Bill Berkson, Poet and Art Critic of ’60s Manhattan In-Crowd, Dies at 76

Photo
Bill Berkson in 1971. Credit Gerard Malanga

In the artistic Manhattan of the 1960s, when the small worlds of experimental poetry, film, theater, visual art and dance bled into one another, an animated figure seemed to appear everywhere at once. Bill Berkson, poet and art critic, was the ever-present third man from the left in the group photographs that chronicle the era.

Inevitably, he appeared at gatherings of the poets of the New York School, at the gallery openings of artists like Jasper Johns and Larry Rivers, and at the downtown powwows where argonauts of the avant-garde like Rudy Burckhardt, Merce Cunningham and John Cage breathed the same rarefied air.

Mr. Berkson moved easily in this heady milieu, his striking good looks and i nsatiable appetite for the new affording him instant entree. His friends were legion, an endless roll call of the geniuses, provocateurs and poseurs who gave the decade its distinctive cultural tang.

"I am almost certainly the only person who was at both the Woodstock Music Festival and Truman Capote's Black and White Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966," he wrote in his memoir, "Since When," to be published by Coffee House Press on a date to be announced

In 1960, John Myers, a partner in the Tibor de Nagy gallery, offered to publish Mr. Berkson's poems. When Mr. Berkson pointed out that Mr. Myers had not actually read any, he answered, "It doesn't matter, you're in the air."

Photo
Mr. Berkson, in an undated photograph. In a 2015 interview with PBS, the poet referred to his "sense of scatter." Credit John Suiter

Mr. Berkson died on Thursday in San Francisco. He was 76. The cause was a heart attack, said his stepdaughter, Nina Lewallen Hufford.

William Craig Berkson was born on Aug. 30, 1939, in Manhattan. The family was glamorous. His father, Seymour, was the publisher of The New York Journal-American, a Hearst newspaper. His mother, Eleanor Lambert, was a celebrated fashion publicist, the creator of the International Best Dressed List and New York Fashion Week.

The Berksons' apartment, on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, was the setting for an endless round of cocktail parties populated by celebrity journalists, film stars and fashionistas. Through the front door walked Judy Garland, Cecil Beaton, Janet Gaynor, the swashbuckling journalist Bob Considine and the husband-and-wife radio and television hosts Jinx Falkenburg and Tex McCrary.

"I remember answering the phone to hear the alarming nasal of Louella Parsons — 'Hel-lo, Bil-ly, this is Lou-ella. How are you?" — calling from Hollywood," Mr. Berkson wrote, referring to the movie columnist, in an autobiographical essay for the reference work Contemporary Authors.

He attended the Trinit y School in Manhattan before enrolling in the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he began writing poetry. He graduated in 1957. Under his yearbook photograph appeared the motto: "Plato or comic books, I'm versatile."

After studying briefly at Brown University, he returned to New York. "My plans included transferring to Columbia, but secretly I wanted to experience at first hand the steam-heated life of poetry and some other, seemingly connected fantasies of accelerated living," he wrote in his autobiographical essay.

He enrolled in Kenneth Koch's poetry workshop at the New School for Social Research, where, already under the spell of Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other Beat poets, he found in Frank O'Hara a congenial poetic idiom, vernacular and free.

When Mr. Koch left the New School in 1964, he invited Mr. Berkson to take over the workshop. This onetime student was now teaching up-and-comers like the future art critics Peter Schjeldahl and Carter Ratcliff, the future rock star Patti Smith and the poet Charles North. Later in the decade his voice, with other New York poets, could be heard on Dial-a-Poem, a free telephone service.

In more than 20 volumes of poetry, Mr. Berkson developed a freewheeling, idiosyncratic style that could be, by turns, conversational, epigrammatic, elliptical, whimsical and surreal. In a 2015 interview with PBS, he referred to his "sense of scatter."

His poem "Signature Song" begins in relaxed, prosey fashion:

Bunny Berigan first recorded "I
Can't Get Started"

with a small group that
included Joe Bushkin, Cozy Cole

and Artie Shaw in 1936.

His 1998 poem "Last Words" is a list of exit lines, ending with "Shut the door on your way out" and "You want I should call you a cab?"

"October," one of his earliest poems, shows a keen observational side:

It's odd to have a separate
month. It

escapes the year, it is not only
cold, it is warm

and loving like a death grip on
a willing knee
.

After the Tibor de Nagy gallery published "Saturday Night: Poems, 1960-61," Mr. Berkson went on to produce more than 20 poetry collections, several of them collaborative projects with artists he knew well, notably Philip Guston, Alex Katz and Norman Bluhm. His most recent poetry collection was "Expect Delays" (2014).

In 1960, after dropping out of Columbia, Mr. Berkson began working as an editorial associate at Art News magazine. This was the beginning of a long career as an art critic and curator. In New York, he contributed frequently to Art News and Arts, and after moving to the Bay Area in 1970, he wrote for Artforum, Modern Painters, Aperture and other publications. He was also a corresponding editor for Art in America.

In 1975, he married the artist Lynne O'Hare. The marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his stepdaughter, Nina, he is survived by his wife, Constance Lewallen; a son, Moses; a daughter Siobhan O'Hare Mora Lopez; a stepson, Jonathan Lewallen; and six grandchildren.

In California, Mr. Berkson edited and published a series of poetry books and magazines under the Big Sky imprint. After teaching a graduate seminar in art criticism at the California College of Arts and Crafts, he joined the staff of the San Francisco Art Institute in 1984, organizing public lectures and teaching art history and literature. He was the institute's director of letters and science. He retired in 2008.

In 2009, a half-century's worth of his work was collected in "Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems."

"I used to worry about not having a signature style or central subject matter or a fixed character of poetry, and at some point the worry ceased," he told PBS. "I gave myself permission to do what I've been doing all along without worrying about it."

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