Encountering Rick Barton’s work at UCLA Library Special Collections, January 4, 2018. The collection has since been rehoused. Rick Barton papers (Collection 2374). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.
In the early days of 2018, I arrived in Los Angeles with appointments to see Henry Evans’s Peregrine Press papers at the Clark Memorial Library and a cache of over 700 drawings by Rick Barton at UCLA Library Special Collections. Although I had been assured that the drawings would be available, I worried that something might go wrong or that the drawings would not have been worth the trip.
The visit to the Clark was a success. In addition to the printed portfolios, I saw Barton’s original linoleum blocks and a portrait photo of him cutting a block in a cafe. There was a bit of correspondence from him as well, which suggested that Evans, who had worked assiduously to promote Barton’s work in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, had lost touch with him by 1971.
At Special Collections the following day, the outlook at first looked dimmer. The finding aid listed seven packages and a box, but only the packages, accounting for about a hundred works, had been located. Evans donated the collection in 1971, and it appeared not to have been looked at since it was processed. Each brown-paper package was wrapped with twine. The drawings they contained were organized by year; most were created between 1958 and 1962. The earliest work, and one of the few paintings, is a 1956 oil portrait in a splotchy, fauve-ish style. The latest is an ink drawing on Japanese paper from 1964. Although I was initially disappointed to have so much less to look at than I had anticipated, I quickly became absorbed in the pleasure of viewing what was there.
With few exceptions, the drawings are consistent in style, showing a clear evolution over the brief span of five years to become increasingly fluid and complex. I learned that Barton was as devoted to the subject of churches as San Francisco Churches suggested, and he indulged his love of architecture on trips to Mexico and Barcelona. His domestic interiors are among his most extraordinary works. His hand holding a pen, and even his feet, sometimes appear within the picture, as do his own drawings. There is an edgy quality to his line. It is not the placid, classical line of Picasso, though Barton’s knowledge of art history is unquestionable. There is something of the comics in it, but it is never ridiculous. While his spaces are filled with curious details, they also convey a sense of boundlessness. Looking through the sheets, I felt keenly that Barton’s life and his art were utterly coterminous.
Rick Barton, Portrait of Russ Zerbe, 1962, pen and ink on paper, 14 3/8 x 10 1/4 inches. UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles. The inscription on the drawing at the center of the composition reads, 4.59 Portrait of Russ Zerbe. It is written in reverse. Barton often signed and inscribed his work in this way.
I returned to New York convinced that this unknown body of work was deserving of a show in the small gallery we call the cube. From the 106 works I had seen, I would select approximately twenty-five for display. But before I got ahead of myself, I had to confirm that the works could be loaned. I wrote to Genie Guerard and Jane Carpenter at UCLA Library Special Collections to ask and received an unexpected response. The 600-plus drawings that had not been accounted for at the time of my visit had been found. And yes, they could be loaned.
These two drawings of a plant—another of Barton’s favorite subjects—fit together like puzzle pieces. June 26, 1960, pen and ink on paper, 17 1/4 x 11 3/8 inches. each. Rick Barton papers (Collection 2374). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.
All photos in this post are the author’s.
Modern and Contemporary Drawings