The Morgan Library and Museum
From June 10 to September 11, 2022
Rick Barton’s life is reminiscent of those found in the pages of urban storytellers like Damon Runyon and Studs Terkel. A folio of prints by an impoverished stranger are donated to a museum, an intrepid curator searching for the tenuous threads of his life discovers other forgotten donated drawings in other institutions’ storehouses: the artist receives a stellar museum exhibit and is saved from obscurity. Barton’s drawings are windows into his modest bedrooms, prison cells, religious shrines and the gay clubs of San Francisco. His work chronicles a time when gay men flocked to San Francisco, but he was not part of the famous gay scene around the King Ubu Gallery founded by Jess Collins and Harry Jacobus with Robert Duncan, and he was not known to other San Francisco artists like Wallace Berman and Bruce Conner. His relative anonymity makes him even more fascinating. Barton’s lack of careerism is refreshing in our time of desperate strategies for self-promotion, self-glorification, and the art world. The viewer gazes transfixed into the private world that Barton recorded with his incessant, diaristic drawings.
Many of his drawings like Untitled [Disarticulated draftsman] (May 11, 1960) begin with Barton the cartoonist. In the drawings, we often see his hands on the paper, a notepad resting on his lap, and his feet sticking out like foremen. His own words give us a clue as to his process. Barton briefly ran a gay bar called The Last Resort, where he installed Bach fugues on the jukebox. There, as art teacher he gave lessons in Chinese line drawing to the Hell’s Angels, declaring: “you enter the DRAPERIE through STILL LIFE! You enter the FIGURE through the DRAPERY! » In drawings like Untitled [Bedroom concert] (1960), Rick Barton’s Chinese Line (1960), and Untitled [Bed with reclining figure and musicians] (1962), we see Barton on his bed surrounded by imaginary musicians filling his shabby room. His solitary life opens with a symphony of lines, filling pages teeming with figures, they have a kind of musicality and dance over the pages.
Among the few references to Rick Barton that can be found, the most touching is that of Etel Adnan “Unfolding an artist’s book.” Barton gave Adnan her first folding book, and she describes it as a “mystical transfer”. She depicts him as a fixture in San Francisco cafes sitting at tables drawing incessantly. He had picked up the folded books, the inkpots and an opium habit when he had embarked as a sailor in Asia. Two of his folding books fill long display cases in the exhibition and are diaristic, multi-layered and compelling. Untitled sketchbook (1962) and Untitled sketchbook (1961), use this Chinese literary format with the same level of detail that we find in those historical scrolls which depict an entire village with tiny houses and figures. It’s literature and Barton is one hell of a storyteller. The volume, the number of digits and the amount of detail captivate the viewer. The scrolls are his magnum opus.
Barton was an autodidact and a school dropout from a poor New York family. He practically lived in libraries and spent time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He may have briefly attended Amédée Ozenfant’s New York art school on the GI Bill, where he may have learned to draw from the model. Some of the most touching works in the exhibition are his interpretations of the Old Masters, copied from art books. Untitled [After Jan van Eyck] (1962) is Barton’s red ink version of van Eyck Portrait of a man (Self-portrait?) (1433). The drawing of the turbaned head on the left is done with various types of hatching, the chin drawn and redrawn with the corrections left in place, a device found in Matisse’s drawings. The version on the right is Barton’s version of the masterpiece, a hauntingly haunting psychological portrait. Barton had no artistic naivety: he also knew the work of more contemporary designers such as Jean Cocteau, George Grosz and Matisse, and is part of the extension of modernist currents.
Barton was periodically incarcerated, usually on drug charges. His prison drawings are among his best. Seeing them, Jarrett Earnest noticed that they reminded him of the work of Jean Genet A love song (A love song) (1950), this great film of homosexual love behind bars. Untitled [Reclining inmates] and Untitled [Inmates] (both from 1959) are masterpieces. The floating figures in the first are drawn in what was probably available in red ballpoint pen and graphite, with alternate figures rendered in each medium. The pathos, character studies, and breadth of psychological portrayal are memorable.
The exhibition has sections: ‘Introduction’, ‘Intimate Interiors’, ‘Ritual and Architecture’, ‘Social Spaces’ and ‘Flora and Fauna’. Each is rewarding and filled with gems. Jung said churches not only act as spiritual containers, but can also function as symbols of the self. Barton drew many church interiors and exteriors, and pieces of them can be found even in cafe interiors, such as an altar behind a coffee pot in one of the scrolls. Here, the sacred and the profane come together for this soul seeker. Barton had a devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe and visited her shrine in Mexico. He taught his friend David Nelson to say in Spanish: “The Virgin of Guadalupe is the queen of the world. She was there to save him from danger and act as his Beatrice. The Queen of Mexico (Queen of Mexico) (1960) is a drawing of his shrine with pilgrims in the foreground. Barton, with his emotional torments, was also a pilgrim who needed a protector and comforter.
It wouldn’t be fair to end the review of this haunting and memorable exhibit without a hats off to Morgan’s Rachel Federman. She was the curator who brought it out of obscurity with real leg work and scholarly research and is currently the only scholarly resource on Barton’s work. His catalog essay is a great work of art and captures the life and spirit of the man; she is also an endearing storyteller. I encourage you to buy the catalog and go to the Morgan Library to see one of the best exhibitions of the season.