Rick Barton: A Curatorial Serial, Part I

Exhibitions are often multiyear projects. With a monographic exhibition—one that focuses on a single artist—the subject, even when not alive, can come to feel like a significant presence in the life of a curator. As someone who has focused on artists who came to prominence in the second half of the increasingly historical twentieth century, I have been fortunate to “get to know” some of the late artists I have worked on, not only through research in libraries and archives, but also through conversations with the artists’ family, friends, and acquaintances. I love this kind of research, which allows me to step into a social universe that is not my own, full of talented people with unusual stories. Even when an artist is fairly unknown, such interactions typically build upon familiarity with a documented body of work, a knowable exhibition history, and writings on—and even interviews with—the subject.

The story that follows is a little different. What happens when the artist you’re researching has no documented life dates? When their work is not represented in museum collections? When many of the people most likely to have known them—or to know who they are—don’t? In this story, what began as an effort to catalog a new acquisition turned into a multiyear investigation of a profoundly obscure, but brilliantly idiosyncratic, draftsman. In this and subsequent blog posts, I will share the unique and unexpected circumstances surrounding one particular exhibition in progress.

Plates 3 and 4 of Rick Barton, Rooms. San Francisco: The Porpoise Bookshop, 1958, 1960. The Morgan Library & Museum, gift of William and Norma Anthony, 2017.277.

On December 2, 2016, just a few months after I arrived at the Morgan, artist and friend of the Modern and Contemporary Drawings department William Anthony dropped off a portfolio filled with works from his collection for us to consider as gifts. Included among them were two wave drawings (here and here) by Sol LeWitt, a 1970 ink drawing by Mary Frank, a soft-ground etching by William Anastasi, and a portfolio of linoleum block prints by Rick Barton. On a separate sheet of paper, in his annotation of the works, Anthony noted that Barton had been a leading light of the Bay Area gay scene in the 1950s. I had never heard of him, but I was intrigued.

The first plate of Rick Barton’s Rooms (not pictured) depicts a simple room, probably his own, with a bed, a bureau, a table, and two chairs. A small sink attached to the far wall suggests it is a hotel or SRO. Barton’s linear style is schematic, bordering on cartoonish, but the seven plates that comprise the portfolio, among them an opulent room and church interiors, are filled with idiosyncratic details that belie their economy of means. The colophon reads, “These blocks were cut by Rick Barton during 1958. 60 copies printed by Henry Evans at the Peregrine Press during June of 1960. Per Mano Con Amore.”   

After seeing Rooms, I first consulted the Getty Research Institute’s Union List of Artist Names, a fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, database. Rick Barton was not there. Next, I Googled him, searching for something about a visual artist who had been active in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s. I scrolled through a couple of pages of results until I found a link to a fourteen-thousand-word essay by Dave Archer (née David Nelson), entitled “Suffer, Suffer Die, No Better for You, from a memoir in progress.” Written in 2002, it is an intimate and remarkably informative portrait of the author’s relationship with Barton in 1960s San Francisco. It is full of colorful details about Barton’s past (as related to Archer) and his milieu. I was hooked. I bookmarked the page and made a mental note to reach out to Archer, whose contact information was available on his website.

Through a database search, I made an additional discovery: “The Unfolding of an Artist’s Book,” an essay by author and artist Etel Adnan in Discourse volume 20, number 1/2 (Winter and Spring 1998), in which she discusses her friendship with Barton in San Francisco in the early 1960s. She writes that he “should have been a San Francisco legend” and credits him with introducing her to accordion-fold books, which feature prominently in her oeuvre. I saved the essay to my files and moved on to other projects.

When I returned to Barton a couple of weeks later, I clicked on the link to Dave Archer’s essay, which was crucial to my investigation of the artist. I received an unwelcome message: the page could not be found. Archer had taken down the site.

Rachel Federman
Associate Curator
Modern and Contemporary Drawings

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