that these writers thus “are both the characters their writings generate and the authors of the writings in which their characters exist. They are creators and creatures in one.”

This, I think, is what O’Hara became and also it is what Berkson himself, art writer and poet, became when he created the character of Frank O’Hara. There was an essential generosity in this process. “For all my absurdities and gratuitousness,” Berkson writes in Since When, “he must have spotted something – in the person, in the art – that merited his attention.” And he learned from his great friend how to do his own rather different writing.

When, in the early 1980s, I rather belatedly began writing art criticism, my role model was, first, Clement Greenberg, and then, soon enough, the theoreticians of the day whom I identified as his successors, Joseph Masheck and some writers associated with October. Then when I got to know Berkson, my life as a writer was completely changed. I learned from him the importance of spontaneous verbalized responses to visual experience.

By precept he taught me the liberating power of conversations about art. Our discussions in front of some de Koonings and, a little later, when looking at the Pietro Longhis in the Legion of Palace of Honor in San Francisco and the Piero della Francescas at the Frick, changed completely how I understood art and wrote about it. He taught me to trust completely my own tastes, which differed from his. Thanks to Berkson, I learnt to jettison my philosophical concerns. And this was permanently liberating.

These two books make a fabulous gift for anyone who knew Berkson’s writings, as well as a marvelous inheritance to younger readers who have maybe never read them, for they offer a suggestive model of how to think about writing and the life of the art writer.

Just as the Abstract Expressionists and their successors demonstrated how to create a process-based art, with neither the grand subjects of the old masters nor the theorizing of their modernist precursors, so O’Hara and Bill discovered how to write and practice the art of living. Many writers give useful information. A few offer something much rarer: if you let them, they show you how to change your life.

Since When: A Memoir in Pieces (2018) by Bill Berkson is published by Coffee House Press, and A Frank O’Hara Notebook (2019) is published by MIT Press.

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