There is a great new essay up at Fanzine about Ted Berrigan’s little-known art writing by one of my (now former) graduate students, the terrific poet and scholar Nick Sturm. For months, Sturm has been scouring the Berrigan archives, turning up fascinating gems, hilarious pictures, and fugitive publications. He’s now brought together some of the fruits of that labor in the form of this valuable essay, which is the first of a two-part series: a thorough account of the substantial but almost completely overlooked body of art criticism Berrigan wrote in the 1960s for ARTnews.
Sturm begins by noting that both Berrigan’s extensive work in prose and his ample connections to the art world have been largely ignored:
Outside of his peers, the fact that Berrigan wrote much prose–an anthology introduction, serious, parodic essays, book reviews, a novel–is mostly unknown. But the “Ted’s Prose” folder is surprisingly thick, mostly with his writing about art in New York in the mid-1960s for the influential trade magazine ARTnews. What’s immediately clear from reading Berrigan’s art writing is that the New York art world was a scene that Berrigan was completely and happily entangled in. It was work that, threaded with friendships and his own aesthetic self-education, placed him in a direct lineage with the poet-art critics he most admired: John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Frank O’Hara. And while these canonical New York school poets are celebrated for their ekphrastic aesthetics and successful careers as curators and art critics, the more teachable narratives of Berrigan’s life and the “second generation” New York school have not noted his role as an art critic. Reading the critical references to Berrigan, where he often appears as a minor character or footnote, it becomes hard to imagine him as someone who was meaningfully engaged in aesthetic practices with visual artists in a “serious” or even study-able way.
However, as Sturm notes, in the mid-1960s Berrigan followed directly in the footsteps of his heroes, O’Hara, Ashbery, and Schuyler, and began writing reviews for ARTnews. And rather than just occasional dabbling, Berrigan compiled quite a vita as an art writer:
From March 1965 to December 1966, he wrote feature articles on Jane Freilicher, Alice Neel, and Red Grooms, as well as over 100 reviews of shows by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Sol Lewitt, and Hans Hoffman at galleries like Tibor de Nagy, Castelli, and Dwan. Tracking Berrigan through the artists he covered shows a young poet enmeshed in a prismatic, shifting art scene still bearing out the tension between a declining Abstract Expressionism and the burgeoning of Pop Art, the appearance of Minimalism and conceptual forms, as well as the influx of Op Art, Happenings, and a revival of Art Nouveau styles. Couched between Barnett Newman’s article on Abstract Expressionism and David Antin’s article on Warhol, and sitting comfortably alongside contributions from Ashbery and Schuyler, Berrigan’s ARTnewswriting reverberates with an intimate, astute knowledge of contemporary art, its vocabulary, and its critical paradigms, all saturated with the pleasurably bent, candid perceptions that shimmer in all forms of Berrigan’s writing.
Sturm goes on to talk in fascinating detail about some of Berrigan’s longer feature pieces, such as a 1966 article on Alice Neel and a 1965 piece on Jane Freilicher (“Painter to the New York Poets”): he points out that, for Berrigan, “writing about Freilicher was a way of articulating a relationship between painting and poetry that Berrigan saw himself circling around in his own work.”
The essay draws intriguing parallels and connections between Berrigan and the artists he wrote about, and gives us a new way of understanding Berrigan’s own work. As Sturm says: “Uncovering Berrigan’s art writing not only revises our narrative of his early life ‘taking in Art in New York,’ as Alice Notley says, and shows a new link to the poets of the first generation, it also broadens how we can read the poems that surround his work as an art critic, particularly The Sonnets and his great, long poem, ‘Tambourine Life.'”
You can read the whole essay here, and keep an eye out for Part II.