One day in 1965, as he was walking by St. Mark’s Church in New York’s East Village, Basil King came to a dreadful realization. “You’re a painter,” he told himself, “who’s never been.”
The verdict, which he relates in Learning to Draw / A History (Skylight Press, 2011), was, of course, wrongheaded. King had been making art since he was a boy. Still, he brought it up again during my visit to his brownstone in Brooklyn, where he and his wife, the writer Martha King, have lived since moving from Manhattan in 1969.
Showing me one of his black-and-white paintings from the late 1950s, he told me that his self-doubt was shared by many New York-based painters as the ’60s progressed. “I didn’t want to become a third generation Abstract Expressionist,” he told me, in a tone of bemused awe at the fact that, somehow, he had escaped that ignominy.
King is a prolific artist and writer, better known in the poetry community than in the contemporary gallery scene. In recent years his art has been exhibited at St. Mark’s Poetry Project and Poet’s House, and The Bowery Poetry Club showed his ephemeral chalk and charcoal mural called “Rimbaud’s Seaside,” created on site in early 2006. He’s a popularly featured reader at literary venues both here and abroad. Last September, his oeuvre was honored at a gathering called “Basil’s Arc: The Paintings and Poetics of Basil King” at Anthology Film Archive, with a screening of the documentary film on his life, Basil King: Mirage (2012), by Nicole Peyrafitte and Miles Joris-Peyrafitte.
His unclassifiable paintings have found homes in public and private collections, including those of now deceased writer friends like Hubert Selby, Jr. and Gilbert Sorrentino. King’s art renegotiates and integrates supposedly incompatible styles. His human and animal figures are often semi-anonymous and melancholic, recalling Max Beckmann and Chaim Soutine, countered with the ebullient colors and vibrant surfaces found in American and British Pop art, as in his decades-long series of giant iconographic paintings based on playing cards. In other works, King paints tinted blank planes with a contemplative palette suggestive of Color Field painting; their geometric designs and hypnotic effects share traits of Minimalism.
This stylistic openness informs his writing life too. His autobiographical collage Learning to Draw/A History rejects chronology and defies the boundary between prose and poetry and even fact and fiction. Instead of a straight narrative, he engages in the sort of colloquial musicality mastered by New York School poet friends like Frank O’Hara and Frank Lima as well as the atavistic cadences and syntactic reiterations of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett.
King’s literary presentation of his life story is elliptical but not inscrutable. He was born Basil Herschel Cohen; his surname was changed by his father. He arrived in America in 1947 at the age of twelve, when his parents brought him from war-ravaged London to resettle in Detroit. A high school dropout, he hit the road. As he told me during my visit, such unmapped trekking seems unthinkable for today’s tightly scripted adolescents. At sixteen, he ended up at Black Mountain College, where he resided on and off, studying painting with Joseph Fiore and Esteban Vicente while learning poetry from avant-garde writers like Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. After meeting his lifelong partner and wife, writer Martha King, in San Francisco, he moved to New York City. They paid $50 a month to live and make art on the Lower East Side, in the company of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Bob Thompson.
Despite having emerged in the New York arts scene, his art maintains a hybrid Anglo-American temperament that might account for his relative neglect by art critics.
As the film Basil King: Mirage recounts, King endured temporary blindness during the V2 attacks on London. Effacement, obscurity and incompleteness become critical elements in his paintings while somehow maintaining an American exuberance and approachability. His paintings feature large-proportioned subjects, a polished lineation of contours, and hazy, chalk-like applications of paint. Frequently distorted anthropomorphic figures crouch together for safety, cower alone against monochromatic settings or lurk near odd structures. Unreal profiles, classical silhouettes, and mutated doublings abound.
In “Pendular A” (2013) the disembodied countenances of a man and a woman are painted onto amorphous pink planes conjoined by a blackish bib-like contraption. The subtle coloring of the faces — King’s hot pinks soften into washed patches and brushstrokes of white and gray — balances the alluringly outlined eyes, noses and lips of the embedded beings. As in many of his paintings, juxtaposition creates a hypnotic disorientation. “Pendular A” causes an upward-and-downward tension in the levels of the picture plane, as the viewer’s attention oscillates between the two animated faces.
In “Horatio” (1996), from King’s “Green Man” series, an ashen-faced, lean figure in a leaf-green cap and gown is set against a slate blue background. With its slit eyes and wounded mouth, the damaged figure has seen too much and can no longer speak. The flesh around his mouth has been torn back to form a wing-like flap, exposing the gums and teeth in a detailed reddish pink representation that might be referencing the bloody grotesques of Francis Bacon. He is Hamlet’s confidante, named in the painting’s title, but he seems to be an archetypical Horatio devoid of historical references and drawn from an English folklore that the painter has invented from whole cloth. Surreal in the purest sense of the unreal-within-the real, King’s portraiture suggests to the viewer that the finely rendered subjects’ worlds are contiguous with ours.
Even in straightforwardly representational images, like the diaphanous paintings of baseball players he produced in the 1980s, the bodies are massive and disproportionate to the canvas, disconcertingly expanding the picture’s boundaries and evoking uncannily inaccessible narratives. Walking through his studio, I adapted myself to how King combines the recognizable and the fictive. The art forced me to look more intensely in order to dream up a corresponding narrative.
Making sense of the world through painting and writing seems less imperative to King than preserving the impetus and the means to carry on with what he calls the “unnatural” labor of expression. Against the tendency to describe an artist’s uniqueness as a practically preordained set of ingenious adaptations and inspirations, in his memoir King tells of crucial accidents, detours, mistakes, and disturbances that led to masterpieces. Perseverance depends on ‘drawing,’ not only in the manual sense of putting a pencil to paper, but in constantly ‘drawing upon’ examples — the unique patterns and resistant practices of forbears and contemporaries, including many to whom King had personal access, such as Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt and Gene Swenson.
In Learning to Draw, King takes the unfashionable approach of defining himself as a participant in a bigger project — the creation by artists of a “language of devotion.” Art is conceived not as a path, and certainly not a “career,” but as a locus of renewable energy. The result is a kaleidoscopic history built around discrete facts and archetypal parables in which its author is a walk-on player.
And an entertaining one it is. We’re told by King that Delacroix studies the under-fur skin of panthers at the zoo of Jardin des Plantes in order to render the living animal from inside out. Artist and former slave Bill Traylor rejects grounding human and animal figures and decontextualizes the frame of a drawing, exploiting blank space in what might seem, to the myopic critic, a mere child’s conceit. Cézanne paints with such somatic engagement that his cadmiums dance on the canvas.
The hunger for art fascinates King, as much as its absence does. Around 1911, in his retelling, Franz Kafka visits the Louvre to stare at the blank wall where the stolen “Mona Lisa” once hung. The memoir describes King’s Jewishness as an important part of his story, reinforcing an autobiographical theme of endurance. The reader might wonder why Mark Rothko appears in New York right after 9/11. King reimagines Rothko’s presence as a prodigious mourning ahead of that cataclysm. As detected by King in Rothko’s series “Black on Maroon” (1958), the twin towers are foreseen within a chromatic map of ten colors, each articulating a variation on angst that, in late 2001, saturated his Brooklyn neighborhood after history came home to roost with deadly, shocking impact.
Learning to Draw relies equally on lighter tales and lesser-known heroes in art’s opposition to national mendacities. King’s painter friend in Montana makes commissioned landscape dioramas only to be rejected when his variants on winter white offend the board of directors in Helena, who then hire a hack to paint over their beauty. Junctures and pivots and processes are favorite topics: anecdotal spaces, fits and starts, cross-country relocations, last minute salvation from eviction, all in the effort to find time and space to paint and to raise a family. “For years I fought to make myself one person,” King writes, “No more do I do this.” He pits his struggles against mindless American slogans like, “Get rich. Be rich.” and “Bring it home.” By airing internalized propaganda within fables of creativity, King shows the chasm between culturally accumulated bullshit and independently uncovered truths. Channeling the spirit of Paul Blackburn reading Ezra Pound aloud on a Coney Island-bound subway, King snarls at convention, designated by “you”: “you think you can / take advantage of me / well you can but it / won’t get you anything / more than what you’ve / taken. Because what you / think you want is not / what I’ve got to give.”
Learning to Draw obliquely contends that an artist’s biography appears only in the practice of the art. Discipline is essential but not absolute: making pictures requires improvisation and revolt; hard work can sustain talent so long as the former isn’t neglected by the socialized self-complacency of the latter. On that day of doubt on Second Avenue in ’65, determined to break an impasse that had imperiled his family (the Kings by that time had two young children), he bought 500 pages of cheap paper and drew circles until he’d filled up every page. He filled up another 500 and succeeded at an exorcism by exercise. A reiteratively drawn line provides the route toward the life’s subsequent chapter. The repetitive circles gave way, without his immediately noticing, to figures of “leaves, flower, sunflower.”
During my visit he showed me a new series of small abstract drawings he has ironically named “The Hudson River School.” Inspired by Japanese art that he saw while visiting the West Coast, he produced this series by hand-painting — palms, thumbs, fingers soaked with Higgins ink, applied to cardstock. The resulting images — a hundred and fifty altogether — are supple and elongated and biomorphic. Studying them as he laid them out one-by-one, I detected elaborate, mutable presences: the jellyfish transformed into a building, the bulbous flower into a waterfall, a cloud formation concretized into a stone. Produced by the artist’s hand pressed to paper, these were enigmatic self-portraits as well.
Later on, reading King’s writings, I thought of the transformative ink abstractions in light of what he calls, in his book by the same name, “Warp Spasm.” In Irish folklore, the warp spasm involves a seizure in which the possessed person becomes “a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless” as “nature’s forces releas[e] themselves inside the body of the warrior.” While it’s impossible for me to imagine an even-keeled mensch like Basil King overtaken by uncanny internal forces, the warp spasm identifies the unpredictability at the core of the creative gesture. It led me to think, after a well-spent afternoon in Brooklyn, that King could be one of the last urban Romantics. His artwork rejects the principles of realism and irony, and by doing so, King has managed to defy institutionally sanctioned practices that too often fail at encouraging the inventive leaps and original forms that make an imagination singular.