Bill Berkson, who died of a heart attack last Thursday, had only recently begun posting at First of the Month. But he already felt like part of First’s virtual family. He got close to my real family too. After my mother died this spring, I sent a poem my brother had written for her (and us) to Bill. He dug it—”your brother,” he wrote, “knows what he’s doing.” But he pointed to one line that seemed out of place. I wasn’t sure my brother would be up for changing his last words on my mom. But Bill’s sweet clarity proved to be undeniable. “Trust me on this,” he said. And, of course, my brother did.
I’ve trusted Bill’s taste ever since I read this passage in an interview (posted here):
The Rothko now at SFMoMA was six million dollars, it’s the non-identical twin to the picture in Berkeley. Before it arrived, I asked a dealer friend, what about this Rothko we’re getting? “Well it’s a museum quality Rothko,” he said. And I thought, “Museum quality—what is that?” It’s like the FDA—the art has an institutional stamp of approval, it’s certifiably a Rothko, albeit of a certain size, period and provenance, and as a painting it’s OK. Sometime after it arrived, I went and sat with it for an hour. I got up and looked closely at how it was made. That is how the sublimity of a Rothko often gets to you—you look at how the thing is painted and while you’re inspecting the brushstrokes and the weave, the hairs on the back of your neck begin to tingle. Before I left, I addressed this work as if to say, “You are a very well-painted picture, but I do not love you.” There’s a difference; the one in Berkeley has the edge.
He went on to muse about how collections in American museums now consist mainly of “examples.” Like the one in the SFMoMA:
It’s just a fucking “Rothko.”
A line that was poetry to me!
There’s a passage from another interview with Bill that’s been floating around the internet in the aftermath of his death:
Art is not just a social proposition but an ethical proposition that involves ethical choices, therefore the proper response to the work of art—whether it’s any good or not, or whether you like it—has to do with whether you think it is right or not. It’s really weird to me that my saying so gets blank stares, or rings up censorial to some people, as though you were going to put the art in jail—no, nor do I put someone in jail because they behaved badly at a party. You just say, fuck that, I think I’ll go talk to somebody else. The upside is: Great, tell me more! That’s marvelous! Or, nobody ever said that before, in that way!
I only met Bill once, but we got on fast. We not only had odd faves in common—Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs, The Lawrenceville Stories, Ella Sings Gershwin (with Ellis Larkins on piano, no strings!)—but I shared his faith art/culture could be better or worse.
In my last exchange with Bill, I worried about the fate of the Golden State Warriors (who then seemed to be on the verge of being knocked out of the NBA playoffs by Oklahoma City). Bill responded: “Please don’t count our Warriors out! Tonight . . . on the edge of our seats.” The Warriors play a beautiful game. Rooting for them is a serious hoot—an ethical proposition and light stuff.
We’re not far gone from the day Billy died, but I bet he’d give us dispensation to be happy if the Golden boys win it all this weekend. Per the opening passage of “Lorelei” (in Bill’s collected poems, Portrait and Dream):
“One of the worst sins Dante could think of was to sulk in the sunlight. Those who did he assigned the eternal punishment of wallowing in mud.”
Bill will always belong in the highlands of delight.