Writing a Chrysanthemum: The Drawings of Rick Barton
On ViewThe Morgan Library & Museum
June 10–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 unknown man is donated to a museum, an intrepid curator researching the slender threads of his life discovers more donated drawings forgotten in the storerooms of other institutions: the artist is given a stellar museum exhibition and is rescued from obscurity. Barton’s drawings are windows into his modest rooms, jail cells, church sanctuaries, and San Francisco’s gay clubs. His work chronicles a period when queer men flocked to San Francisco, yet he was not part of the celebrated 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 age of desperate self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and art world strategies. The viewer gazes transfixed into the private world Barton recorded with his incessant and diaristic drawings.
Many of his drawings like Untitled [Disarticulated draftsman] (May 11, 1960) begin with Barton the draftsman. In the drawings we often see his hands on the paper, a drawing pad resting on his lap, and his feet poking out above like overseers. His own words give us a clue as to his process. Barton briefly managed a gay bar called the Last Resort, where he installed Bach fugues on the juke box. There, as professeur d'art he gave Hell’s Angels Chinese line painting classes, holding forth, “you enter the DRAPERY through the 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 out into a symphony of lines, filling pages teeming with figures—they have a kind of musicality and dance across the pages.
Of the scant references to Rick Barton that can be found, the most touching is Etel Adnan’s “The Unfolding of an Artist’s Book.” Barton gave Adnan her first folding book, and she describes it as a “mystic transfer.” She portrays him as a fixture of San Francisco cafés who sat at tables drawing incessantly. He had picked up the folded books, ink pots, and an opium habit when he had shipped out as a sailor to Asia. Two of his folding books fill long vitrines in the exhibition and are diaristic, multi-layered, and spell binding. Untitled sketchbook (1962) and Untitled sketchbook (1961), employ this Chinese literati format with the same level of detail we find in those historical scrolls that depict a whole village with tiny houses and figures. This is literature and Barton is one hell of a storyteller. The sheer volume, number of figures, and amount of detail captivate the viewer. The scrolls are his magnum opus.
Barton was an autodidact and a high school drop-out from a poor New York family. He practically lived in libraries and spent time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He may have briefly attended Amédée Ozenfant’s New York art school on the G.I. Bill, where he possibly learned to draw from the model. Some of the most touching works in the exhibition are his takes on the old masters, copied from art books. Untitled [After Jan van Eyck] (1962) is Barton’s red ink version of van Eyck’s 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, a device we see in Matisse drawings. The version on the right is Barton’s take on the masterpiece, a haunting, staring psychological portrait in line. Barton had no artistic naïveté: he also knew the work of more contemporary draftsmen like Jean Cocteau, George Grosz, and Matisse, and is an extension of modernist trends.
Barton was periodically incarcerated, usually for drugs. His jail drawings are some of his best. Seeing them, Jarrett Earnest remarked that they reminded him of Jean Genet’s Un chant d'amour (A Song of Love) (1950), that great film of homosexual love behind bars. Untitled [Reclining inmates] and Untitled [Inmates] (both 1959) are masterpieces. The floating figures in the former are drawn in what was probably available red ballpoint and graphite, with alternate figures rendered in each medium. The pathos, the character studies, and the sheer magnitude of the psychological portraiture is 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 that churches not only acted as spiritual containers but could also function as self symbols. Barton drew many churches’ interiors and exteriors, and bits of them can be found even in coffee shop interiors, like an altar behind a coffee pot in one of the scrolls. Here, the sacred and profane come together for this soul-searcher. 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 rescue him from dangers and act as his Beatrice. La reina de Mexico (the Queen of Mexico) (1960) is a drawing of her shrine with pilgrims in the foreground. Barton, with his emotional torments, was also a pilgrim in need of a protector and comforter.
It would not be right to close the review of this haunting and memorable exhibition without a hats off to the Morgan’s Rachel Federman. She was the curator who brought him out of obscurity with real leg work and scholarly research and is at present the only scholarly resource on Barton’s work. Her catalogue essay is a great piece of art writing and captures the life and spirit of the man; she is also an engaging storyteller. I would encourage buying the catalogue and going to the Morgan Library to see one of the best exhibitions of the season.