I Went to the Museum to Look at a Painting and Think about Bill

Bill Berkson (1939-2016) (Photo by Johanna Lenski)

"Artists you know as friends and heroes and teachers die, you miss their company, and what compensation there is, large 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."

-- Bill Berkson, Sudden Address

Bill Berkson, who died last week at age 76, was my professor in 2006 during his second-to-last year of teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute. Somewhere along the way, we became friends.

I have feared his appraisal, and I have been held in his regard. Both were intimidating and intoxicating in their forthright delivery. I have a picture of the two of us dancing, arms aloft as he spins me out into space, his bon vivant grace transferred to me for one brief moment. “Essence is distinct but inarticulate,” Bill wrote in his essay “Critical Reflections,” but with his death, memories have started to become fixed points forming the edges of our relationship. Grief is antithetical to the ambiguity and opacity of his poetry, but not to its intimacy. Each takes its own shape.

I have surrounded myself with his words in recent days, although in truth, they are always close at hand. There are five, six, no, seven volumes of his writing on my shelf, each a souvenir from listening to him read in classrooms, in bookstores, in galleries, for friends and strangers. Their title pages are inscribed with his shorthand dedications: “For Patricia, ‘with Heaven always in mind’ for you, Bill (p. 31)” graces the inside cover of The Sweet Singer of Modernism, a collection of his art writing and writing about art.

Bill Berkson reading from 'Expect Delays' at City Lights.
Bill Berkson reading from 'Expect Delays' at City Lights.

He was poet who wrote criticism and railed against the hyper-professionalism of both fields. He advocated for close and long encounters with works of art as an impetus to write as well as a subject for writing. “You can do a lot with educated eyes,” Bill wrote in the Sudden Address essay “Poetry and Painting.” And in the same paragraph, “At a certain point, past the shock of actually seeing, you want to do something about it.”

On Sunday, I went to the museum to look at a painting and think about Bill. SFMOMA’s second floor pays unintended tribute to his essays on the paintings of Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, David Ireland, Robert Bechtle, David Parks, among others. Their works are all there, including Philip Guston’s For M (1955). Bill and Guston were good friends -- he saw kinship in their mutually slow, accumulative processes -- but I needed the scaffolding of bodies anchored in space. I settled before Parks’ Two Bathers (1958) with its spine and shoulder sculpted from pale teal, a cocked curved wrist of muddy ochre and a shroud of white towel enveloping a low, full belly swathed in midnight blue.

David Park, 'Two Bathers,' 1958. Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through gifts of Mrs. Wellington S. Henderson, Helen Crocker Russell, and the Crocker Family, by exchange, and the Mary Heath Keesling Fund.
David Park, 'Two Bathers,' 1958. Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through gifts of Mrs. Wellington S. Henderson, Helen Crocker Russell, and the Crocker Family, by exchange, and the Mary Heath Keesling Fund. (© Estate of David Park; Photo: John Wilson White)

Bill wrote of this work in “Finding Eden,” saying that, “You feel as if they are strangers to the scenery, and to us, and they remain so.” He liked the inscrutability of paintings, the “chaos of impressions, blanks, needs, memories, obfuscations, and intermittent facts” with which art challenged language and rendered it woefully inadequate. The distance between the thing seen and the thing said could only be bridged by a reader. Bill taught me to think about whom that might be.

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There was little from our conversations -- over lunch, in galleries, after readings -- which did not find its way into my publications or my lectures. He cautioned me against the homogeneity of “the reader” or “the viewer.” “Critical Reflections” has anchored my fall course syllabus for the past three years. He introduced me to his friends through their writing: Edwin Denby, Bernadette Mayer, Kenneth Koch, and many others. In our early classroom days together, Bill lent me a cassette tape recording of Mayer reading her book-length poem, "Midwinter Day." I drove around for hours, listening to it on long trips and short errands; my car was the only means I had to play it.

At the end of the poem's first section, Mayer asks, “I’d like to know/What kind of person I need to be a poet/I seem to wish to be you.” There is that “very intimate ‘you’” as Robert Glück described it, that resides in Bill's poems, the “sudden address” that places someone else in the middle of the story and changes its trajectory.

I was not prepared, Bill, to shift the narrative from the pleasure of your chin-tilted greeting to the pain of its loss. Any additions to the seven volumes that sit on my shelf will now demarcate the before and after, when your words grew wider to fill in for your absence. Our friendship hovers around that line. But still, I want to give shape to knowing you without forming the edges of our experiences. I want to find the words to make this a poem. I want it to be yours.

 

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Patricia Maloney is the executive director of Southern Exposure. She is the publisher emeritus of Daily Serving | Art Practical (DSAP); she founded Art Practical in 2009. She has served as an associate professor in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts and is a senior correspondent and producer for the weekly contemporary art podcast Bad at Sports. She holds an MA in contemporary art theory and history from the San Francisco Art Institute.

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