MOST OF THE PEOPLE I went to college with wanted to be lawyers, doctors, senators, or president of the United States—like my schoolmate Bill Clinton. I used to see him handing out flyers advertising himself for class president. He was always running for something.
I was ambitious but didn’t want to be president. I wanted to be in the art world and hang around Max’s Kansas City and work for Andy Warhol. Part of it was the way Pop art made everything look different. The Warhol Factory was the Rolling Stones of the art world. I was smitten by the total anarchy of the films and their bizarre casts, actors playing themselves, weirder than anything a screenwriter might conjure. And here was an artist with his own rock band.
But most of the magnetism that tugged at me was probably that silver world—that high-contrast black-and-white world—that I saw in the photographs shot at the Factory by a guy named Name, Billy Name. I wanted to live in those pictures and hang out with the stars: Edie Sedgwick, Viva, Taylor Mead, Ultra Violet, Baby Jane Holzer, Louis Waldon, International Velvet, Nico, Ondine, the Velvet Underground. It was a place where anybody who was somebody or in somebody’s entourage dropped in: the Stones, Dylan, Rauschenberg, Hollywood stars, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. It was the center of the hip universe, and nothing had ever looked like that before.
And then, somehow, I got the gig. I was in the pictures. One day I was a grad student at Columbia, the next I was answering the phone, “Factory,” or “Warhol Films.” By then, it wasn’t the silver Factory, it was the chic, upwardly art deco Factory where Andy was shot by Valerie Solanas. It wasn’t as anarchic as the original, but it was pretty crazy. The superstars would still drop by to lobby for a part or ask for a handout. The now presentable Factory crew was making movies and videos and publishing Interview magazine. But this wasn’t a hangout anymore; the attempted assassination of Warhol by Solanas (founder of the Society to Cut Up Men) had changed all that, and the nutty business ethic of director Paul Morrissey and the glamorous international aesthetic of art agent Fred Hughes had replaced the speed-fueled scenes of the superstars, that otherworld I had glimpsed and coveted in the photos of Name (and the teenage Stephen Shore). It was still the Factory, but business had changed.
At the old Factory (once a real factory), where the phone was a payphone painted silver, Name was the resident decorator, the majordomo, the receptionist, the bouncer, and occasional Warhol companion. The nucleus of the freaks who would become the superstars were Billy’s friends.
Andy met Billy Linich, a lighting designer, when the artist Ray Johnson took him to Billy’s to get his hair cut. (Andy once had hair. Billy had haircutting parties.) Andy got a lot of things from Ray, and Billy was probably the best—better than leather jackets and Elvis. Andy was immediately taken with Billy’s decor—everything was painted silver or covered in foil—and Andy was taken with Billy. He asked Billy if he would decorate his new loft in the same mode. Billy said he would, but that it was a big job and that he should probably move in. The atmosphere that Billy’s presence conjured created a new type of art studio and new practices. Paintings were made, but also films, music, superstars. Billy was filling out a form one day and saw his name alongside the made-up Pop art names of the superstars, and seeing a blank “Name:” he filled in Name.
The Factory was a territorial place, and the evolving nature of the Warhol business didn’t provide a natural role for Billy, so he retired to his darkroom, coming out only at night.
I never saw Billy then. I knew he was in there and that he was nocturnal. Joe Dallesandro’s job wasn’t just starring in the later Warhol films; he was also assigned to check each morning to see if Billy was alive. There wasn’t much sign of him—there would be paper plates and cups and other signs of life, and occasionally some talking emanating from the closed door, but it wasn’t clear if Billy was with someone or speaking to himself. Then one day in 1970 there was a sign on the door: “Andy, I am not here anymore but I am fine. Love, Billy.” I had never seen that door open, and now it was. Inside was a large trunk with Billy’s astrological charts, a dog-eared ephemeris, and books by occult authors like Dion Fortune and Aleister Crowley, and I began wondering about the voices we occasionally heard when using the toilet next to the darkroom. Billy had changed in there. I later saw a picture of him that Gerard Malanga took that day: a bearded, ragged, tramp-looking Billy, no striped T-shirt, no elegant cigarette holder, just a fugitive seeker moving on.
Billy took to the road then, spending time with the West Coast art scene, then he moved up the Hudson to his hometown, Poughkeepsie, New York. He traded in his exploding plastic silver Factory look for a psychedelic grandpa look. But he was no speed burnout bum. He was a kinder, gentler polymath, still taking pictures, but privately, retired from the dark side of the darkroom to the white light of the divine strobe and the yin-yang hall of mirrors. To quote Lou Reed’s “That’s the Story of My Life”: “That’s the difference between wrong and right / but Billy said, both those words are dead.”
Glenn O’Brien is a writer based in New York.
Bill Berkson in 1990. Photo: Nancy Kittle.
“WE DO NOT RESPOND OFTEN, REALLY,” Frank O’Hara once noted. “And when we do, it is as if a flashbulb went off.”
No stranger to bright lights, Bill Berkson—O’Hara’s protégé, collaborator, and traveling companion—quoted the elder poet’s line in “Critical Reflections,” a 1990 essay for this magazine. The piece, a manifesto of sorts, lamented an art criticism where words let go of the heady rush of looking, listening, and taking it all in, to slip instead into a kind of joyless airplane mode. No flashbulbs now, just the flutter of a smartphone, endlessly dividing our attention.
Bill wasn’t about to accept those terms, declaring himself “an aesthetic hedonist.” “I’m ‘in’ art for the sensual and intellectual pleasures I continue to find there,” he wrote.
Criticism that dampens, rather than heightens, aesthetic pleasure seems to me worthless. The aesthete proceeds, by stumbles and veers, along the lines of articulated sensation, cultivating a shifting horde of passions, tolerances, fascinations, glees, and disgust that marks the temporary side effects of what keeps promising to be a civilized habit.
It’s difficult to write about Bill and not slide into his rhythms, those stumbles, and veers—the damp thump of that damn sentence, A woman has fallen, keeping him from his Costanza. The hardest part about mourning Bill is knowing that now someone else will have to read that sentence for him. We’d heard that woman fall so many times, Bill’s voice carrying over bookstore counters and galleries filled with folding chairs and a league of dedicated Listeners, those that recognized one another more or less by sight, but never went into the specifics of how we “knew Bill.”
The truth is, Bill had a startling capacity to draw others into his orbit, though he would have cackled if you tried to make him out as a guru. Decidedly not the guru type, so unassuming, so expert at keeping it casual, an easy generosity and free-flowing enthusiasm just to share the same time and place as another person. In a reciprocal stream of gratitude, he regularly dedicated poems to the people in his life, just as many unknown quantities as art celebrities. Bill wasn’t here for fame and wouldn’t abide by name-dropping; he couldn’t help it if his coterie happened to be legendary.
As a poet, Bill was particularly attuned to the odds and ends of the daily grind, the sudden high notes and spare sentences that he picked up and added to his collection of running observations, which he would publish in great globules. He didn’t force these commentaries into any faceted structure. Let posterity decide what to keep. What was that line he liked from Miró? No, not Miró, Gris. (Bill would have shaken his head at my confusing the two.) Anyway, it was a line about making a bad painting, but making a “Great Bad Painting.” Bill didn’t make bad poems. Each of his verses had that same featherweight forgiveness and acceptance of the world, with all its wonders and inconveniences, down to the three-line poem “CT Song,” which discovered a fleeting moment of fancy amid the indignities of illness: “Breathe in. | Hold your breath. | Breathe.”
For a man known primarily for his words, Bill had also offhandedly mastered the quiet pause. When he was listening to someone or looking at a work, he would cock his head just so, his eyes taking on an impish cast for a quicksilver second of consideration, punctuated by the occasional short grunt (not quite a chuckle, more like the sound old computers made when you pushed too many keys at once—still processing). It wasn’t judgment, just interest. It is what made him such a magnificent teacher. He knew how to look, and he knew how to listen, and most of all, he knew how to take his time. (Expect Delays, the title of one of his last publications.)
That’s not to say our poet didn’t have his share of killer comebacks. He had the dry martini wit of someone who knew he would always be in style, the son of a professional tastemaker—a bona fide doyenne—never fully dressed without his smile. His smile and that slight tilt of his head that meant he was listening. Oh, and in recent years, also a hat, because vanity has a way of finding us all.
When I spoke to Bill a few years back about a bump in the professional road—“chasing fire engines,” he teased—he offered the following: “I always think it’s a good idea to have a kindred spirit or two in mind when one writes reviews, don’t you? Sort of keeps the grammar between friends, and eases its extending outward.” Bill probably had too many friends to be able to take his own advice, but I knew what he meant. Even now as I write this, I write knowing full well that it’s for an audience of one, who would have listened with his soft smile, wincing at the Miró mishap, and appreciating the gentle irony that that damn woman has kept falling, even now, even here.
Kate Sutton is a writer based in Zagreb, Croatia.
Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara in 1961. Photo: Kenward Elmslie.
I FIRST MET Bill Berkson as one of his students at the New School of Social Research in New York. We became friends and later some of our correspondences became the book What’s Your Idea of a Good Time (2006). Before Bill died, we were having a discussion of the meaning of the phrase “the bee’s knees.” We thought it must mean something like: there’s nothing else like it, or it’s so rare, it doesn’t exist. But then, somebody told me that bees have a pocket, right where their knees would be, to carry the honey back to the hive and if you can see it closely, it’s red. I wonder what Bill would make of that?
Bernadette Mayer is a poet based in upstate New York.
Bill Berkson in 2011. Photo: John Suiter.
I ALWAYS THINK of Bill as young, so it comes as a shock to realize that he was old when he died this summer. I first met him in Paris, where he had accompanied Frank O’Hara on a trip in the early ’60s, and it was cheering to know that New York was still turning out glamorous, articulate young creatures. He and Frank had just finished writing their poems about Saint Brigid’s Church on Tompkins Square, something I had seen in the past but never bothered to assay as poetry material. It was a joy to show Bill and Frank, who were staying in Joan Mitchell’s studio I believe, the wonders of Paris. At one point he went to London and I had to place a person-to-person call to him there. The operator asked: Bergson, comme le philosophe? which seemed only appropriate for Bill. As was the case with so many dear friends, he and I seldom spent much time in the same city or even country. They all seem emptier now.
John Ashbery is a poet based in New York.
Pierre Boulez, 2008. Photo: Sonja˛.
A CONVERSATION I HAD about Pierre Boulez right before his death ended with the perplexing question, from an otherwise culturally literate person, “What, exactly, does a conductor do?” At the time, I dismissed this query as further support for the conclusion that I have often drawn in the art world: Never discuss music. But then this invitation came from Artforum to write a tribute to Pierre Boulez, and, well, we have to start somewhere—perhaps a discussion of music’s relation to contemporary art might be productive after all. Actually, Boulez, who created IRCAM in the 1970s (the legendary institute for research and experimentation in music at the Centre Pompidou in Paris), was continually distressed at how little serious interface there was between visual artists and musicians. With this in mind, an introduction to the art world that does more than gloss over Boulez’s early compositional experimentation does in fact seem an appropriate way to memorialize him—by way of an invitation to continue the work that Boulez was not able to see realized in his lifetime.
Boulez was the most rigorously radical composer to emerge within the lineage of European classical music after Schönberg and Debussy; he was the most original composer-conductor since Gustav Mahler; and his career followed a continuously brilliant and generative line that included significant philosophical influences on Gilles Deleuze (more on that later); an affectionate but also discordant friendship with John Cage (documented in a fascinating series of letters); and, for the last forty years of his life, he surprised many by dedicating himself to rewiring the orchestral/choral interpretation of Mahler. Here, he realized an entirely new, late-twentieth-century interpretive performance mode, full of emotional aporia and surgically precise articulations of complex sound-images, with dense layers of thematic development made crystalline in the process of shattering. Those who witnessed Boulez’s interpretations of Mahler felt the same otherworldly alien-landing-on-earth rush that accompanies listening to and performing his own musical compositions. For the curious yet untrained ear, learning how to hear Mahler through Boulez and vice versa is a good place to begin understanding his highly complex relationship between composition and conducting—or, to slide a term over from the visual-art lexicon, his “practice.” These sound worlds and compositional processes could not be further apart; it is a bit like if Willem de Kooning were to be seen as “performing” Gustav Klimt, except in music the original score remains intact, and the creative act is located in the complex performative process of interpretation.
A slightly more familiar point of contact between discourses of visual culture and music may be Deleuze and Guattari’s interpretation of Boulez’s 1960 concept of “smooth [lisse] or amorphous time and the proportional system to pulsating, or striated, time,” in A Thousand Plateaus (1980 in French and 1987 in English). Rereading this passage now, with the added emphasis that certain figures and concepts gain in mourning, it occurred to me that it is impossible to fully understand this concept—or gauge its plethora of politicized misreadings—without understanding some basic elements of musical performance and composition. Deleuze and Guattari write, for example, that “Boulez says that in a smooth space-time one occupies without counting, whereas in a striated space-time one counts in order to occupy.” Yet one of Boulez’s most significant contributions as a conductor-composer is precisely the tension he creates between “counting” and “without counting.” Counting here refers to the process by which the musician internally counts (or forgoes counting) the beat while playing, conducting, or even composing a piece of music. One of the most basic yet always difficult aspects of interpreting a score is to know when to count and when to stop counting in order to generate the right combination of sensations, affects, and pulses in what is being performed. (In fact, there are moments in performance when one is able to stop consciously feeling the beat, even when its pulse continues to drive a forward momentum, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to an understanding of “smooth space-time.”)
Boulez famously abandoned the conductor’s signature baton (which has its origins in a long staff that was literally pounded on the ground to beat out the time for the seventeenth-century orchestra); he once asserted that he had “ten batons” while glimmering his fingers in front of his face. And what these ten “batons” can do: They articulate a vast range of nuance, from bending his fingers in various directions, to cupping his hand to carve out articulations of orchestral layers, to flicking a finger with one hand to indicate a cue that does not fall within the exact temporality of what the other hand is conducting. In many ways, the hands and body (sans baton) before the orchestra create a form of nonverbal communication between bodies and instruments that approaches zones related to another of Deleuze and Guattari's familiar notions: “becoming-molecular.” Watch this clip of Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic after the recent death of its most televised and glamorous music director (Leonard Bernstein) in the early 1990s.
It is the most next-level account of Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) ever documented. Here we can see what has become, on the level of performance, of Boulez’s famous insistence that “time cannot be only smooth or only striated.” This is conducting and orchestral performance at its most glorious rhythmic flexibility. By the end of La Mer, as Boulez pushes the orchestra to technical and temporal limits, as the shifting shape of his hands and motion of his arms and the timbres and rhythms and musical images the orchestra produces fully froth, we arrive at something like—to translate it into visual terms—the current scientific image of deep-sea thermal vents where mineral-rich fluids and foams incite the evolution of protocells.
Ken Okiishi is an artist based in New York.
Richard Smith, 1975. Photo: Rowland Scherman. Courtesy of The Rowland Scherman Project.
WHEN RICHARD SMITH, the British painter who spent much of his life in the United States, passed away in Patchogue, Long Island, on April 15 at the age of eighty-four, he was less well known than when he first came to New York, on a Harkness Fellowship in 1959. He had every opportunity to grab the brass ring on the merry-go-round of contemporary art, but for reasons no one really understands, he chose not to, preferring to virtually disappear from the stage where he had once been a shining star. When he was young, he knew all the celebrities in swinging London as well as all the Pop and Minimalist artists in New York, where Dick Bellamy gave him one of the first solo shows launching the Green Gallery, ground zero of the 1960s avant-garde.
Originally, Smith engaged with the new culture of commodity packaging and advertising; he experimented with film and extended his paintings into the space of the room to such a degree that the stretched canvases almost became sculptures as they slid from the wall to the floor. As an artist, he had the best training in the classical manner, but he rejected the stodginess of the past. In a letter to his tutor at the Royal College of Art he wrote, “To your generation the 30s meant the Spanish civil war; to us it means Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” Astaire he certainly appeared to be: nimble and quick, amiable and charming. He wanted to look at ease, but there was always some nervousness and tension behind the relaxed facade.
Smith had everything going for him. He could draw, he could paint, and he was highly literate although never pretentious. He was a member of the generation that succeeded Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. It was a generation whose great achievements have been virtually obliterated by the fame of the YBA—the Young British Artists launched by public-relations magnate Charles Saatchi and “Sensation” curator Sir Norman Rosenthal. Smith was one of the OBA—Old British Artists—who were schooled at the Royal Academy and were born painters. (Smith told me that his appreciation of graphic art came from the fact that his father was a printer for the British Parliament.) Some were representational artists such as David Hockney, Malcolm Morley, and Derek Boshier. Others, such as Howard Hodgkin and John Walker, remained faithful to abstract art.
In the early years they stuck together, leaving London for the country and then for the US. In recent years, first Hockney and then Hodgkin achieved a prominence that the others, including Smith, did not. I think the OBA will far outlive the YBA in terms of art history because they were connected to it, and tried to stretch tradition and push it forward, as opposed to simply thumbing their collective nose at convention.
Richard Smith, Mask, 1983, oil on canvas, 96 x 96". All artwork images courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.
In the beginning, Smith worked on stretched canvas, first flat and then projecting into high relief, implying they might jump off the wall to become three-dimensional sculpture like the work of his friend Frank Stella. However, Smith always identified himself first and foremost as a painter, a creator of images, not objects. By the ’70s, he gave up three-dimensional shaped paintings in favor of unstretched canvases suspended from rods and interrupted by cords and threads hanging off and passing through them. He called these “Kites” because they resembled the form and buoyancy of the kites he flew with his young family. Gravity now became a key component in his work. He continued to make the “Kite” paintings throughout the ’80s, often multilayered, superimposed diagonals that made pictorial planes literal. In the next decade, he also painted more conventional works that married a highly individual color sense with geometric structure that was, however, not hard edged in the sense of Constructivism but, rather, soft and painterly.
Smith was originally grouped with the Pop artists because of his enthusiasm for film and popular culture, but he was unquestionably an abstract artist, who combined painterliness and visible brushstrokes with bold imagery, brash, clashing colors, and a new large scale that was distinctively American. This duality meant that in a sense he was a man without a country, living between identities. Indeed, it seemed he preferred the spaces in between styles and nationalities. Smith, like Hockney, was a Brit the Yanks could love. The artists went back and forth across the Atlantic, exhibiting in New York and in London with the eccentric and inimitable John Kasmin, who also showed the leading American painters of the ’60s. For someone who appeared very conventional, Smith managed to move around a great deal, switching galleries, studios, and even continents, so that both he and his art remained elusive. He was one of five artists who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1966; the following year, he won the Grand Prize at the Ninth Săo Paulo Bienal and exhibited in museums in Europe and North and South America throughout the ’70s. Always a huge fan of Smith’s paintings, I was delighted to write the catalogue for his 1975 Tate Gallery retrospective, “Seven Exhibitions, 1961–75.” Each of these shows was like a chapter that opened and closed on a series of paintings dealing with a set of pictorial problems in a truly original fashion.
At thirty-four, Richard Smith was world famous. Instead of resting on his laurels, however, he called the Tate show a “kind of kiss of death” and left London for New York in 1978, which turned out to be a fatal career move. He lived in various places in the US and became known as a public artist who created installations for airports and Michael Chow’s trendy restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and London. These decorative installations further confused his reputation as an artist.
When writing the Tate catalogue, I visited Dick and his American wife Betsy in East Tytherton, a small village in Wiltshire near the great megalithic complexes of Stonehenge and Avebury. Being in the country gave him more time to experiment. His palette changed to more muted colors, and his way of working changed as well. He invented new forms that were light and buoyant that he could move himself. In these radically reduced paintings, he removed the canvas entirely from conventional wooden stretchers and began to emphasize the literal quality of the canvas support as a piece of cloth, thus undercutting any residual illusionism.
For reasons of personality or psychology, Smith was an insider who chose to remain an outsider. He was clearly having a dialogue with Color Field painting and with the literalism of specific objects and Minimalism, but his activity was always distanced from any group or movement or critic. He acknowledged, without buying into, the graphic immediacy of Pop art or the insistence on explicit flatness as the sine qua non of high-modernist painting that required effacing brushwork as optically distracting.
Richard Smith, Round Flight, c. 1985, acrylic on canvas, 10' x 95". All artwork images courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.
The unstretched “Kite” paintings are surface and surface alone. They assume their orientation as a result of gravity. Thread, string, ropes, or tapes articulate the thinly painted canvas ground, acting as a kind of literal drawing. Fragility is part of the content, a characteristic Smith shares with the delicate constructions of Richard Tuttle, or the wax surfaces of Jasper Johns or a younger artist such as Martin Kline.
There are as many contradictions in Smith’s works as there were in his personality. For example, he adopted the diagonal as opposed to the square as orientation in hanging his “Kite” paintings, which is more radical perhaps than it sounds, going back to the early Russian and Dutch avant-garde. The fundamentally geometric organization of forms characteristic of Smith’s work references Constructivism, but the tough structure is contradicted by Smith’s often pastel landscape palette and lyrical brushwork. However, it is precisely the tension of contradictions that keeps his work consistently alive and interesting. The “Kite” paintings defy the conventions of the rectangle. They are torqued and twisted in real space, rarely resting comfortably against the wall. The aluminum bars on which the canvas is stretched as well as the strings read as literal things at the same time as they function as linear drawing.
The unwillingness to trash history and decorum is part of Smith’s style. No matter how experimental, his works came out of the painting tradition and pushed it in new directions. Ironically, this is the direction that many young artists, sick of the macho rhetoric of heroism and gigantism, are exploring today in their rediscovery of the work of the French group Supports/Surfaces. And Smith’s “Kite” paintings have much in common with those painters who detached the canvas from its support in the late ’60s and ’70s. Smith’s deconstruction of the elements that constitute the conventions of easel painting was, however, more sophisticated and ambitious in its stubborn commitment to color contrast, light, and surface articulation as well as its redefinition of drawing.
The English are best known for their immense literary achievements rather than for their signal contributions to the history of painting. But when an exceptional British artist looks back to Constable and Turner, incorporating their technical skills and capacity to create texture and radiance in a thoroughly modern revision, then the result can be a Howard Hodgkin, a David Hockney, or a Richard Smith. Within this charmed circle, Smith was unique in his ability not only to revive and maintain tradition, but also to push painting forward to the point that it could stand with the most progressive, radical, and inventive art of its time.
Barbara Rose is a critic and curator based in New York and Madrid. Her exhibition “Painting After Postmodernism: Belgium-USA” opens September 14 in Brussels at the Vanderborgh and the Underground Cinema Gallery.