Bill Berkson

Pub date November 5, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

Bill Berkson’s poetry is a tortoise-and-hare countryside — no one’s watching the clock, although it’s lunchtime in early fall. When you read his poems, you say, "They’re doing it for me, I’ll do it for them." His life in art (first as a self-described "kid on the scene of the first New York School," later as a sleeper cell in the New York–Bolinas "axis of poetry evil") could be signified by a freshly minted tarot card: Collaboration. See the new magic of this year’s Bill (Gallery 16 Press, 45 pages, $25), with Colter Jacobsen’s great two-way mirror drawings and Berkson’s fugitive lines spun in juvenile detective silk. Bring your own tightwire.

A teenage crystal hanging by a thread — or as he puts it, a "human blood medallion" — spins through Berkson’s folio. An alphabet of poets and artists from Ashbery to Guston to Waldman to Warsh shows up in his prism, ricocheting light — "a puzzling brightness" open at all points where points leap into the second dimension. "Bands of distracted emotion snap" their fingers to a Hart Crane tune: "I have no system / but there is a motor," Berkson writes in the 1973 Angel Hair collection Recent Visitors, "primitive / American / sophisticate." And yet: "I insist on the poem having its own life, its own existence," he explains over the phone during a recent visit to Los Angeles, where his son Moses Berkson’s photography is on view at Constant Gallery.

What about Berkson’s art writing? His reviews read more like travelogues, with an equivalent claim to autonomy. In 2003’s The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings (Qua Books), he gives form to "the parallel text" through a string of dispatches from inside paintings. The poet’s eye becomes a 360-degree liquid camera unfreezing Franz Kline’s bridge spans: the paint is wet to us. Elsewhere, in reviews and in last year’s Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 2001-2006 (Cuneiform Press, 114 pages, $10), there’s a sweet-tooth accuracy of description — Wayne Thiebaud’s SF Victorians are "each a different pastel tone like those of Necco wafers" — paired with fluent shoptalk. It’s so much fun to be here.

"Functionally, art writing serves as commercial expository prose," Berkson explains. It’s often a portrait of the artist painting portraits of the market, and that’s why Berkson left it behind, mostly, for 15 years. (Artforum buttonholed him for monthly reviews in 1984. "Arrogant as ever," he explains, though at first it’s easy to mistake arrogant for elegant, "I thought I could make a little difference." Later: "I love to describe things — something that stays still…") Yes, for Berkson, "the sentences in a review turn up in a kind of order," but here comes the doozy: "Cracks in the order may show an alertness to, and duplicitous tolerance for, the actual chaos occurring in the mental space between the reviewer and the work."

What’s throwing all that heat called "actual chaos"? The birth of trust? Berkson’s pages are like starlit nights above the suburbs — to their own devices left, eyeing attic windows in Transylvania, they’re at home among "a host of secret, ephemeral, and often unspeakable perceptions." Best of all is their mysterious shimmer, which appears when an older writer gets replaced by a younger experience. A snapshot of Berkson’s out-of-body landscape as seen from the air: rivers of molten brass with tributaries of friendship bridged by action. Wonderful stuff. A great deal of valuable work. Fifty years of slow-dawning epiphany.