Discovering Rick Barton

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Discovering Rick Barton

I am not alone when I say that I had never heard of Rick Barton (1928–1992) before his exhibition, Writing a Chrysanthemum: The Drawings of Rick Barton opened at the Morgan Library & Museum. Kudos to Rachel Federman for curating a show on an unknown artist and diving deep into his work and life. I soon learned that Barton is either omitted from or mentioned in passing in well-known histories of the Bay Area Beat Movement. And yet, marginalized figures who are often recognized by only a few others during their lifetimes are apt, as Walt Whitman declared of himself, to “contain multitudes.” This is true of Barton, who attracted a small group of devoted followers, all committed to drawing as a daily practice. Little is known about Barton, who was part of the heady confluence of artists, poets, musicians, visionaries, crackpots, hipsters, pacifists, anarchists, and petty criminals, many of whom were queer, who gathered in San Francisco shortly after World War II. Although he went to and worked on drawings at the Black Cat Café and Fosters, hangouts for Bay Area artists and poets, he existed on the periphery of that group.

Barton is known at all because of three people who were close to him in San Francisco, where he lived from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s. The first is Henry Evans, who opened the Porpoise Bookshop and started Peregrine Press in San Francisco in the early 1950s. Evans, who became a preeminent botanical printmaker, was Barton’s biggest patron and publisher of his botanical and architectural prints. According to Federman, he had “more than a dozen portfolios of linocuts and a cache of nearly eight hundred drawings and four paintings in his possession,” which he donated to various libraries and collections in California.  

Rick Barton, “Untitled (After Dürer and Hokusai)” (1962), graphite, 8 3/4 × 5 1/2 inches. Rick Barton papers, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles

The second person is David Archer, with whom Barton had close relationship and traveled to Mexico. He wrote about Barton in an unpublished memoir (2002), and spoke with Federman on a number of occasions; Archer offers the most details about Barton’s life. 

The third person is William Anthony, artist and longtime resident at Westbeth, which provided affordable housing to artists in New York. It was Anthony who brought Barton’s work to Federman’s attention when he included some pieces in a gift to the museum. Were it not for these three people, Barton’s work would likely remain preserved but unseen. The phrase, “the stars aligned” seems an appropriate description of this exhibition’s genesis. 

The exhibition, which comprises drawings done between 1958 and 1962, is divided into four themes: Intimate Interiors, Ritual and Architecture, Social Spaces, and Flora and Fauna. Barton drew in pen and ink, filling the page with intricate linear details that often reflect multiple perspectives, particularly in his Intimate Interiors and Social Spaces, which include cafes and jails, where he did time for drug possession. He was queer artist who loved to draw men. His line is wonderfully fluid and his drawings show no hesitation. 

Rick Barton, “Untitled (Inmates reading)” (1959), pen and ink, 10 1/4 × 14 1/2 inches. Rick Barton papers, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles

Barton is essentially a diarist chronicling the highs and lows of his life, his love of classical music, his visits to Mexico and Barcelona, and his feelings of both desire and isolation. Although he was particularly interested in church facades and interiors, he seemed to draw whatever was in front of him wherever he was; it was his way of organizing the interior and exterior chaos of his life. 

In the “Untitled (seated figure in the Black Cat Café)” (September 27, 1960), a woman sitting alone and reading dominates the composition. Although Barton was not especially skilled at drawing faces, her long face holds its own amid the welter of details that compels viewers to keep reorienting themselves, to take note of the shifting perspectives until the drawing becomes apparent as an inventive amalgamation of observation, memory, and imagination. 

Is the seated woman, who occupies the drawing’s right half, also floating? Is she seated next to a jukebox? Everything in the drawing seems to be based on a real object, but I cannot say that I can read all of them, nor does it matter in the end. One simply surrenders to Barton’s assured line, which pulls us through and across the space he has conjured. 

Rick Barton, “Untitled (Seated figure in the Black Cat Café)” (September 27, 1960), pen and ink, 16 3/8 × 10 1/4 inches. Rick Barton papers, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles

Barton’s reconfiguring of space is found in a number of works, which often include his hand holding a brush and drawing. When he depicts himself drawing, he is both outside and inside the work he is making. In “Untitled (Inmates reading)” (1959), he depicts his right hand rising up from the bottom edge, holding an ink pen and, on a rectangular surface, drawing a bare-chested man engrossed in a book. His left hand is visible, holding a cigarette; extending further back are two bare feet. It seems that Barton is lying on his prison bed, drawing his surroundings. The scale shifts from a man lying down to a large face peering in through the bars, to part of a torso glimpsed in the lower right corner. Despite his surroundings, what Barton conveys is the pleasure of drawing the world around him, which here consists of a moment of quiet leisure. 

In his floating figures, kaleidoscopic views, and drawings within drawings Barton evokes a world that defies gravity and feels as if it is about to drift apart. This tightrope between order and chaos — and the thrilling action of looking at a crowd — is beautifully evoked in his accordion-like sketchbooks, which he first obtained when he was in China, having sailed there as a merchant marine in the 1940s. As the writer and artist Etel Adnan recounts in an excerpt in the indispensable catalogue, Barton gave her a sketchbook he had partially filled. This entirely unexpected gift inspired Adnan to create a body of work that exists alongside her paintings and books. 

In her catalogue essay, “Rick Barton’s Infinite Room: An Opening,” Federman suggests that Barton may have seen Andy Warhol’s early line drawings in his self-sponsored exhibition, Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote, at the Hugo Gallery (June-July 1952). One of the most fascinating works that Federman delves into is a pencil drawing, “Untitled (After Dürer and Hokusai)” (1962), in which Barton has drawn an old man by Hokusai in a setting lifted from Dürer’s engraving “The Prodigal Son Amid the Swine” (1494-96). Derived from disparate sources, Barton depicts the old man gazing down at two piglets eating from a round wooden feeder. This detail binds the Asian figure and the western setting, as well as complements Barton’s use of line. It is in works like this that we glimpse Barton’s adventurous spirit and acute visual memory, his particular genius. 

Rick Barton, “Barcelona” (August 28, 1962), pen and ink with graphite, 10 1/4 × 14 1/2 inches. Rick Barton papers, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles

Writing a Chrysanthemum: The Drawings of Rick Barton continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Murray Hill, Manhattan) through September 11. The exhibition was curated by Rachel Federman.

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