2.14 / Helter Skelter

Conversation with Bill Berkson

By Bruno Fazzolari March 22, 2011

Image: Bill Berkson at the Kroller-Muller, Otterloo. Photo: Connie Lewallen.

Since the early 1960s, the poet Bill Berkson has crafted a body of art criticism that balances an acute interest in the direct sensory experience of the work of art with an authoritative consideration of its particular social and historical context. Berkson’s criticism is always a bit more and a bit less than a mere scholarly exegesis; he doesn’t make the common mistake of giving away the game. His essays, reviews, and lectures can be read for the pleasure of reading itself, for their elucidation of historical subtleties, and for the compelling way that the words manifest the art they describe. The nimble prose has some of the same beguiling shimmer as his poetry; while reading, we know that he handles his subject with great specificity, yet his meaning and intentions as a critic hover at the periphery of our awareness. The result is broadening in every sense of the term, leaving us with an expanded sensory and factual appreciation for the subject, while opening up the space for its continued consideration and experience. Whereas most criticism seems intent on buttressing agendas and closing down possible interpretations, Berkson’s is notable for heading in the other direction, towards freedom.

No doubt Berkson’s approach owes something to his practice as a poet and his experience of what happens after a work leaves the creator behind to live in the world. But the trajectory of his life also plays a part. Berkson’s erudition and education are balanced by his streetwise experience and personal connection to artists and communities of artists, the brilliance and diversity of which are a bit staggering. The list is long and well beyond the scope of this introduction, but suffice it to say that he has known, collaborated, and maintained friendships with some of the most significant artists and poets of his time. Whether he’s writing about Alex Katz or Philip Guston, there is a palpable sense of living history. Social harmonies and disagreements are still alive, animating the story, even if only in the background, so that we feel that the plot hasn’t fully unfolded yet, and we don’t know how it all ends.

Abstraction has played a significant role in Berkson’s life, in the work of his friends and collaborators, as well as in his own poetry. Having known Berkson for many years and being an avid fan of his writing, I spoke with him about abstraction in the abstract, so to speak, removed from the context of a single, specific artist. The conversations took many turns and, as expected, Bill never really gave away the game.


Bruno Fazzolari: This is a really hackneyed way to start, but since the word is so overused, I thought we might start with the history and definition of the word “abstract.”

Bill Berkson: Well, literally, etymologically, it’s “drawn away from.” When I first read what Alfred Barr had to say about Cubism, I saw that his use of the word referred to the way in which the imagery in Cubist paintings was abstracted from life. And that was demonstrable. But that notion wouldn’t satisfy anyone looking at [Kazimir] Malevich, even though Malevich may have had certain imagery in mind. One thing he definitely had in mind was to make paintings that didn’t refer to conditions of horizontal-vertical life on earth. In other words, he avoided the horizon line. Malevich and Kandinsky eventually sidestepped that “abstracting” kind of abstraction. Hilla Rebay and Solomon Guggenheim chose the term “non-objective” for this. There are no objects in Malevich’s abstract world.

BF: Here’s the definition of “abstract,” from a run-of-the-mill Webster’s: “thought of apart from any particular instances or material object; not concrete. Not easy to understand; abstruse,” which I thought was interesting. “Theoretical; not practical or applied.” That part about “not practical” comes up a lot in definitions. And then this, which I love: “Designating or of art, abstracted from reality, in which designs or forms may be definite and geometric or fluid and amorphous.” On the one hand, that definition refers to what you were just saying, the way that elements of images may appear, but underlying it is the premise that art can be separate, or abstracted from reality, as though the artwork were in some other dimension, or a mental object, instead of a sensory experience. This kind of thinking also supports the idea that realism is continuous with reality, a correlative that describes reality in it’s own terms—in the way reality “really is.”

The term, non-objective, creates a helpful distinction. I see a lot of work that is non-objective, but hardly abstract. Among Jackson Pollock’s famous quotes is, “Abstract art is abstract, it confronts you.” But so much non-objective work these days is the opposite of that; it’s not confrontational, it’s elegant. It avoids that moment where things become hard to understand, the sort of difficulties that make art compelling.

BB: Well, compelling for you. But the guy who wrote the dictionary is going to say, “That’s very abstract. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or he’s going to say to me, “You know, your poetry is very difficult. It seems very abstract to me.” And that usually registers some degree of displeasure. Recently, an art critic, in a review of the prints Isabelle Sorrell made in response to some of my poems, described my poetry as “enigmatic.” He didn’t say anything more, so it wasn’t clear what he meant critically, but “enigmatic” is on the same path as “abstraction.” Then again, maybe not. Because once you get to the point of, say, Pollock, or Ad Reinhardt, or Agnes Martin, the enigma is sort of a given, so it’s not even mentioned anymore.

BF: Do you think the goal of avoiding any external reference was really what early Abstract artists were after?

BB: Well, for some painters, like those associated with concrete art, where the goal was to make a painting that was absolutely abstract. Ad Reinhardt tried to say that his paintings were absolutely abstract, about nothing but painting—art as art—but then after he died, someone found that his notebooks were filled with religious musings that connected directly to the pictures he made. Now does that change how one sees the paintings? No, because the paintings intimated that spirituality anyway, with or without Reinhardt’s sanctioning it.

Pollock said his art was abstract because Abstract art was the art of his time. And yet Pollock, like [Philip] Guston, was never at ease with abstraction. The closest he got to what could be called pure abstraction—it doesn’t look like spaghetti, instead it typically has some kind of landscape reference—was in the drip paintings. But the drip paintings had an infrastructure, or grounding, in the cartoon-like, archetypal figures that Pollock habitually drew. Lee Krasner told how, in the air with paint from a stick or even pouring it from a can, Pollock would delineate his standard repertory of shapes, his animal or stick figure glyphs. By the time it hit the canvas, the paint carrying that image went splat, and at that juncture what landed may or may not be recognizable. What he said about it was, “I choose to veil the image.” But the image is there, however veiled or blotted—an underpinning. It got him started. It’s important to understand that no one starts “on empty.” A void may be generative, but only because in fact there is something there to begin with.

And then in Guston’s work, for instance the hoods—those images are really very abstract. The hood is not a likeness of anything. It’s a sign, a triangle with two marks that add up to eyes, but elsewhere those same marks are letters in a book or raindrops in the air. That’s a very interesting thread in modern art, and I don’t know of anyone who has traced it. The question being, at what point did we become satisfied with the cartoon or sketch, a caricature or schematic image—where a couple of marks make eyes, and a single dab is good enough for a nose?

BF: You mean in early art?

BB: No, that’s an interesting history, too. But I’m talking about the progression through the nineteenth century where, by the time you get to Gauguin and Van Gogh, and certainly Redon, and the turn of the century, there’s a change in what constitutes an acceptable likeness. A major turn away from Ingres and David.

BF: I think the Japanese influence is huge. There are so many Japanese woodcuts where the figurative descriptions abbreviate anatomy in a way that wasn’t happening in the West.

BB: Well, which came first? The earliest Greek sculptures, the earliest Greek pottery on record—Cycladic and the like— present geometrical designs and very abstract stick figures. Then the culture moves towards realism; in Christianity it becomes a theological dispute. The move away from the gold-leaf heaven of a Byzantine Madonna—the Byzantine or Greek manner, which is where Malevich is—to Giotto’s Madonna sitting in a chair, where her throne has become like a barber’s chair on Earth. That move, which takes her out of the realm of the otherworldly and puts her here with us, almost tangible, is a theological decision. Giotto didn’t make it. That change was happening in the culture and worked out in the councils of the Church.

BF: You’re talking about the degree to which we see ourselves reflected in the art around us, and the terms in which we’re willing to have that reflection set? Whether it’s schematic, like two eyes and a nose, just a couple lines; or whether it’s a square, a black square; or a representation of joy as a grid of glowing yellow bands. It all seems to be a matter of what is culturally acceptable in terms of how we see ourselves reflected.

BB: Except that the Byzantine proposal is that it’s elsewhere. So while you have the reflective quality of the gold, it’s not about seeing yourself reflected. The image is of that which you aspire to, or that which is overseeing the earthly situation. If you walk into San Vitale Ravenna, every image in all that golden mosaic is elsewhere. You see it, but you see it psychologically and theologically from a tremendous distance: it’s in eternity, and you’re not.

BF: If we can circle back towards abstraction a little...

BB: Well, that’s pretty abstract.

BF: True. I just wanted to talk about looking, because that’s such an important part of your art criticism. I’m a big fan of your essay on Pollock because it makes me want to go look at the painting. At the same time, it exemplifies a parallel text where it’s beautiful to read in and of itself. That essay is a powerful celebration of what it is to actually be in front of a painting: the sense of presence—the painting is in our reality, not somewhere else or an image on a screen. It seems to oppose the culture of the JPEG, in which people are in front of the work, but many times, they are essentially viewing an image in their mind and not really seeing it.

BB: Well you have a generally anti-sensual culture right now. Is it because the Puritans won? Or is “information” so processed you don’t even know if there was any original sensation to substantiate it? Who has time or their senses open for nuance? Yet, if you’re in front of a Cézanne or a Pollock, nuance is everything. If you don’t get that, you’re really not getting anything. The only big ideas you can get out of a Pollock have to do with sensual experience. At least, that’s the only aspect that interests me. And the sensual experience is instant, really blink-by-blink. And foothold-by-foothold. If you don’t step in front of the painting, then you are only getting an idea of what it can possibly be. It’s like the idea that you might get what spaghetti tastes like from Rosenquist’s painting of it.

That’s one reason why “abstract” and “real” get conflated in the painter’s mind. Because the painter is saying, I want to make this surface real, a concrete experience of imaginative surface. Whatever else Pollock had in mind, in the end, the paint is real. You can have all kinds of fantasies about getting lost in the lavender mist of it or trying to trudge your way through the thicket that, for an instant, seems the effect of the work. But ultimately, when you really see how the painting is configured, those references don’t add up; there’s no mud under your feet. That painting will keep yanking you back to its material fact, its mud.

BF: I wonder if this is symptomatic of the culture now. That the way we interact with everything is almost entirely conceptual or virtual.

BB: Yes, it’s called “information” of the most flimsy kind; abstract in that sense, no substance to it. It starts in fourth grade: the only thing that students are taught to know from about that point is structure. And structure is all concept. The only way to come up with structure is to conceptualize it. When I was at the San Francisco Art Institute, students who had themselves been processed in this way would ask, “What’s the structure of this course? What are we being graded on? What do I need to pass this course?” That’s structure. In effect, it’s really just about getting on to the next thing. Not even being here. The whole business of paying attention to what’s right in front of you—to the sensual world, to the world of one’s own senses—seems endangered.

BF: Could you talk a bit about the time and speed of looking at paintings? It’s a subject that comes up in your criticism. Critics don’t tend to talk about painting as a time-based medium at all, and yet the time of painting is actually quite complex, with viewing being intermittent as opposed to continuous. I think a lot of this relates to the space in which we encounter paintings. For instance, institutional viewing, in museums and the like, doesn’t really support that kind of intermittent seeing.

BB: Museums actually have a measure for how long the average museum-goer looks at anything on the wall. I forget how many seconds it is. They have it down, almost as a matter of crowd control. So you do feel that tug, and then you’ve got to weigh it—if you’re with another person and you’re seeing “the show,” you’re either moving on, or you can stay for a moment and look at this one thing. The force is something akin to gravity, a third force that pulls you down along the wall to the next thing. Think Blood of a Poet: wouldn’t it be great if you got sucked through the wall! Then there’s the issue of quantity: you can have the whole range, from seven Agnes Martin paintings in a single gallery to seventy in an Agnes Martin retrospective. Are seven three too many? Does seeing seventy of them help or hurt your sense of those paintings? For my part, I only want to see one, like in someone’s home. Sitting here in your studio right now, I can catch those pictures of yours over your shoulder, in a pleasant and leisurely fashion. Recently, I was at a birthday dinner party and on the wall opposite was a completely knockout Joan Mitchell. I had that Joan Mitchell all to myself for the whole dinner.

BF: There’s something deeply decorative about her work; surface with substance, work that doesn’t force an agenda on you, but shows great intelligence. Decorative has become such a bad word, but it’s a very interesting quality to consider in art. I’m not talking about feel-good art, but about pleasure of a certain kind that’s not pandering. You can take it or leave it, and when you really choose to engage with it, the work goes all the way down the line. Robert Ryman is also in that category, where if you choose to engage, the engagement is powerful. But you can also ignore it.

BB: On the other hand, a certain kind of art you keep around because it’s irritating. Hans Hofmann is an example.

BF: What’s interesting about his work is that it’s irritating in such a particular way, and it’s hard to say why. There’s no revolting imagery. You can’t take even those colors seriously.

BB: But in the ones that really work, the colors press on you and are melodramatic in the best German tradition. They are not like Matisse, not modulated or flattened.

BF: His work continues to resist being assimilated into the elegant mid-century modern canon of Abstract painting. 

BB: There are two parallel statements that I love about Hoffman. Joe Brainard said one: “What I like about Hans Hofmann is that he is hard to like.” That’s just perceptual. Then there’s the correlative remark that Clement Greenberg made: “A Hofmann never looks as bad, if it does look bad, as the first time you see it. Ever after it gets better.” One may well ask, does it?

BF: In your criticism, you write about understanding art as a kind of social behavior. Could you talk about that a little?

BB: Well, art is, to begin with, a form of behavior, and like most behavior, at best it’s sociable. I like to think of one aspect of it as being at a party. Let’s say you’re confronting an unfamiliar work, someone’s work, for the first time, analogous to a new person across a crowded—very crowded—room. Maybe you’ve heard, or read, something about her; she looks great over there and even greater close up… or else, no, the close-up is disappointing or there’s a wall text—this person’s voice, say—that spoils everything. But two weeks later, you meet again and see the whole thing differently. That at least is lifelike.

If you bring art back to simple one-to-one, face-to-face behavior, which is to say as if somebody is going to read it or hear it or look at it, is it going to be a slap in the face, épater le bourgeois, cutting edge, or the very coolest in blurred boundaries? We have all those quite telling metaphors for what people do in art, and how what they do is received. Some work, just like some behavior in a social situation, is just disgusting; you wish that person had never said or done that thing. At best, that thing is a let down; at worst, really rank behavior, seriously demeaning for all concerned. Baudelaire said that painting is never anything other than a construction in ethics. Nobody ever stops to ask what he meant by that.

BF: What do you think he meant?

BB: The Salon of 1846 that includes that remark is one of Baudelaire’s most ironic creations, but it’s obvious that any mode of behavior is a construction in ethics. Anything you do with other people at all. The hitch is, it’s impossible for me to believe, as some art students do, that art can be made just for oneself, as if it stopped right there, between you, yourself, and you again.

BF: This dovetails into a critical preoccupation of mine that has to do with art and intentionality; the subtle ways a viewer thinks about whether specific gestures and choices are deliberate, and considers the intentions behind those gestures. It gets critical attention in the context of performance and the like, but it’s equally significant in Abstract and non-objective art, though I’ve seen very few critics engage in that way.

BB: Frank Stella wrote in the 1980s that, when you get down to it, Abstract painting is in its infancy. Which is an interesting way to approach it. If you don’t want to throw it all out, if you’re not against Decorative art, if you don’t really believe painting is dead, that there’s no intellectual discourse in it—if you’re not going there, then you say, well, maybe painting’s arrived at a sort of secular maturity.

BF: Abstraction?

BB: Yes, which is to say, there are no spiritual pretensions for painting anymore, unless, of course you do muster them. It’s certainly not the visual Esperanto Kandinsky dreamed of, not a universal language. It’s not going to take you to heaven; it’s not going to serve the revolution. Albeit, no one can be sure that all those broken vows might not one day be renewed—I mean, it takes only one painter to do that.

BF: So how do you engage with painting?

BB: Pleasure. I was on this critical panel a while back where the order of the evening was to discuss shows that were then on view in New York. Four shows, and one of them was Vincent Fecteau’s at Matthew Marks. One panelist said he found Vince’s sculptures “symptomatic, but not significant.” I said, what if they were not significant at all, but intensely pleasurable? What if you just enjoyed them? What is this rage for significance? Is there such a thing as an insignificant pleasure?

BF: What is significance anyway?

BB: A kind of critical power. If you can’t come up with significance, you’re powerless against art’s wonder. It’s not like the work is armed with meaning, it’s that you as the critic arm yourself with interpretation so that you’re not out of a job.

BF: Is pleasure the antithesis of “serious discourse”?

BB: I’m including intellectual pleasure, a keen sense of it. As Philip Guston would say, “Where is it?”—meaning where is that form in the place it wants to be for this particular instance? At a certain point, Guston says to himself in the midst of the Vietnam War, how preposterous it is to be “adjusting a red to a grey.” So he makes a gesture, something in response to the horrifics of war and dumb politics. I think it was a very generative impulse that he had, but in the end that wasn’t really what happened in the painting. If you look at those paintings, you can feel what was more interesting, the question he posed: “What would it be like to be really evil?” The only answer to that is to find that evil in yourself and project it. Abstractly. Because again, as we were saying, you’ve got a triangle with a couple more or less rectangular strokes inside it, and that’s this hood, right? And that’s all you get.


Bill Berkson is a poet, art critic, editor, and curator who has been active in the art and poetry worlds for five decades. He is the author of eighteen books and pamphlets of poetry, including most recently Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems, Gloria (with etchings by Alex Katz), Goods and Services, and Lady Air, as well as an epistolary collaboration with Bernadette Mayer entitled What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his criticism has appeared there, as well as  in Artforum and other journals. A collection of his essays, The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings, appeared in 2004, Sudden Address: Selected Lectures in 2007, and a new collection of art writings For the Ordinary Artist will appear later this year, as will Not an Exit, a suite of poems with drawings by Léonie Guyer. He was Distinguished Paul Mellon Fellow at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture for 2006 and was awarded the 2008 Goldie for Literature from the Bay Guardian and the 2010 Balcones Prize for Poetry. Berkson taught literature and art history at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1984 to 2008.

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