Mostly I thought of Barney Rosset in terms of his history as the greatest publisher of literature in the twentieth century and as a personal friend. Of course, I knew there were other great publishers – ones that I admired, such as James McLaughlin of New Directions – but Barney’s books I picked off the shelf in my college bookstore, during the late 1960s and early ’70s, based on the name of his publishing house, Grove Press, many times even before I knew who the authors were. I learned to do that with New Directions, as well. Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Marguerite Duras, William Burroughs, an anthology of Chinese poetry, and one of American poetry, edited by Donald M. Allen, which covered basically the post-War years, from 1945 to 1960, and which truly opened my eyes. This was at a time when the whole world, or America, at least, seemed to be exploding with still another war, Vietnam, one that was irreversibly dividing the nation (again, but this time not only along racial but also ideological lines), a world that was changing with what seemed like a ceaseless onslaught of revolutions, one more radical than the next. Attitudes toward sex, drugs, civil and women’s rights, and literature were evolving faster than the fashions of the time – indeed, they were, counterintuitively, the ‘serious’ new fashions of the day. And Barney had played a seminal role, fighting and winning case after case against censorship and violations of the First Amendment Act of the Constitution in America. Not that I knew very much about him at the time. But I never would have guessed that we would one day meet and become such good friends.
Joy Glass and I were supposed to get together with Barney and Astrid on February 21, 2012. But a few days earlier Astrid called to tell us that they had finally scheduled a much-awaited heart procedure, and that we would have to postpone. He had been struggling for the last few years with vertigo (for which there is no known cure), and the organ that had served him best for so long – his heart – which had brought him to love in so many forms – five marriages, including the one to Astrid, which had lasted the longest, some 25 years, and more great literature than you could shake a stick at (and many tried) – had begun to fail him. A faulty heart valve had been preventing oxygen from getting to his brain, causing, among other side effects, sporadic memory-loss. Even through all of this, he remained lucid, and, as always, acutely aware of the political and cultural world surrounding him. Not yet ninety years old, he never gave up hope for the world he saw crumbling all around him – in the media, in the newspapers he poured over, and during his travels. Although he was no longer the publisher of Grove, which he sold in 1986, he continued to lead the same kind of dynamic intellectual and political life he had always led, even during the last two decades, which is when we got to know him.
Joy Glass and I met Barney Rosset and Astrid Myers sometime in the winter of 1997, but I remember him through what seemed like an endless chain of projects. Our very first meeting happened at a dinner party at Abby and B.H. Friedman’s apartment on Sutton Place. Joy, who is a private art dealer in late nineteenth and early twentieth century French art and an archivist, had met Abby and B.H. years earlier, in 1988, in East Hampton, where they had a summer home on Georgica Pond. Besides being a fiction writer, B.H. was Jackson Pollock’s original biographer. His Energy Made Visible is still, in my opinion, the best thing written on Pollock’s life. I had met B.H. through the artist Sal Scarpitta, in 1986, and was preparing to publish a book of B.H.’s short stories with Edgewise, a press that I had founded with Joy and Howard B. Johnson in 1995. I had sworn I would never publish again after Out of London Press, a publishing house I had co-founded and edited in the 1970s, but in the 1990s I felt like I was ready to get back into it, and contribute something culturally beyond my own work as a curator and writings as an art critic and a poet.
It was during the taxi ride home – we both lived downtown – that we got to know Barney and Astrid a little bit better, and soon we became close friends. Indeed, to this day, I cannot remember ever going to visit ‘Barney’. It was always ‘Barney and Astrid’, and there were a great many visits.
Not too much time had passed before we learned of Barney’s desire to restart Evergreen Review, which had originally, from 1957 to 1973, not simply reflexively published the avant-garde but had helped, through its visionary choices, to generate it in America, while giving us some idea of the same in Europe. In a word, publishing at Grove, in Barney’s hands, was a form of activism. Grove provided the culture with a context for dissident and subversive voices it might not otherwise have had during an era that slid rather imperceptibly from innocuous, post-World War II, Eisenhower prosperity and so-called ‘innocence’ into the worst kind of political and psychological repression, spawned symptomatically by a member of the United States Senate, Joseph McCarthy, and culminating in a period during which political assassination became the order of the day. It was an extraordinary fifteen year period or so that actually overlapped three decades, not only in temporal terms but also in the radical ones of shifting ideas and attitudes.
In its first and second stages, it was not unlike our own period of corporate greed, led by CEOs and bankers, and politically spearheaded by Bush, Cheney, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, the Tea Party and Rush Limbaugh, the new ‘Joe McCarthy’ and feared nominal leader of the Republican Party. Evergreen, as the ‘populist’ fighting arm of Grove Press was able to kick against the pricks (ultimately epitomized by Nixon), by publishing early on the Beat and New York School of poets, the playwrights of the Theater of the Absurd, experimental novels, and political commentary.
In an era (our own) in which the instruments of political and social control have been reformulated by the not so invisible powers that be, Barney wanted to retool Evergreen so that he could get back into the fray, and this he could do only by accommodating the paradigmatic shift in the world of communications, which had given rise to the ubiquitous and super-momentary world of the Internet and the PC. Which is to say, Barney needed new office equipment and a skeleton staff, besides Astrid, who had always been so helpful to him running Foxrock and Blue Moon Books, the major book publishing enterprises – there were others – that had succeeded Grove in the 1990s.
With this in mind, Joy and I volunteered to put together an art auction and exhibition to relaunch Evergreen Review. The auction took place at the loft of Joe Bianco on Broadway on May 7, 1998, and the exhibition extended to May 22. All works were donated by the artists, and the benefit included William Anastasi, Donald Baechler, Ross Bleckner, Saint Clair Cemin, Sandro Chia, Abraham David Christian, Jeff Koons, Michel Frère, Robert Gober, Peter Halley, Mark Innerst, Jonathan Lasker, Annette Lemieux, Robert Longo, Allan McCollum, Malcolm Morley, Vik Muniz, Peter Nadin, Bill Rice, Sal Scarpitta, Elliot Schwartz, Philip Taaffe, Alessandro Twombly, Not Vital, Meg Webster, and James Welling, among others). The auction was very successful – we managed to raise over $100,000. – and the exhibition was well attended.
Several of the artists made it a point to come to the auction, or to the exhibition later, just to meet Barney, a figure they had always admired from a distance. Among these were Peter Halley who, not only as an artist but as an intellectual, had helped to formulate some of the ideas through which the art world of the 1980s had been perceived, and who might have easily written for the original Evergreen Review had he been part of that generation of writers. The German sculptor and cult figure, Abraham David Christian, also made a visit. And I arranged for Philip Taaffe, who had always viewed Barney as a larger than life figure, to play a few games of pool with him. It was, indeed, difficult not to be in awe of him, not just in the light of his past achievements but in terms of his thriving curiosity, lucid intelligence, overwhelming enthusiasm, and a ceaseless desire to want to act, to get something done, that might make even the smallest difference, politically and culturally.
Because Barney did not know many of the artists from the auction, I invited him to a lecture I was giving at the New York Studio School during the same month of the exhibition, on May 12, 1998. The lecture was entitled “The 80s – A Reality Stranger than Fiction,” and analyzed the work of many of the artists of my generation, who also ‘happened’ to be in the auction. Both he and Astrid attended. A few weeks later, to express his appreciation for the benefit, Barney had a website designed for Edgewise.
After the benefit and exhibition, Joy and I embarked upon a series of separate but related projects. While she worked on the archival documentation of Barney’s photographs of his first wife, Joan Mitchell, many of which were taken in Chicago, Paris, and Brooklyn, New York, and, later, on Joan’s letters to Barney, I worked on an essay about the photographs and letters, and curated an exhibition of the photographs at the James Danziger Gallery, in New York, from October 23 – to November 28, 1998. The show was entitled: Barney & Joan: Barney Rosset’s Photographs of Joan Mitchell . The ‘catalogue’ (really a brochure) published several fragments from the study: “He, the photographer of the exhibition, winds up some fifty years later as one of the preeminent publishers in the 20th century. She, the subject of these photographs, became during the same period of time one of our great American painters. Barney Rosset took over Grove Press in 1951 and went on to publish such writers as Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Marguerite Duras, and created landmark cases against censorship in the United States for the right to print such books as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; Joan Mitchell became not only a great painter among her generation of Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, but as a woman had to fight [a male-dominated] system to survive and continue to develop as one of the premiere painters of our times.”
“Both were embattled, and both were romantics. Barney loved books and fought for them. Joan loved painting and believed that without such passion you could not make art.”
“Barney’s photographs of Joan – always direct, always telling, but never sentimental – give us a very personal record and insight into their relationship. His background as a photographer dates back to his enlistment in the infantry in 1944 where he was transferred to the photographic division of the Signal Corps, sent to China, and put in charge of a still photo and motion picture unit. The photographs that he took there, which record both the beauty [of the people] and the misery [of war], still hang on the wall of his loft to this day.”
“Barney once wrote that the two things which interested him most in life were justice and pleasure. The photographs he took in China were uncompromising. The ones of Joan – especially the nudes – penetrate to the very depths of her being, capturing somehow her passion, her sensuality, and her lust for life. Barney’s photographs also bear witness to that knowing, waiting void that was always at the center of her being and which relentlessly threatened the forms that were trying to emerge from the very center of her paintings.”
“Most of the photographs have never been seen, none have ever been exhibited, but they speak from the heart as photographs taken for purely personal reasons so often do and give us a special and intimate view of the immeasurable force of love.”
The exhibition did very well. Bruce Weber bought several photographs, and other artists, painters as well as photographers, in attendance were Jonathan Lasker, Archie Rand, Elliot Schwartz, and the famous John Kennedy photographer, Jacques Lowe, among many others. The full-dress study, “Barney and Joan: Barney Rosset’s Photographs of Joan Mitchell and Joan Mitchell’s Letters to Barney Rosset,” was eventually published in my book, Caravaggio on the Beach: Essays on Art in the 1990s (Tangiers, Morocco: Editions d’Afrique du Nord, 2000).
The documentation of Barney’s photographs of Joan by Joy was presented originally to the James Danziger Gallery in two volumes, under the title Barney Rosset’s Photographs of Joan Mitchell and Environs (1946-54 / 1988). To document all the extant materials, the system she devised, with me, was detailed and comprehensive. It documented “Original Negatives; All Vintage Prints and Later [or Modern] Prints; and All Vintage Contact Sheets and Later [or Modern] Contact Sheets,” in two volumes, Book I (1946-54) and Book II (1988). Joy later transacted the sale of the photographs to the Joan Mitchell Foundation on behalf of Barney during the period of 2008-2009. Corresponding in intimacy to some of Barney’s nude photographs of Joan, taken in Brooklyn, is a letter by Joan to Barney, written to him when she was still in Paris and he had returned to New York, dated July 9, 1948 (the idiosyncratic abbreviations, spellings, punctuation, and grammar are left unaltered): “Christ how I’m missing you – really – at times life at 1 Fulton St seems like a dream – Gluten [our cat – B.R.] – you & the bridge – it doesn’t seem real – like it happened – and anyway you make up your impression of a place starting with the person you lov and building around it[…] Really Barney I don’t feel whole without you, something’s gone and I keep looking up and down streets for it – what have I done – lots & little I guess besides rereading your letters at every other café[…] Sometimes I think something will happen to you and I get frightened – sometimes I think I’ll wake up and find you and feel you – and make eggs & bacon & english muffins – and then I think I’m spoiled but really spoiled and feel guilty – but still the reason for things is gone when I remember that there’s nothing to come home for […] I love you darling – and don’t be depressed like you sound – just finish the thing [Strange Victory] and come quickly and we’ll go swim in a blue sea – & fuck on yellow sand – without your letters I’d go crazy […]”
Almost from the very moment we met Barney and Astrid, Joy began working together with them on the letters Joan had written to Barney. He was unhappy with the original transcription, and asked Joy to continue the process, not only checking them against the original letters and making corrections, but also helping him to insert annotations, thus clarifying the meaning of particular references. She began also researching potential buyers for the letters, trying to establish their value, and ultimately sold the letters, in Barney’s behalf, to the Joan Mitchell Foundation in 2006.
Barney posted subsequently another excerpt from my study, “Barney and Joan: Barney Rosset’s Photographs of Joan Mitchell and Joan Mitchell’s Letters to Barney Rosset,” in Evergreen Review, No. 101 (Winter 1998). He would later devote part of an issue of Evergreen Review to Joan Mitchell, which he entitled “Remembering Joan,” with his photographs of her, in Paris and in Brooklyn, and of the Brooklyn Bridge and writings both by him and me (Evergreen Review, No. 104 [January 2001]).
During this period, beginning sometime in the fall of 1997, I suggested to Ed Howard of the Checkerboard Foundation that he do a video documentary of Barney Rosset. Checkerboard has done films on artists, architects, art historians, photographers, and even poets, among them, Alex Katz, Daniel Libeskind, Ellsworth Kelly, Philip Johnson, Roy Lichtenstein, Vincent Scully and Billy Collins. A film on one of the twentieth century’s greatest publishers seemed like a logical candidate. Ed agreed, and we began the process, which became quite complicated, quite quickly, mostly, I think, because of Barney’s desire to include that part of the world he loved so much, southeast Asia, which is where he wanted us to shoot some of the film. Who could blame him? He wanted to return to a part of the world he loved and idealized as a child, through two of his favorite books, Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow and Man’s Fate by André Malraux, and to a place that he had then subsequently experienced in the war. Although it was not actually China he loved, but Thailand, and it was to Thailand he actually wanted to go. He had been there many times, but, for some reason, this trip, which never took place, became crucial to the film, in his mind, at least.
I think Barney also felt like he wanted to shoot part of the film himself, although he was the subject. I believe this had something to do with revisiting his younger days as a director of the film he had made right after the war, Strange Victory – a film about the racism and hypocrisy experienced by black soldiers in America when they returned from the war. And I think his feeling about the project also had something to do with Barney’s perceived rigidity of the Foundation in its wanting to do the film in a very certain and comprehensive way, rather than in the ad hoc manner in which he wanted to make it. In the later stages, Barney had even reconceptualized the whole project, calling it “Beckett in Thailand.” Not that Ed did not, in his own way, bend over backwards to try to accommodate him, bringing in to the project the four-time Emmy Award winner, Susan Froemke as director, and Albert Maysles, of Grey Gardens notoriety and Maysles Brothers fame, as cinematographer. But the more the project ‘grew’, the more uncomfortable Barney became. Nor, for that matter, was I ever comfortable with the video or film medium as such. Not to mention the fact that I may not have been as dedicated as I should have been to the ‘comprehensive’ assembling of materials. So, I, too, may have contributed to the non-realization of the project.
In any case, besides the long talking head interview I did with Barney at his loft on Fourth Ave. in New York City, which Vincent Katz and Vivien Bittencourt shot over the course of two sessions, at least, we managed to record other materials and events. Perry Henzell, filmmaker and author, participated also in the shoot. He was renowned for The Harder They Come, a film about Jamaica and reggae. Barney had also published his book, Power Game, with Rosset-Morgan Books, another of his many publishing ventures. In the end, however, the video documentary with Barney became so amorphous that we never finished it, and these materials languish to this day in the Checkerboard Foundation archives.
There were other projects that we had conceptualized, and even embarked upon, but never finished. Joy had wanted to do an Edgewise book of vignettes by Barney based on his life and work, stories he would tell over and over again, during the course of many evenings together, about his childhood in Chicago and his parents, about Francis W. Parker School and his childhood sweetheart, Nancy Ashenhurst, and his rival, Haskell Wexler, who later became a famous cinematographer. And there were so many stories about his experiences during the war, and his time in China, as a photographer, in Liuchow and Kiangkoa, and about Joan in Chicago, Joan in Paris, Joan in Brooklyn, and their brief marriage. And, over and over again, about Nancy, whom he never got over. And about the early days of Grove, and Henry Miller, and especially, Samuel Beckett, whom, I believe, of all the authors he published, he favored the most. You don’t name one of your children ‘Beckett’ unless you have some overwhelming feeling not only about the author’s work but also about him personally as a human being. I think his other ‘favorite’ author was Kenzaburo Oe, whose work as a novelist and as a social activist, fighting against nuclear power in Japan, he admired a great deal. And there were the stories about chasing down the diaries of Che Guevara, and some strange, or not so strange, stories about Jean Riopelle, Michael Goldberg, and countless others, and some extremely self-compromising ones about his relationship with Joan in her later years. Barney never minced words or tried to make himself look good or better than he was in any of these stories. He would just tell it the way it was, and you knew he was telling the truth because the story always came out the same with each retelling of it.
But these stories, for whatever reason, were not getting into the autobiography, Subject is Left-Handed, the title Barney gave it based on reading the CIA’s description of him in a report they compiled on him during the war. At one point, Joy tried to record several of these, or to write them down by hand, but they came fast and furious, and the evenings together were much too spontaneous to suddenly break out a tape recorder. So most of them must now remain partial and private memories, fated for oblivion.
One of these stories that Joy retained was about Haiti, and a hotel in Port-au-Prince that Barney loved. He had visited Haiti in 1947-48 and in 1979. He loved Haitian painting and wound up buying quite a few of them. During his first visit, he met Sisson Blanchard and commissioned several paintings by him through Galerie Issa in Port-au-Prince. But there was a painting that he did not buy (technically speaking) – this was during during his second visit – and that was not made by a Haitian artist. Jonathan Routh painted it in 1977, and it is of the Oloffson Hotel, a mansion built in 1896-92 and converted into a hotel in 1935, where such luminaries as Graham Greene and James Jones stayed. Evidently, when he arrived, there was someone who had just stayed in the rooms (the John Gielgud Suite) in which he was about to stay, but they had not paid the hotel bill. Barney offered to pay it if they gave him in return the painting of the hotel that he liked so much and that was hanging in the suite! They agreed, and it has hung in the kitchen, and then in between the two windows in the front part of Barney and Astrid’s loft in Manhattan, for as long as I can remember, right beneath the Blue Moon neon sign.
There was also the chapter about China that I wanted to publish as an Edgewise book, along with some of the photographs Barney took during the war. This was a longer and more comprehensive version than the one that was supposed to appear in the autobiography, and would contain many more photographs. The autobiography is still unpublished and my fear is that it will not appear the way Barney had wanted it, having even gone to a good deal of trouble and expense to get several of the chapters designed in the way he wanted them to appear, these much in the spirit of Dos Passos’ novel U.S.A. Barney’s fear was that too much would be made of his years at Grove and Evergreen and not enough of his early years before. He was so concerned about this that at one point he got up, during one of our visits, went over to a drawer, and handed us a copy of his eight grade paper on China, entitled “Chinese History,” which he had held on to for all these years. He argued, rather cogently, that an edited version of this text might be added as a section to the two we already had, “China: The Forgotten Theater” and “A Nightmare in the Stone Forest.” In any case, an edited version of the chapter on Barney’s years in China during the war – edited by me and approved by Barney – less the section, “Chinese History,” languishes in Edgewise’s archives. While it was scheduled to be published, and, indeed, was listed several times among our forthcoming titles, we never got around to it because of a backlog of books we are constantly trying to find the time to publish.
There was also, again, the matter of Barney’s Haitian paintings. In 1998, Barney decided he wanted to sell them. Despite the well-known artists in his collection – such as Wilson Bigaud, Prefete Duffaut, Odilon Pierre, Maurice St. Vil, and Pauleus Vital – there was simply no real market for them at that time. Joy suggested that he hold on to them. However, she did manage to sell one, for a decent price, to a great filmmaker and collector of Haitian paintings, Jonathan Demme. It was one of the paintings by Sisson Blanchard, which Barney had commissioned in 1947-48. Demme featured it on the postcard/invitation to the double show, Lives in Paint: Haitian Paintings from the Collection of Jonathan Demme, which took place at the Edward Hopper House Art Center and at the Rockland Center for the Arts, in Nyack, New York, from January 30 to February 28, 1999. Joy and I took Barney and Astrid to see the shows. He loved Haitian art, and was especially happy to see his painting included in such a prestigious show.
Barney’s Haitian paintings, along with the assorted objets d’arte – paintings, fabrics and posters – he has collected during his travels around the world, both before and during his time with Astrid, still line the walls and bookshelves of his loft. As do many of the books and issues of the magazine he published with Grove and Evergreen, which somehow brought these authors to life in a way that not even reading them could. And, of course, there is the pool table, front and center, reminding us of the game he loved so much and played with many of his friends. Who could forget the glove he wore, which I think was meant to intimidate more than anything else? And it usually worked, although Joy, who had played a lot of pool growing up in Atlanta, would sometimes give him a run for his money. And all the latest that technology had to offer by way of computers and monitors. He loved all kinds of gadgets. If there was something new in the world, vis-à-vis technology and communications, Barney had to have it. And there was the mural in relief he was still working on, behind the pool table, which depicted in the brightest colors imaginable little villages, cement bunkers, warships, and various war scenes, made of Styrofoam and tin cans he would recycle, carve, tear apart, or restructure in some way, and paint, and then fill with plastic soldiers from World War II and handmade cloth figures holding tiny wooden rifles depicting Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos’ underground revolutionary Mexican fighters. This was another place that Barney loved, Mexico, especially its poorest state, Chiapas, where he would visit his son, Peter, in San Cristóbal de las Casas. These were the constants in a mural that would invariably change from visit to visit – soldiers and revolutionary fighters floating in an unspeakably bright blue ocean or sea that seemed to both separate and connect Barney not only to his past in the war but to those places in Asia that he could no longer visit.
No one whom I have ever known who was in the Second World War has ever really gotten over it. But they are usually conspicuously silent about their experiences, especially if they were considerable, or involved bombing raids over Germany or Japan. Barney was unusual in this regard, given the horrors he witnessed in the war. He spoke about it, relentlessly, and, later, when he no longer could or would not, he painted it, crudely but articulately. Scarpitta was the same way. He never got over it, and never stopped ‘recreating’ his experiences of the war in his work, in whatever sublimated forms art and literature allow, and running through it over and over again in his mind. It is difficult to erase from memory something so profound as that. And, in his later years, Barney not only chose not to erase it, but to paint it in the brightest and most elaborate way possible. I’m not sure there was a whole lot of sublimation going on in Barney’s mural. And should we find any irony amid the circumstance that he left this mural about war and human struggle incomplete? I believe he would have kept changing it over and over again, much as did the rugs on the floors and the furniture in the loft, the walls and bookshelves, which he constantly repainted in different colors, and the pictures and objects he kept moving around. Things were always the same but changing in Barney’s life, but not the other way around. Even in the way he spoke about the past, he never made it seem like it was irrelevant to today, or that it could not happen again, or that it was not happening at this very moment. He was vigilant above all, critical of all things around him, and made us aware of the dangers of forgetting history, even if it came in the subjective form of recounting his particular memories of the past, which were invariably so very interesting.
Although Americans have exaggerated 9/11 beyond any tolerable threshold, it was nonetheless a perfect example of how things stay the same but change, in their form, at least. And Barney knew this so well. The event occasioned my submitting a poem to him about it, which he published in the winter issue (No. 105) of Evergreen, in 2002. It was the first time I had found the nerve to show him something – I think it was the political rhetoric surrounding the event that finally drove me to it – and he published it. This was nearly five years after meeting him. I submitted two other things two years later, in 2004, one poem four years later, in 2008, and three poems about India in 2011, all of which he published. I was always very proud and grateful for these publications, although I was never really sure if he actually liked the writing, although Astrid assured me, in another context, that we would never publish anything unless he did. Of course, it seemed ridiculous, if not redundant and utterly self-indulgent, to ask him directly. I was always tempted to, but never did. However, I was very flattered when he decided to have a book of poetry I had just published in Romania, Eastern Shadows, reviewed in the fall pages of Evergreen in 2010. And when I was falsely accused, by a translator, of plagiarizing the poetry of Henry J.-M. Levet, a French poet who had died in 1906, in relation to the poems I had published on Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand in the pages of Evergreen in 2009, Barney came willingly to my defense. Neither he nor I had heard of the poet before this incident, and when Barney asked me later if I liked Levet’s poetry, I told him that I had just looked them up and thought they, “if not the English translations,” were quite good. We both laughed.
In terms of publishing with Barney, the high point came when I suggested that he post my tribute to the little known Vermont-born East Village painter and actor, Bill Rice. I adored Bill personally, and loved his paintings and his acting. Coincidently enough, some of the best Beckett I had ever witnessed on stage was Bill Rice’s. Among other things, I think he had done a performance of Krapp’s Last Tape. And I had curated a one-person exhibition of Bill’s paintings at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, in December 1995. Barney agreed not only to publish the tribute, but also to feature it in the February-May 2007 issue of Evergreen Review (No. 112). I was thrilled and very moved by the gesture, and felt very appreciative. Exactly a year had passed since Bill had died, and except for a handful of people I knew, there appeared to be no one around who remembered him. Even Barney didn’t know who he was. But it didn’t seem to bother him that very few people knew Bill or his work. So much so that he even featured him on the cover of the issue! But that was Barney, and there was no one like him.
He was always putting himself out on a limb, both figuratively and literally. To this day, I still have inscribed implacably in my brain an image of Barney at the top of an impossibly tall ladder pruning a branch in one of the tallest trees in the yard behind Astrid’s house in East Hampton. It was very early in the morning and I had just been awakened by a noise outside the window. I looked out, and there was Barney, balancing precariously on the last rung of the ladder, leaning forward, as far as possible, holding on to one branch with one profoundly outstretched hand, a branch connected to what seemed to me to be at that moment the tallest tree in the world, while simultaneously attempting to trim another! It was Barney all the way!
First there was Barney’s tribute to Joan Mitchell, “Remembering Joan,” and then mine to Bill, “A Tribute to Bill Rice,” and now, what amounts to a bibliographical reminiscence of our projects with him more than a tribute per se, “Remembering Barney.” But this is how Joy and I knew him, through one project after another. And these were just the ones that involved us. We were not there personally for the Grove Press years, or for the first round of Evergreen. We were there for the digital version of Evergreen – not my favorite format, in general. I am in no way digital. I’m sure it is a generational thing. So, needless to say, it was inspiring to see
Barney always plunging ahead, especially into this new Age of so-called global ‘communication’. Indeed, sometimes I thought the Digital Age might not really be able to keep up with Barney! Marshall McLuhan had nothing on him.
In any case, knowing my love of printed matter and my distaste for things digital, Barney made and gave me a print copy of the tribute issue, “Remembering Joan”. I’m sure there are other projects Joy and I did with Barney and Astrid, but I cannot recall them at the moment. What I am left with is the general sensation of Barney engaged in an endless stream of projects, with us and others. And Astrid was always there, right next to him, keeping the publishing ship of state afloat and balanced. And always with a special touch of gentility and humanity. I cannot imagine what kind of life Barney might have had without her by his side during those last two decades or so. She was as politically alert as he was – having worked in behalf of the Democratic Party and other progressive causes for many years – but added to the mix a gentle and loving nature that I know corresponded to the one Barney nurtured inside, and every so often made profoundly manifest.
While we were not there personally for the great or classical years of Grove and Evergreen, we were there to witness and participate in the most recent years of Barney’s life, when no one could have been more active, more inspired and inspiring, more engaged and productive than him. And because we knew him through so many projects, perhaps it is only appropriate that we remember him also that way. Having been there when we were, I can only say that it was a great privilege and pleasure getting to know him, and we shall miss him and his projects enormously.
New York City, April 2012