Unearthing Rick Barton, a Boho Bard of North Beach

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In the late 1950s, as America welcomed Jack Kerouac’s 120 feet of spontaneous typescript, a different kind of scroll was underway on the West Coast.

This was the compulsive sketchbook practice of one Rick Barton (1928—1992), a quiet eccentric from San Francisco’s demimonde who, 30 years after his death in obscurity, has become the unlikely subject of a triumphant rediscovery at the Morgan Library & Museum.

On scrolls of Japanese paper each 19 feet in length, Barton documented the underbelly of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood before the hippies showed up. Like accordions, these scrolls folded into portable sketchbooks, allowing Barton to tote them to a bistro table at the Black Cat Café and other gay haunts of the time, and to inscribe a procession of cafegoers in continuous thickets of craggy, neurotic, ruthlessly precise ink. If you stapled them end-to-end, you’d get a Bayeux Tapestry of the postwar underground.

Two of Barton’s folding books (from 1961 and 1962) snake their way through a long vitrine down the center of the gallery. In a show of extremely engaging drawings and prints, they are the marvel. They beckon your nose right up to the glass with their beehives of detail, while sea-sickening you at the same time.

What’s disorienting in them is their disregard for scale and depth. Faces and bodies emerge into a patchwork of eateries, sidewalks, bars, bookstores, crumbling Chinatown apartments. In his 1961 scroll, a car’s antenna morphs into a dog; the dog is perched on a tile floor; the tile becomes a human leg; the leg intrudes heel-first upon a seated congress of young bohemians. Imagine a time-lapse photo of Times Square exposing the crowd in perfect focus — a full day relived in one gulp.

He made many more than the 10 known folding books, it’s believed. In the late ’60s, Barton disappeared to San Diego, abandoning some 800 drawings from the years 1958 to 1962. This small sample would become the majority share of his surviving work. His friend and patron Henry Evans, owner of the press that brought out Barton’s linoleum prints, had the foresight to rescue and donate the abandoned drawings to ‌‌the University of California, Los Angeles. “The artist is still alive,” Evans warned the curators in 1971, “but he is crazy as a bedbug and impossible to cope with.” There they’ve sat until the Morgan grew curious and stoked the curatorial hunt.

The outline of Barton’s life, which Rachel Federman, the Morgan’s associate curator of modern and contemporary drawings, has valiantly compiled from interviews and archival correspondence, is an unhappy one. A mother in the psych ward, a Manhattan childhood so poor that eggs were a luxury, an adolescent stint in the Navy after World War II. Adulthood in San Francisco brought friends and creative freedom but also bouts of psychosis, self-medication and jail. To the poet Peter Orlovsky, passing him in 1958, Barton was “that fellow who off & on would show up in Fosters [Cafeteria], painter, was in mad houses a lot.”

Pain and want, it is very tempting to assume, had some hand in the way Barton relies on small things to express lived experience. When he’s drawing Spanish churches in 1962, for instance, he articulates every last crocket and cranny of the Sagrada Familia spires, every possible zigzag of mortar in his arresting facade to the Barcelona Cathedral. As these lines pile into arches and points, they trick the eye into that toothy ascent brought about only by an actual hulking cathedral.

In a bedroom self-portrait, “Alone Again(1960), Barton envisions his bedspring as an unwieldy hunk of architecture consuming the middle of the page. Your eye skips straight over the blanketed Barton in bed and gets sucked under his mattress, into a web of interlocking coils, wires, and pressure points. This is the world as fixated and unslept upon, not the world as seen. One wants to decode his intricate, uncorrected line like a script. (The show’s title comes from a boy who, as he passed Barton hard at work in Peking’s main square in 1960, observed to his father, “Look, he is writing a chrysanthemum.”)

Unschooled as he may have been, Barton was no anarchist. He quotes Dürer and Vermeer with verve. He captions pieces in reverse, as Leonardo da Vinci did. His clear devotion to the traditional line drawing of China (where the Navy brought him) and of Japan (he used the ultrafine yatate brush) explains his occasionally stunning compositional unity. In “Central Market, Los Angeles” (1960) he stacks bewildering heaps of geometry (concentric pillars, posts, cables, and boxes, circumscribed by a wobbly pot rack of plumber’s pipe) into a grocery stall of Hokusaian balance.

Classical music, not jazz, was Barton’s thing. When he briefly ran a gay nightclub near the Oakland Bay Bridge, he stocked its jukebox with Bach fugues. He was a traditionalist beatnik and thus the truest kind of freak.

Such is the difficulty of slotting this outsider’s outsider, who has had virtually no exhibition history, into an artistic milieu. Federman suggests “it is conceivable” that Warhol’s flower sketches (which were self-published, “though not widely”) may have influenced Barton’s serene horticultural prints, and that Cocteau’s psychological refractions in ink (because the Museum of Modern Art showed him before Barton left New York) are “a palpable presence” in Barton’s sinewy portraiture.

Could be. But in this remarkable museum debut I can’t help but see Barton’s experiments in perception as the fruits of a solitary and painfully individual need — not as conscious innovations on the modernist front lines. A friend and fellow artist recalled that Barton began a portrait with the sitter’s fingernail. Another watched him scribble on the tablecloth when he ran out of paper. It would help to know if this furious pace continued after Barton fell off the grid; by 1971 he had partially blinded himself in a drunken rage, while ripping a toilet tank off the wall. No work is known from his remaining 20 years.

It is somewhat closer to the likes of nanny-photographer Vivian Maier and janitor-fabulist Henry Darger that Rick Barton stands: a workaday recluse who sought self-knowledge by way of a monastic and unquestioned creative ethic. A nobody who, through a rare curatorial eureka moment, has become an instantaneous, mesmeric somebody.

Writing a Chrysanthemum: The Drawings of Rick Barton

Through Sept. 11 at the Morgan Library and Museum, Manhattan; (212) 685-0008; themorgan.org.

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