20 June 2016

In Memoriam, Bill Berkson

Bill Berkson.

With great sadness, AICA-USA announces the death of our colleague and friend, the poet and critic Bill Berkson, who died of a heart attack in San Francisco on June 16, 2016.  He was 76. As a mentor for the AICA-USA Art Writing Workshop, a partnership with The Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program, he gave encouragement and support to many young critics. “My biggest takeaways from Bill,” said Danica Sachs, a 2015-16 mentee, were to “have fun with language and make interesting sentences that are a delight to read; and to stand up for myself during the editorial process. I think he had a tremendous impact on my approach, and I know I'll think about him every time I sit down to write.”

A brilliant writer and great fun to be with, Bill published “Saturday Night: Poems 1960-61” in 1961, the first of his more than 20 collections of poetry. He was associated with the New York School of poets and artists, and collaborated with Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer and Philip Guston, among others. O’Hara’s biographer Brad Gooch described what Bill was like in 1959: “Berkson was twenty years old and strikingly handsome in a Kennedy way that made him seem even more handsome in the early sixties.  The son of Seymour Berkson, a famous Hearst newspaperman and publisher of the Journal-American, who had recently died, and Eleanor Lambert, a fashion publicist whose provenance was Manhattan’s uptown cafe society, Berkson communicated an unusual mixture of patrician reserve, bohemian curiosity, intelligence, politeness, and brash rudeness.”

He took delight in shocking people with outrageous and unpredictable behavior. When asked to give an example by an interviewer for the Brooklyn Rail, Bill revealed: “When I first met John Ashbery in Paris we were sitting at a table, maybe Café de Flore, just Frank [O’Hara], John, and me, and John sort of leaned in and said, “What really is going on with you two?” And in my best Greta Garbo imitation, I said, “I am a woman in love!” That is something I could do. Actually, I can still do it, because I still think, why not! I like to put all those divisions into question, because most of them are stupid divisions.”

A regular contributor to Artforum and Art in America, Bill was professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught art history, critical writing and poetry from 1984 to 2008. His critical writings were collected in “The Sweet Singer of Modernism and Other Art Writings 1985-2003” and “Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006.” One of his last essays appeared on June 6th, in which he wrote about “The Phenomenology of Everyday Life, the unbranded brand of impromptu activity, proto-YouTube, beginning around 1960, of documenting anything and everything, the less obviously consequential the better. . .”

Bill is survived by his wife, curator Constance Lewallen; son Moses Berkson and daughter Siobhan O’Hare Mora Lopez, from his first marriage, to Lynn O’Hare Berkson; stepchildren Jonathan Lewallen and Nina Lewallen Hufford; and six grandchildren. Memorial services will be held in San Francisco and New York.

- Judith Stein

Bill Berkson and Philip Guston at Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, January 1979. Courtesy of Bill Berkson.

Headquartered in New York, AICA-USA's membership comprises over 400 critics, curators, scholars, and art historians working throughout the United States.