BILL BERKSON (1939 2016)
A Jolt and a Gem
Bill was first and last a poet, certainly, but also a great writer on art. He was there at the birth of the short-form review, mostly written by poets, and became an exemplar of that unforgiving form, wherein every word must hold. He knew more about painting than almost anyone I’ve ever known. I especially recommend The Sweet Singer of Modernism and Other Art Writings 1985 – 2003, and his book on Ronnie Bladen.
My personal introduction to Bill came in 1981, when I took his class on the sublime and “Vernacular Poetics,” in the Poetics Program in San Francisco. Later, we became friends. There was no one I would rather go to galleries and museums with than Bill. We argued constantly, about aesthetics and politics, but the arguments were a pleasure, because the stakes were so high.
In an interview I did with Bill in 2006 for the Rail, he said:
“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 can make something and pass it along, across the room, so to speak. You show it. The addressee may be specific or a phantasmagoria.”
For Bill, the addressee was specific and beloved, which made him a superb teacher. The collection of his lectures that Cuneiform published in 2007, Sudden Address, is a jolt and a gem.
In one of his last letters to me, Bill wrote:
“Best we fumble along, ‘irrelevant’ belles-lettrists that we are. […] 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.”
Bill’s struck back with a particular mixture of delight and disdain that I will always associate with him, and that was forged from the art and artists he loved and the social and political conditions of his time. What made him such a compelling voice, and such good company, was that he never gave up on the Social.
ContributorDavid 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.