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Art In Conversation

Bill Berkson with David Levi Strauss

David Levis Strauss and Bill Berkson at the Rail. Photo by Tomassio Longhi.

On April 25, poet and critic Bill Berkson came to Rail headquarters in Greenpoint and sat down to discuss his life and work with Rail’s Consulting Editor David Levi Strauss.

David Levi Strauss (Rail): I knew about your work as a poet before 1978, when I arrived in San Francisco at age 25. I know I had Blue Is The Hero by then….

Bill Berkson: Is that when we met, 1978?

Rail: Well, we probably met between 78 and 80, but our first substantive contact came in 1981 when I wrote to invite you to be part of the series of readings and talks that Aaron Shurin and I were putting together at Peter Hartman’s theater at 544 Natoma Street, and you generously wrote back and ended up doing it.

Berkson: That was when I read Jimmy Schuyler and Edwin Denby, doing a talk on contemporary city poetry. That was terrific, thank you for that! [laughter]

Rail: And then I had the good fortune to publish your poems in my literary journal ACTS, in the second issue, and I think I also sat in on a seminar you did at New College on the sublime.

Berkson: And you wrote the most terrific note on the poems then, particularly on one called “The Hoole Book” that had been prompted by reading Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. You did a complete reading of the poem, which I still return to.

Rail: That first letter of mine to you begins “I lived with a painter for three years”—in the past tense, as if it was finished. And now I’ve been living with that same painter (Sterrett Smith) for almost 30 years! [laughter] But our conversations and correspondence continued off and on through the San Francisco years until we moved to New York in 1993, and then it started again about 6 months ago, almost as if one of us had just gone out for a cup of coffee and then suddenly reappeared.

Berkson: That’s the way it goes! [laughter]

Rail: I think everyone knows that you were a New Yorker’s New Yorker for your first 30 years—a second generation New York School poet coming out of the tradition of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Jimmy Schuyler….

Berkson: Well, for the first 30 years of my life, which means the first 10 or 12 years of my writing life—serious writing life.

Rail: And you were hanging out with the painters and sculptors of the New York School and began writing about art at a very early age. And then, in 1970, you moved across the continent to California, to the poets’ town of Bolinas and became, in your own words, an “art world drop-out.”

Berkson: I was an art world drop-out before then, because it was really 1967 or so when I began to feel uncomfortable with, not so much with art or even how the art world was going, but with how art criticism had turned professional in an aggressive and, I thought, egregious way. I was actually scared off because it seemed suddenly that one was required to take up and establish a position, like on a beachhead, and I didn’t have any or think that’s what writing about art should be.

Rail: And hadn’t been until then.

Berkson: Right, I mean there certainly were people like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg who were expert position takers. People in those days spoke of allegiances and allies—the Cedar Bar was sort of like the Malta Conference! I don’t know if even Harold or Clement Greenberg thought of themselves as professional critics. Both were aspiring poets to begin with; Rosenberg had a snappy prose style but Greenberg was a master rhetorician and he certainly did make a profession of being an art critic, and therefore became a model for the professionals who emerged in the 1960s —young art historians, mostly. At that time, circa 1965, because the lively, archive-oriented revisionist art history had not yet begun, there was no more turf left to be occupied in old art—no more to say about Michelangelo et cetera—so the younger art historians invaded the territory of contemporary art, colonized it, and brought with them their fangs-bared killer instinct of the departmental paper chase.

Rail: Do you think other poet-critics from your tradition felt the same way?

Berkson: No. Well, right about that time or a little later, poets like Peter Schjeldahl and Carter Ratcliff and others began as critics and managed to get going perfectly well without acting one bit like the other critics. Carter certainly always has been a loner in the way of continuing as a poet and rigorously maintaining that art criticism is its own oddment, a vital sort of non-profession. One should maintain one’s amateur status by all means necessary.

Rail: In Bob Glück’s interview with you last year, you say that your “desktop models” for art writing, to prime the pump, include Edwin Denby, Whitney Balliett, Baudelaire, and John McPhee. Denby wrote mostly about dance, Balliett wrote about music—jazz, and McPhee writes about everything but art.

Berkson: Balliett can cogently describe sets of live improvised music heard only once, which is quite a feat. Of course, in a true sense, we never see the same picture twice, either. John McPhee is sort of a model journalist, a writer of sentences and a guy who puts together a lot of information which is something I enjoy too, if I get the opportunity, particularly in a longer piece of art writing, or any kind of expository writing, as well as now sometimes in poems. Fact-driven writing, research—connecting often extremely diverse dots. McPhee just happens to do it in a very interesting way. The first book of McPhee’s that I read was Oranges, about the orange-juice industry of Florida. And well, I like orange juice, but I read it because the writing is interesting to read. It’s akin to reading Francis Ponge on soap!

Rail: Ponge on anything! _ Ponge on wasps and spiders! The world of _things. This brings up something that a lot of people don’t often point to in your art writing: the scholarship is always impeccable, and the history is impeccable. I mean I’ve never caught you out, even when you’re writing about Carleton Watkins or something with similar loads of historical and/or technical detail.

Berkson: Love of detail, curiosity about technique and materials and the material life of things, how things people make with particular purposes in mind arrive and figure in the world. My father’s motto at International News Service was “Get It First – But First Get It Right.” I’m as much an editor as I am a writer. In the case of Watkins, I sent the piece to Peter Palmquist, the preeminent historian of California exploration photography and also of Watkins. I never heard back from him, but I figured if I had something wrong, he would have told me. And I did get him on the phone initially to ask a few questions.

Rail: To check your facts.

Berkson: Yeah, this is like McPhee territory. Just really tracking it down. It’s partly by doing this kind of art writing that I discovered the good student that had been hidden in me for all those years, certainly through college or high school where I was distracted and lacked good study habits . I am now a scholar based maybe more in the character of a detective, a gumshoe. I really love to follow leads to their unexpected conclusions—which is really no conclusion, the case turns out to be endless, who did what, where, when, to or with whom….

Rail: You said in the Cal commencement speech [History of Art Department 2002 Commencement Address at the University of California, Berkeley] that you are “nearly crazy about facts.” I guess this goes back to Fairfield Porter’s dictum that “Criticism should tell you what is there.” But I think this also has an ethical dimension to it. You want to add something to the collective conversation, the social, and you want to be useful while being beautiful, right?

Berkson: Yeah. Somebody said that what criticism does, besides telling you what is there, is to continue the conversation. It could even have been Pound, who also set about reminding us that the best criticism is ultimately the next word in whatever specific medium. But the sense that there is a conversation that includes all art forms—and probably that finally is what is called culture.

Rail: And if you’re not contributing to the conversation, what are you doing?

Berkson: Well, it all depends what you call the conversation. If you call the conversation a “discourse,” and you come up against somebody who has a “project” within The Discourse, then that conception of the conversation is quite different probably than yours or mine. If you say, as you did pretty usefully in that Bomb interview by Hakim Bey, “I’m a writer, I don’t have a project” you are quite differently disposed. My project is the Manhattan Project! Excuse me while I drop this thing on your pointed head!” [laughter]

Rail: You’re not a manifesto writer, but the piece that opens your book The Sweet Singer of Modernism, “Critical Reflections,” which was first published in Artforum in 1990, is close to a manifesto or credo. And it ends this way:

An art writer’s self-importance is nonsensical. History shelves all but the few critical pieces that give pleasure and interest as something more than topical position papers. And it recognizes the next work of art as the criticism that matters most. If as a critic I remain relatively unprincipled—an amateur at heart—it’s because I’ve learned that my pleasures come most fully from works that outstrip everyone’s principles, and most especially my own—at which point everyone, even the artist, should feel amateurish, and a bit humble. Criticism should be modest in principle and quick or excessive enough so that everyone can enjoy how hypothetical it is.

I think that one of the things that characterizes and distinguishes your critical writing is its fierce modesty about what a critic—any critic—can do, and even by extension (or perhaps it’s the other way around), what any artist can do to change anything. It’s what you’ve spoken of elsewhere as “our grand inconsequentiality.” Do you think that’s an accurate characterization?

Berkson: The grand inconsequentiality? [laughter]

Rail: This skepticism about art’s agency, certainly criticism’s agency. I think of it as a New York School trait: the New York change-up.

Berkson: Well, probably the best manifestation of the New York School ethos is the one that quite a few people find most telling, and it amounts to a dialectic. It’s quite beautiful. In his recollection of Frank O’Hara in Homage To Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery wrote that he introduced himself to Frank when they were both at Harvard after overhearing O’Hara remark that an opera by Poulenc was greater than Wagner’s Tristan—a remark that was arguably silly but, you know, not dead silly. Instead it was a kind of affirmation. As John said, everyone knew the comparison was off-register but it was important to make it because, and here’s the exact quote: “Art is already serious enough; there is no point in making it seem even more serious by taking it too seriously.” And so blowing off art’s penchant for self-importance at times is actually to the point. The dialectic begins with the sentiment that art is crucial—something important to do and attend to—but the irony involved is both a corrective and sustenance.

Rail: That’s the distinction. The skepticism and limit-awareness doesn’t make the address any less urgent, or less consequential, in fact.

Berkson: But any sense of importance or of seriousness always has to be kept mutable or flexible. There are various scales and pitches. Another remark that is very important to me by O’Hara is about how certain artists will always go for the important utterance, which as O’Hara said, is not only not always available but not always desirable. Just as often, you need the ordinary thing—if only to clear the air, change the topic, or simply because it’s so tremendously actual. I remember being on a panel discussion with a poet who said that when he wrote he always had Rembrandt in mind. I was just aghast and said “You do!???” It seemed to me completely inoperable.

Rail: You wouldn’t write very much, would you, with Rembrandt’s hot breath on your neck all the time?

Berkson: Yeah. That is one model distinctly to be avoided.

Rail: Again, I think there’s an ethical stance when you talk about “the more open-air vicissitudes of art as a variety of social behavior, from which our aesthetic experience should never be thought to be exempt.” But how is this different from taste?

Berkson: Well, there you go. Taste in that way is not fixed. If art is a form of social behavior—and I can’t imagine it being taken as anything else—it exists as a sort of conversation: you make something and pass it along, across the room, so to speak. You show it. The addressee may be specific or a phantasmagoria. For a critic, if you think of it that way, the analogy is of being at a party—you’re likely to meet various people, including people that you’ve met before, your circle of acquaintance, plus some new ones. Your relationship with each may vary from day to day. Someone met for the first time—an artist’s first one-person show—may appear typical of your worst nightmares, or simply of no interest, why bother. Later you find out otherwise—you get it. That multiplicity is true to life. You find it in the vicissitudes of shows, books, the magazines that appear. Why should you expect to have the same opinion, or even a consistent attitude towards anything so elusive as an art work? In the end, all validation stickers expire. When I was in my 20s, I wrote a few reviews that were pretty nasty about certain artists. One I particularly regret was about Roy Lichtenstein, I was just being a wise-ass actually, I look at that now and cringe.

Rail: It was in Arts?

Berkson: It was in Arts. Happily, in those days I occasionally got it right: once about Eva Hesse I was lucky, the first work of hers that I ever saw. Yes, you can make calls like that . . . .

Rail: But you might be wrong . . . .

Berkson: Yes, and you don’t even have to say so later. For instance, Joe Brainard recalled an extended instance in which O’Hara attacked the value of Andy Warhol’s work one night and a couple of days later was heard “defending him with his life,” as Joe said. That’s an ethos I would embrace. That’s my idea of it—some days people piss you off, and others you love them with all your heart, they’ve completely thrilled you—unless they don’t, and that’s not necessarily anybody’s fault, either. And there are fantastic gradations in between. That’s the way it is among people, why shouldn’t it be that way between you and the things people make?

Rail: Rather than staking out a position once and for all and defending it. It’s important that criticism registers the vicissitudes, because it means that you can change, and that you can change even in front of the same work—that the aesthetic is not a fixed relation.

Berkson: But our arguments are supposed to be, if not fixed, at least authoritative. I remember one time, in exactly the right/wrong instance, I wrote a piece on Hans Hofmann and it was written very much sentence by sentence, where you could spot certain contradictions—well, those contradictions went with the territory, because Hofmann is a gloriously contradictory artist, you love and hate him at the same time, you know, it’s love and disgust. But the copy editor said “Don’t you think that you should insert if, but, however, and end up with therefore, to somehow ration out the argument because otherwise you’re undermining your authority.” I said “What authority?” Anyway, this is what Hans Hofmann is, it’s all this ill-fitting conglomerate, visible all at once, and reasoned prose can’t put it in the picture.

Rail: But it can try to account for it, and reflect it, in conversation. In your book, Hofmann is “the sweet singer of modernism.” And in that Cal commencement address, you quote David Antin’s statement that, depending on what you believe modernism was, you get the postmodernism you deserve. What postmodernism do you deserve?

Berkson: Modernism in the incomplete happenstance. [laughter] I don’t know what modernism is, so I don’t know what postmodernism is. I’m a stickler for the dictionary, so for me, and presumably for anyone who can read, postmodernism continues to be an oxymoron. I never knew what it could possibly be, literally. Modernism is a term that I am lately aware of, in a way. I knew modern art, and it seems there’s a tremendous distinction—an opposition, in fact—between modern art and what became identified as modernism—which is usually identified with the wrongheaded Clement Greenberg, so what can it possibly matter? It matters, supposedly, according to some of our very good friends, that Greenberg was the only person who had a system, and therefore a definition. But we knew modern art as an unsystematic adventure in making kinds of things that had pretty much had never been seen before. That you could pretty much make a work of art that nobody had even imagined making. We continue in this two- or three-hundred-year era of “freely conceived art”—a term that Thomas Crow has usefully advanced. The post-patronage era, post-princely era—of art that nobody asked for, that artists to some extent invented for themselves.

Rail: It was unauthorized.

Berkson: Yes, although one bears in mind they were—and still are, like it or not—also playing the market. Playing the market wasn’t invented yesterday in Chelsea or in the 1980s—playing the market means try this, and will they go for this? Playing precedes “strategizing,” one hopes! How anyone determines what will fly is very interesting. Enter this idea of the avant-garde—Baudelaire wasn’t playing the market as a poet, neither was Rimbaud, but what was it that intervened as the market? The sweet smell of succès d’estime? Sense of history? Exaltation? Rimbaud could enter the Parisian poetry scene and say you guys are all full of shit and I’m going to show you how it’s done. And Paris then, and New York now, isn’t the court, but it’s comparably the stage you appear upon. So where did we start? Oh, postmodernism. What became the Tradition of the New was an adventure that eventually, logically proposed that art can be anything. Pollock said, on one hand, this is art if I say it is and on the other hand he turned anxiously to Lee Krasner in the studio to ask “Is this a painting?” fearful that he had gone off the rails. At this point, nobody really cares if it’s art or not, unless there’s nothing else to call it, or unless it’s so wonderful you can’t find any other word to put in the face of it. So much for Negative Capability. We live in the assumption that anything can happen under the rubric of art but it’s not going to be a breakthrough situation. Is it interesting? Does one stay interested? That may have spelled the end of the avant-garde. Certainly, also, because modernism, at least in the museums, had this idea of progression, and now we’re out of progressions. We’re happily out of anybody’s idea of the forced march toward art’s final essence and toward the “right” kind of art. No progress, but destiny. The destiny of the grand conception of art itself—capital “A” art—may be only to wither away; no more, too bad. A single artist has specific destiny. Destiny is like de Kooning saying, I think in the ‘30s or ‘40s, that when he went through the turnstile in the subway, he thought he could hear the bell ring a little louder for him . That’s destiny, you’re carrying something that has been laid on you, you’ve been admitted to a field—like the meadow in Limbo where the circle of ancient poets opens to welcome Dante to the club. Something other than strategizing, positioning yourself for your neat little career.

Rail: What art historians are useful to you?

Berkson: There are those who love the work, who are not doing a “job” on the work, you know? It’s a different thing. T. J. Clark and Anne Wagner, whom we see in Berkeley, are marked exceptions. For one thing, these are people of wide general culture, a rarity in the art scene nowadays. Thomas Crow, too, has a very interesting mind, and certainly his book on Paris in the 18th century is illuminating. William Hood, a professor of art history at Oberlin College, put together a lovely book on Fra Angelico at San Marco. These are art historians who do the digging to find pertinent information; they conceive of pertinence. Contemporary art history is great insofar as it has gone to the archives to find out the circumstances of the work, and you have scholars who aren’t art historians, like John Montias who got into the archives of Delft and found out all kinds of things about Vermeer’s family and his milieu, and James Banker on Piero della Francesca and San Sepolcro. That sort of work really is invaluable, and changes things in the way of a social history.

Rail: Do you feel an affinity or in community with other critics? When I think about it, your precise generation of critics, people born in 1939 and 1940, is quite an extraordinary group: Dave Hickey, Tom McEvilley, you, Peter Schjeldahl’s a couple of years younger. This group is what the academics would call “belletristic” critics, coming out of poetry and fiction. (You closed a recent letter to me “Best we fumble along, ‘irrelevant’ belles-lettristes that we are….”) Do you feel any sense of community with this group?

Berkson: No, regrettably. I mean I think that there was at a certain point, this may be different now, but in the 80s, I became aware that artists weren’t talking with one another or visiting each other’s studios. I remember one artist saying, “I never let other artists into my studio, they’ll steal my ideas!” Then I found out that the New York critics weren’t talking to one another, either, because they were similarly competitive perhaps, or simply had nothing to say to one another, or disagreed and didn’t feel like hashing it out. That indicates a scarcity of intellect at large, I guess. Nobody agrees, they’re all snotty in private but nobody has the nerve to do battle in public. I don’t feel there’s any company of critics to converse with. Poets talk to one another all the time. You’re the only art writer that I talk to, and usually we talk about what’s wrong with art writing from the point of view of people primarily interested in poetry! _ How art writing has gotten the worst name ever—at least between us! Belletrist writing is not taken seriously by the magazines and certainly not by the academic critics. It’s shunted aside, not part of the discourse. Too much about actual experience, sensations, thought as sensation, what’s actually there. Too little about Karl Marx’s nose-and-ear hairs! Nothing you can lug to class and teach the little tykes who need a structured universe of clear—e.g. wrong—ideas. Like that little book by James Elkins, _What Happened to Art Criticism? It’s nonsense to say that criticism fails in being beautifully descriptive and insufficiently opinionated.

Rail: That it needs to be more judgmental.

Berkson: Yes, more judgmental. Do we have more responsibility to call these shots? Is too much slipping by us? It doesn’t slip by for long. Time sorts things out pretty well. True, many wonderful artists get lost in the shuffle. I don’t think that museological history has served the twentieth century very well. When you see what has survived as the canon, it’s regrettable that the official sense of importance is too often gauged by whether something changed the history of art instead of whether the work—and this is the same thing in poetry—is, let’s say, extraordinarily, or even ordinarily, pleasurable.

Rail: We don’t agree about everything (our aesthetics are very different), but we agree that one of the best reasons for writing about the things you love is that only things that are cherished survive, in most forms of art. In “De Kooning, with Attitude,” you write about the importance of vulgarity in abstract expressionism. “Strictly speaking,” you write, “’vulgarity’—or call it simply any rude sampling of vernacular energy wafting in from street level—has been a constant sign in Western art of where the action is. It is what everybody knows, as against the cloistered, protectionist assumptions of official taste.” Where is official taste now?

Berkson: When people like you and I were growing up we were immersed in what is often considered low culture, but one cultivated specific habits, tastes, within what was generally available. In high school I began to meet people who hated modern life and the culture that went with it. They wanted to live in the Renaissance; everything had been downhill for them since 1700 or whenever. They wanted no part of our modern vulgarity, whereas I was so deeply immersed in it I came to fine literature quite late. I read comic books and pulp novels if I read anything at all, and whatever was required for book reports, you know, and I watched endless movies, and it’s like what Creeley says in that lovely poem: I did, maybe still do, have “a small boy’s sense of doing good,” and “ride that margin of the lake.” A small boy’s notion is that of a knight on horseback by the sparkling water—in Idylls of the King perhaps, but no, it’s Robert Taylor in love with Elizabeth Taylor in a Technicolor Ivanhoe. To disdain such a homegrown culture would be untrue; instead you develop a taste for what’s great within it, according to what you really know and go for. Even so, alas, our Euro-American culture is pretty degenerate right now, seemingly more so up top where the art is than in the less self-important realms of entertainment. T. S. Eliot said that poetry is a superior form of entertainment; instead of complaining that art is acting like pop entertainment, critics should urge artists to get their acts together and be more apropos.

Rail: And to be more connected, more engaged, more necessary.

Berkson: Yes, but we’re complaining about the state of the art at street level. I mean, there are people who are doing really wonderful, marvelous, necessary work. Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge, Elizabeth Murray, Alex Katz in his very touching landscape paintings, Lee Friedlander. I think that’s true in poetry, too, even more so. Poetry, as all the art people would tell you, is beside the point. No cultural currency, they say, because the attendance figures are so low. Phooey. Poetry strikes back, gloriously beside the point. It does its work and leaches into the general culture, which it seems to have done for the past millennium, practically. Arguably, the art world at large—curators and critics, not to mention a lot of artists—could do worse than to start reading some better poetry, if in fact they read any at all. Most of the literary references I see in catalogues and magazines—aside from those to the latest varieties of high-market, low-protein theory—wallow in the middlebrow range.

Rail: Before we stop, I wanted to ask you about the 500-word short review. This is a form that I’ve spent quite a bit of time in (for Artforum, since 1989), and I consider you one of the best practitioners of this form. In your “Critical Reflections,” you say the 500-word review is “in its compression and flexibility comparable to a sonnet,” and that it is a form that was created by the magazines—I guess created by Art News and Arts?

Berkson: When I worked at Art News the reviews were of variable length. In those days, the 50s and 60s, Art News, under its previous management, reviewed every show in town—well, there were few galleries at that point, and some of those shows got one-line reviews, that’s why Fairfield Porter in his little manifesto about criticism says “Importance is measured by the inch.”

Rail: So when did the 500 word length become established?

Berkson: I don’t know. When I started writing for Artforum in 1985, they told me flat out, “Our reviews are 500 words.” I became intimate with that form. But all the same, I always thought of those blocks—the look on the page of a review in Art News was about a square, was very much the format of a Shakespeare sonnet. That struck me as a good form, your typical review, whether by John Ashbery or Irving Sandler, about two and a half inches in every direction. [laughter]

Rail: At 500 words it’s mostly beginning and ending. There’s little room for development, or argument, it’s all beginning and ending, and trying to reflect the light in between.

Berkson: I like that. I liked the compression of the form very much. When I began writing longer pieces again for Artforum and Art in America and elsewhere, when it was going to be more words, I thought the rest is padding, or else it’s a chance to describe more, which is what I most enjoy. But really, within those 500 words or less, you can pretty much say everything that needs to be said about what’s on view.

Rail: But every word has to be in the right place. It’s actually quite unforgiving.

Berkson: That’s the fun, too, just as in a 14-line sonnet. Every word counts; I try to pack every word with a special wallop. You do work hard to get it right. When I started writing criticism again, and when I was old enough to think about such things, I thought, okay, I know this is going to be tough at the beginning but it will get easier because I will develop a style and become more fluent. [laughter] And it never got any easier. And when it got less and less easy in terms of working with overwrought magazine editors, then it was really no fun, and as a result, I now prefer to write catalogues where the heat is off a little bit in terms of worrying about the general reader or whatever confusion it is that causes all that invasive busywork in editorial offices.

Rail: They think they have to do something, and they reflexively do it to everything, whether it’s needed or not. Too many magazine editors fail to distinguish between different kinds of writing. I’ve stuck with Artforum for so long because they tend to leave it alone, in the reviews section. Consequently, there’s still the possibility of distinctive voices in that section. But the worst is to have to try to incorporate someone else’s imagination of who the reader is. That’s deadly. Like de Kooning said, “It’s a necessary evil to get into the work, and it’s pretty marvelous to be able to get out.”

Berkson: Well, I think that’s true of writing anything, in a way. There’s that beautiful if somewhat spooky account in the New Yorker recently, the profile on John Ashbery that begins and ends with the proposition that John is “supposed to write some poetry today”—this funny off-pitch bugle tunes up in the middle distance—whereupon you learn all that John does to avoid the evil of confronting his blank sheet of paper that day. Usually that’s the case for anyone except when you’re inspired or you see or hear something that argues strongly for an immediate response, and boom, you’re off.

Bill Berkson is a poet, critic and professor of Liberal Arts at the San Francisco Art Institute. Of his several volumes of poetry, recent ones are Fugue State and the Arion Press edition of Gloria, with etchings by Alex Katz. A further collaboration, letters and interviews exchanged with Bernadette Mayer, entitled What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? is forthcoming from Tuumba Press. Born in New York in 1939, Berkson began writing about art in his early twenties, first as an editorial assistant at Art News and then as a regular contributor to Arts. He is currently a corresponding editor for Art in America and a member of the editorial board of Modern Painters. His art writing from 1985 to 2003 has been collected in The Sweet Singer of Modernism , which Dave Hickey called “an indispensable text for anyone interested in late-twentieth-century culture.” He is the Distinguished Mellon Lecturer for 2006 at Skowhegan School of Art.


David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2006

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