The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2016

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JUL-AUG 2016 Issue

BILL BERKSON (1939 – 2016)
All Good Things Must Come to an End

As those who know me are well aware, I have an insatiable appetite for books. Strange for someone who is dyslexic, perhaps, but not at all so for someone who overcame that handicap by working in a bookshop mopping floors and washing windows and, when not on the clock, perusing the merchandise until such time as he could (with the help of the owners, two women who provided him a home away from home when he desperately needed one) actually break its codes and read into what lay hidden beneath their puzzling, often lurid paperback covers. My first hint at what avant-garde literature might offer came from the fantasies prompted by the designs Edward Gorey made for Doubleday Anchor books and those that Ray Johnson and Andy Warhol created for New Directions. 

Bill Berkson and Philip Guston at Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, January 1979. Courtesy of Bill Berkson.

Philip Guston and Bill Berkson Collaboration, “Negative” (1973).

Consequently I do judge books by their covers, but am careful to own multiple editions of many because the different packaging reminds me that within are to be found different books depending on how one enters into them and who one is or has become at the time. Naturally, mine is an expensive addiction, and I am correspondingly grateful for freebies and mysterious mailings, which I welcome like surprise drop-ins by friends or potential friends. Because, for me—postmodernist dicta aside—books are people. Or, at any rate, the embodiment of people, containing their voices and their vices. As to the latter, whatever its failings a book can usually be counted on; few are as disloyal or treacherous as people and some declare a speculative love for the reader that is seldom matched by the actual embrace of other beings.

So what has this to do with Bill Berkson? Just this: Bill wrote out of his love for the world—in most instances the world as it was captured in painting and poetry—and he wrote for readers like me, who relish the intimate company of intelligent, articulate sensibilities on the lookout for fresh experience and good company. Readers undeterrably hopeful of finding a friend who is equally avid for the things that make life livable, a friend with news about the whatever they’ve just noticed and thought. Such avidity was the constant of his prose and poetry. The message—insofar as Bill had one; in his cohort writers chastened by the excesses of their immediate predecessors generally eschewed big statements—was “Hey! Check this out! Isn’t it amazing?”

Eventually our shared interests resulted in a correspondence—Bill was a fantastic letter-writer, as many lucky recipients of his penned missives and digital messages, can attest, along with readers of his published exchanges—and then fairly regular meetings in New York and San Francisco and elsewhere on the art circuit. The key figures in connection with whom we bonded were Philip Guston and Alex Katz, followed by an old friend of mine, Bruce Nauman, after Bill’s wife Constance Lewallen organized a Nauman exhibition and invited me to contribute to the catalogue.

During the last decade of his life Bill’s health issues made each meeting seem precious, causing one to wonder if his poetry reading just attended at Spoonbill & Sugartown or a dinner in a Mediterranean restaurant around the corner from Manhattan flat where he and Connie perched periodically might be the last, though thanks to his astonishing vitality and stoic grace none of these occasions was the least bit lugubrious. And, as was from time to time his habit, Bill sent packages containing new a warmly dedicated book. He did so again just a couple of weeks ago. I set it aside unopened when it arrived because I was in the throes of completing several projects and on the eve of a trip to Europe and wanted to savor the pleasure of opening it, sampling it and then placing it on the particular table in my loft where I could have it at hand to read thoroughly before adding it to my library for future re-reading. Now I am painfully aware that that book will constitute our final meeting, and I hesitate to open it up. But I will, knowing that as one of the few reliably upbeat presences in the art world—one of the few people-as-books or books-as-people I could always count on—Bill, with his distinctive voice and inimitable, true believer’s enthusiasm will cheer me up.


Robert Storr

ROBERT STORR is an artist, critic, and curator.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2016

All Issues