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Dale Smith reviews

The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings 1985-2003
by Bill Berkson

Qua Books, 0-9708763-4-3, 266 pp. This piece was first published in First Intensity, Lawrence, Kansas.

This review is 1,700 words
or about 3 printed pages long

Poet as Art Critic

By now it is almost impossible to conceive of the validity of art without the intrusive theoretical apparatuses of art historians and professional critics whose business is to reveal the social contexts for the work of individual artists. But the poet-critic’s relation to that world of social commerce instead offers a phenomenological exchange between viewer and image. The poet, by nature sensitive to language and image, while skeptical of the monetary flow of the art world, looks at painting to see what is fresh in the image and how it manages to apprehend some aspect of the world we live in. “Criticism should tell you what is there,” noted Fairfield Porter. Following up on this insight, Bill Berkson says that the “critic’s job is to respond to what is visually and conceptually there, to continue the conversation that making and looking at art both propose.” Commenting even more fundamentally on his own urges toward art writing, he says, “I’m an esthetic hedonist. I’m ‘in’ art for the sensual and intellectual pleasures I continue to find there, and as far as the practice of criticism goes, I commit to that for the joy of giving my verbal attentions to the things that answer them and usually stay put long enough to allow my views to add up.”

The Sweet Singer of Modernism, Berkson’s masterful gathering of art writings from nearly 20 years of piecemeal publication in Art in America, Artforum and other magazines and retrospective catalogs, observes the relations of inner vision to visible surfaces. His penetrating commentary on many predominantly postwar painters from both coasts (Alex Katz, David Park, Hans Hoffman, Franz Kline, to name a few) establishes a variety of relations to painting. Indeed this book should be considered for its vocabulary of creative vision, to be studied, as one would read a great essayist rather than some field specialist. His generous language and seemingly casual connections are earned with great care for the subjects of his writing, and for the medium, most significantly, of oil on canvas. Easily conversant with art criticism, that body of writing only supports or illumines certain moments in his own remarkably insightful prose. More typically, Berkson draws on the supporting words made by friends and fellow poet-critics like Frank O’Hara, Edwin Denby or James Schuyler. His urbane, secular prose gives articulation to the actuality of paint, penetrating those visible surfaces while remaining careful of the material construction of each image. His seemingly casual but dedicated looking is enviable, and he brings great care to the observation of art and, like any great poet, to the experience of every day.

He received an extraordinary education as a young man, apprenticing himself to poets and painters to learn a language of modern art in the vibrant New York City art world of the 1950s. Learning too at a time before the art world was mismanaged into a professional scene of brokers and critics, Berkson studied the language of painters, how they view their work and talk about it. In this way he finds the contexts of visual expression, showing us the conversations in American art extending from the 1930s into the present.

Writing in an essay on Willem de Kooning, Berkson quotes poet Edwin Denby: “The ’30s, as Denby recalled them, ‘had not only a kind of Biedermeier parochialism, they had also insight in the eternity of a moment of grace.’” This “eternity of a moment of grace” is illuminating, and Berkson is right to apply it to a painter of de Kooning’s visionary stature. There are sudden interruptions in the routine banalities of every day. Suddenly, a leaf, or mantid, unseen before, comes within the field of vision. Another order of phenomena appears, and in the moment of observation, you might look through the thing, changed, in an instant, despite nothing’s outwardly happened. The “eternity of a moment of grace” is experienced inwardly, a subtle recall to a previously undisclosed spiritual orientation. Artists, poets and musicians understand intuitively what this is about. Berkson, by signaling it here, suggests something to us about not only the preoccupations of certain New York painters, but about the interior experience of witnessing visual art, how material surfaces correspond to the partially disclosed figures of individual imagination. There is a desire to see into the complex structure of every day, to, in J.B. Jackson’s words, “eliminate some of the stages between reality and [ourselves].” Painting releases the invisible energy latent in visible things. The “Biedermeier parochialism” Denby mentions may have made such moments of grace collectively relevant. That world of the Depression is as distant now as 19th century Vienna for us, but to know such moments existed more casually in the past informs our ability to read it and internalize its meaning. This is not done to reestablish some nostalgic vision on our world, but to retrieve the potential visual rhetorics available to painters of the past and present.

Berkson’s technical knowledge of visual art is precise, and it informs the phenomenological process of observation with details of the elements artists engage in their pursuit of image. Remarking on the disintegrating paintings of Franz Kline, Berkson writes:

Part of the present glory of Kline’s Painting Number 11, which probably comes from shifts in the saturation of black and white pigments, is its resemblance to a well-aged limestone megalograph. There are no templates for Klines any more than for antique ruins — and given the inherent qualities of light and touch in Kline’s case, there are really less than none.

The sensual details of the material prepare readers for the sudden jolts of clarity of insight. Likewise, a review of the content of a painting by Alex Katz transcends mere description to become a disclosure of the figures of a vibrant, living world:

Katz’s subjects are from life: New Yorkers mostly, friends and family, observed singly or as groups in ordinary social space — a city loft or vacation house or field in Maine where Katz spends summers. As in conventional portraiture, a sitter’s personal expression will be seen to hold sway over the final image. The sitters’ poses are natural but the naturalness of their settings is simulated (that is, the situations themselves are posed), and the colors, light and space usually have an extra measure of formality or idealization or both. There are rooms and landscapes with and without people, and window views and animals. There are few objects aside from clothing and other appurtenances: a glass, a cup, cigarettes, a radio, a free-floating canoe. In Night, a houseplant tilts in front of a painting, and opposite, there’s an empty chair beneath a lamp, rare items that click to the mood.

Such writing succeeds by forcing an illuminating rhetoric of detail and precision over personal ideals or projective intrusions. The arguments are not declarative, nor theoretical. Instead they lie within the extension of the sentence toward its subject, an act of revelation and clarity over simulation and jargon. Beyond the quite magnificent examination of physical objects this writing is, Berkson delivers a prose that should be enviable to anyone writing critically about the world. To say what you see is more often than not quite difficult, particularly if you take into account the rich textures of materiality — the context and medium of painting. The rhetorical patterns in Berkson’s essays of mixing technical observation with cultural and poetic insight make a unique blend of writing that grounds his best feelings of art in the mundane textures of every day.

In “What Piero Knew,” Berkson looks fondly at the Renaissance master Piero della Francesca, asking what it is about the work that continues to attract hordes of tourists to sites across Italy, while at the same time remaining vital and compelling in a postwar epoch of Pollacks and Warhols and Koons.

Piero had virtually no immediate followers. In the Uffizi and elsewhere you can watch the wholesome sensation made explicit in the forty-odd years of his imagemaking career devolving piecemeal in the entertainments and imperious dynamisms of most sixteenth-century Italian art. Its legacy persisted in and out of Italy as an ideal to be grasped (in Giorgione and Brueghel, for instance) spottily, at rare intervals. Stokes gives the clue to an almost surreptitious continuity by locating Piero at the head of a line that, within the confines of European painting, leads next to Vermeer and, after refurbishings by Chardin, takes a sharp hook with Cézanne. This core faculty makes a lineage of orientation to the phenomenal world as visibly positive — the fleeting glimpse nailed down in ineluctable dabs of paint.

In showing relationships among painters, we begin to see Berkson’s passionate understanding of visual conversations among those who remain contemporaneous, to borrow Pound’s phrase. By looking at, for instance, Cézanne’s “induction into the intensified Empyrean of Piero and Vermeer,” he articulates something only reached when attempting to mediate alien objects that have been so internalized they become your own self-evident expressions of truth. Through Piero and Cézanne we find new words for the active substance of their art in Berkson’s sudden apprehension of a contemporaneous visual rhetoric. Again, of Cézanne he writes: “He searched out the contours of intermittence and made them stick. He let the noise of phenomenology into still life.”

“The noise of phenomenology” is Berkson’s phrasing of Jonathan Goldberg’s analogy “for the mystery of the relationship between appearance and spiritual reality … between sight and vision.” For Berkson, disclosure comes through the intermittence of paint and time, visual signs and immanent meanings transmuted in conversation over centuries. The key to the New York art world, say, of the 1950s, would lie in the concomitant attempts by individuals elsewhere in time and geography. But the relationships exist, and the conversations continue, despite threads of it going away only to be picked back up and put to new purposes. Berkson masterfully connects this fundamental process, lying as it does between the physical objects that attract millions of viewers to museums each year, and the individual perception of the intermittent tensions of matter and imagination by those attendant to the conversation.

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