courtesy The North Dakota
Museum of Art
My parents were transplanted from rural landscapes to the suburbs of San Francisco after the war. They sought education and jobs in the big city, yet were rooted in early 20th-century agrarian life. I don’t mean to say that they were conservative exactly, but they had some of the strengths, prejudices, and fears associated with growing up on the farm. They valued art but didn’t necessarily understand it. We began to travel when I was about nine, and we saw art in Washington, New York, and Montreal. At home, there were framed photo reproductions of Picasso, Braque, Monet, and Winslow Homer paintings that were windows for my young mind. Was that a phone cord in Picasso’s Still Life with Antique Head? Why was a rock red in Girl with Dove? I remember a trip to SFMOMA where we saw Ed Kienholz’ Back Seat Dodge ’38. My father couldn’t explain it. I wasn’t interested in the sexual content as much as the beauty of the car itself. Only later would I begin to understand the, uh, context.
|Still Life with Antique Head|
|Child with Dove|
The only original piece of art I remember at home was a small painting of a rural winter scene painted by my great grandmother. This was one of the very few items that made it across the long trek from Saskatchewan to Oregon and then to my parents’ house.
When we were kids, my sister and I spent most of our free time drawing. We rarely sat together, though, and we imagined entirely different lives. She suffered from severe asthma, and her pieces were realistic and mostly depicted disabled kids drawn in profile. Mine were chaotic stories, although eventually I settled down to drawing modernist residential floor plans and elevations. One day, I figured out how to cut construction paper and make three-dimensional sculptures that fit together sort of like Eames cards, but in Calderesque shapes. My memory is that I gave one of them to my mother as her birthday gift and she was disappointed. She rarely gave praise or criticism. She specialized in a kind of silent but constant ever-so-slight disapproval, like a light rain. She wanted fit and brilliant children, and we didn’t quite measure up.
As a family, we saw a Claes Oldenburg show at the Berkeley Art Museum around 1971. I am not sure what my parents thought of all those melting devices, but they knew enough not to scorn it. I was transported. In high school, I would visit the building often, staring at the thick Hans Hofmann canvases. My first framed art poster was from a show of Hofmann’s.
My friend Catherine’s father wrote art criticism and knew Roy De Forest, and another friend, Adam, had a De Forest in his dining room. His family also had a Richard Linder in the living room, a Platner side table, and a Clayton Bailey ejaculating on the hearth. We played Bobbie Short Loves Cole Porter on the hi-fi. Oh, I loved his house almost as much as I thought I loved Adam! As a kid, I spent more time at Eric’s house, because we rode bicycles everywhere. Later, he even went to architecture school, but after we started high school and stopped riding kid bikes, we didn’t have much in common. I still remember his mother with oversized sunglasses and her own paintings and batik pieces influenced by their talented friends. His family was close to Harold Paris, a well-known local sculptor. It was in their house I first saw odd shaped Bertoia chairs and abstract paintings on tile. In their backyard was a ceramic monstrosity that Paris had created. The story was that Eric’s parents agreed to store the sculpture for Paris, and over time the kids climbed on it and a few protuberances broke off and moss began to cover the base. When Paris saw it, he was horrified. Apparently he brought over the Berkeley Art Museum curator Peter Selz, who loved how the piece had seasoned. All was forgiven. Even at a young age, I knew art was one way out.
|A sculpture by Harold Paris - similar to the one that we |
climbed on as children in Eric's backyard.
This was the life I wanted when I moved to San Francisco in January of 1977. Instead, I mostly floundered in college and enjoyed what any 20-year-old might in San Francisco of the late 1970s. But it wasn’t until I wrote a paper on Louis Kahn that I began to have any idea of what path to follow.
In the first year or two at San Francisco State, I met my pal Kristina in acting class with Jack Cook, who was a serious actor but kind. He had known Kristina’s grandmother on the stage in New York, and she got special treatment. She came from an acting dynasty and was definitely not like the other kids. I loved that about her.
One night we took the ferry to the house in Sausalito where she rented a room and watched the bay from under a flokati rug. Hers was not a typical student life. On the wall was a strange piece of art with smiling faces and towers and a black background. I was focused on abstract art at the time, but the collage didn’t look like something you saw in a student’s room. Kristina told me about her aunt meeting an artist in New York named Barton Beneš and how he just became part of the family. An extended family of jesters of all kinds floated in and out of Kristina’s family’s ramshackle redwood house on the beach in Malibu, and one weekend Barton was there telling funny stories about drugs, sex, and art. Maybe I was 21? He had a way of rolling all of his fables and foibles into a long monologue that I adored. He could have been on the radio. One story I remember from the beach weekend was about sticking acid up his ass and the trip he went on only to crap the pill out undissolved a few hours later. I would meet other folks in that house who were more famous, but his was the life I imagined—if I had been brave or talented enough.
courtesy Ezra Stoller (c) Esto
Westbeth, Barton’s home, when I first saw it in 1981 or so, did not look quite as pristine as it does in Ezra Stoller’s photos for the architect Richard Meier. The former Bell Labs building in the West Village was converted to state-subsidized artist studios. Hard to imagine in this day of antigovernment ranting. The neighborhood was still dodgy, and the building felt a little institutional and fortress-like. But once inside Barton’s apartment, you were in an enchanted chamber. You could see the Empire State Building in the distance, but there was so much else to examine that you hardly looked out the windows. This was during the era Barton was working with rubber stamps and transcribing rambling letters from his mad Aunt Evelyn in Florida. He loved it when people took interest in his art, and to the chagrin of his dealers, he gave much of it away. We talked about architecture, and he gave me a column dreaming of being a colonnade, part of his Aspiration series. (Another piece in the series was a pencil eraser dreaming of being a pink pearl.) He also gave me an apron with a portion of a letter from Aunt Evelyn that read, “THIS ONE NEIGHBOR SAID THAT SHE NEVER SAW SO MUCH DIRT AS THERE WAS NEXT DOOR THAT EVIDENTLY THE NEW RENTERS NEVER VACUUMED OR DUSTED, AND THE POOR THING DIDN’T KNOW THAT SHE WAS TALKING TO SOMEONE ELSE NOT CLEANING” He inscribed the piece “for my friend Kenny. Clean up!” Who told him that I was a terrible housekeeper? (He also rubberstamped some cleaning brushes with the same excerpt.)
|Column Dreaming of Being A Colonnade|
from the Aspiration series
|My letter from Aunt Evelyn|
I don’t remember what we talked about that long night. I worked on my own projects with paper, thread, glue, and scissors. He could inspire anybody. We smoked opium (is that possible?), and at some point there was a brief sexual interlude, but it wasn’t dramatic or odd. It was all of a piece. He talks about this time and before in the documentary Gay Sex in the 1970s. It is classic Barton. It was the tail end of that dreamy time.
Later, he would use shells and woven money, both materials that his lover Howard Meyer had worked with. This was before AIDS changed his life, took Howard, and also dramatically changed his art.
Following Howard’s death in 1989, Barton didn’t do much work for a few years, and then after he cut himself by accident, he started making pieces with his own HIV-infected blood. The resulting show, Lethal Weapons (there is a documentary of the same name), traveled across Europe and created widespread hysteria. In liberal Sweden, the health officials required that his blood be heated to 160 degrees before it was shown. But in North Dakota, of all places, the North Dakota Museum of Art didn’t worry about it. An important bond was formed with the rural museum. His fame as a political artist grew. But like most artists, he was just working with the material of his life.
|Lethal Weapon Series, Essence, 1994|
courtesy Pavel Zoubok Gallery
Later there were reliquaries, often created with castoffs from celebrities. He knew several, but he didn’t chase them. They just fell for him and the worlds he made in art. It was as if he had to return to humor, even if death remained the theme. Everybody sent him stuff. Toenail clippings, ashes, napkins, and cigarette butts. Kristina’s grandmother swiped jellybeans off President Reagan’s desk in the oval office. Everybody Barton met ended up working for him. This era of his work is beautifully covered in the book Curiosa: Celebrity Relics, Historical Fossils, and Other Metamorphic Rubbish.
courtesy Pavel Zoubok Gallery
Barton didn’t like to leave the apartment except by limo. Once, when I phoned, he asked that I bring him a melon scooper—as soon as possible. He had to have it that night for a piece he was working on. The market was only a block away from where he lived, but of course I was happy to oblige. He breathed art—he couldn’t stop creating it. In the end, his most famous single piece of art was the apartment itself. He willed all of its contents (and his own ashes, which will be in a pillow on the bed) to the North Dakota Museum of Art, where the incredible three-dimensional collage will be resurrected. This will be enough reason to travel there.
|Barton's dining room table|
courtesy The North Dakota Museum
|Barton's front door|
courtesy The North Dakota Museum
courtesy The North Dakota Museum
Every day, I look at the collage he gave me and think of it as a talisman for the career I was lucky enough to find. It wasn’t exactly Bohemia, but it wasn’t a corporate life either. That evening I spent with him was a generous encouragement that I wouldn’t understand for many decades.
Barton died at age 69. I imagine somewhere he is laughing about that magic number.
There will be an exhibit of Barton’s work entitled The Thrill of the Hunt at the Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York City from October 11 to November 10, 2012. His memorial takes place on October 1.
There are several articles about Barton. Here are a few.