Sunday, November 11, 2012

33. A Blood-Filled Squirt Gun, a Giraffe's Head, a Blackened Human Toe: The World of Barton Benes

         Imagine visiting for the first time an apartment every inch of which is adorned with voodoo totems and African masks on the walls, a giraffe’s stuffed head and neck lunging up from the floor, a mummified Egyptian cat, a three-foot-high hourglass, huge clustered spheres of many colors, a blackened human toe, and countless other mystifying and fascinating objects. 


          Imagine too your reaction when the resident informs you that this strange conglomeration includes a work entitled “Lethal Weapons” featuring a squirt gun, a perfume atomizer, a set of hollow darts, and other objects all filled with HIV-infected blood; celebrity mementos such as jelly beans from the desk of Ronald Reagan, Monica Lewinsky’s soiled napkin, Gore Vidal’s swizzle stick, Elizabeth Taylor’s size 8 1/2  pump, and a golden crown made from the dung of Queen Elizabeth’s horses; and “Death,” a construction with compartments containing embalming eyecaps, a skull fragment from a victim of the Black Death, and cotton used to wipe the face of his lover of thirty years after he died of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancerous tumor associated with AIDS.  




       And imagine your reaction when he adds that the sand in the giant hourglass is in fact the mingled ashes of two of his friends, partners who died of AIDS and were cremated.  And that the ornamental globes are made of empty containers of HIV drugs glued together.  And that forty-six jagged ceramic shards also on display, all from the same shattered piece of pottery, feature photos of friends who likewise died of AIDS.  And your reaction when he announces, quite seriously, that all these items are “holy relics, sacred.”

         This whole apartment, containing several works labeled reliquaries, is itself 
one giant reliquary containing relics of celebrities and deceased friends and lesser creatures.  Exposed to its astonishing clutter – a clutter that is neat, artfully arranged, and immaculately clean – you might well be fascinated, unsettled, shocked.  Welcome to the world of Barton Benes.

         Barton Benes was an artist who lived for many years in Westbeth, an artists’  residence in the West Village but a short distance from the Magnolia Bakery building where I live.  I never knew him, but first heard of him from a Visiting Nurse who had seen him through the final months of his life before his death last May, and who has described vividly her first and later impressions of him and his apartment.  Though he rated a New York Times obituary and has exhibited abroad, 
and is represented in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian, he is not known universally; when I mentioned him to an artist friend, and to another friend who has known many New York artists, neither had heard of him.   

       What made Barton Benes the artist that he was, living in the midst of a unique collection of found objects and original works?  First, the influence of his Czech grandparents, with whom he and his mother lived as he was growing up in Queens; dedicated Catholics, they honored the bones and other relics of saints.  Also, frequent visits to the Museum of Natural History and its vast display of artifacts.  And a visit to the Ivory Coast, where he found inspiration in African masks and other objects that he brought home to install in his apartment.  And long hours spent with shamans and witch doctors on his various travels.  And finally and above all, AIDS, which jolted him out of indulging in cocaine and other drugs, and prompted him to use his infected blood in a whole new series of works, as well as the cremated ashes of friends.  AIDS taught him to make art out of death.

         By all accounts this survivor of cocaine, AIDS, and bereavement was anything but morbid and depressed.  He has been described as gentle yet devilish, naïve yet wise, the court jester of the art scene, Puck with crinkles.  Even in his later years, when he was afflicted with lung disease, AIDS, a fractured lumbar vertebrae, and other ailments, for which he took some forty pills a day, he beamed a smile that radiated warmth.  The Visiting Nurse who gave him nursing care at home has told me he was “nice, wonderful, in good spirits, always happy to see me.  And generous; he gave me a trinket from his collection every week.”  Obviously, a genial presence, and living only a few short blocks from my apartment; I wish that I had known him.



     Still, it’s not surprising that his works provoked controversy and accusations of morbidity, tastelessness, and irreverence toward the dead.  Many art museums and galleries refused to show his works.  His “Lethal Weapons,” comprising weapons filled with HIV-infected blood, traveled worldwide but was exhibited in Sweden only after being heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit in a hospital oven hopefully to prevent any spread of infection.  And when the work went to Great Britain it was attacked by the Tories and the tabloid press, but headlines such as AIDS HORROR SHOW failed to shut it down and probably increased attendance.  “I was a terrorist,” he later remarked with a laugh.

         Barton Benes’ life and work were a long, hard look at death, but always with a wink and a laugh.  “I’m not afraid of death,” he told an interviewer.  At his bedside, right next to his own many pills, was an artist’s palette created out of dead friends’ AIDS pills and capsules.  “But is this really art?” many have asked.  With regard to Monica Lowinski's napkin or Ed Koch's fork, one might well ask.  But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  When I look at color photos of his apartment, and the careful arrangement of each object, I am totally fascinated; whatever his work is or isn’t, the world is richer for it.

         Barton Benes died of acute kidney failure last May, but his work will survive.  The North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota, long a patron of his, will build a replica of his apartment and display its contents just as they appeared at Westbeth.  So the work of this lifelong Villager, so completely immersed in the art world and gay world of New York, will be re-created at a far remove from his haunts.  But those who make the journey will find Benes himself there in the form of his ashes, kept in a pillowcase on his bed.  His bequest to the museum included this condition, probably made with a Puckish grin.  And it both amused and comforted him to know that, in time, he would be there in his own pyramid, with all the objects he so loved.  

          When I see photos of this artist with his beaming smile or impish grin, my personal reaction is immediate and simple: I love the guy!  No, not in that way.  I mean that I like him immensely and read in his expression a wonderful message: 
I love being me, I love my apartment and all its crazy contents, I love my neighbors in Westbeth and the whole West Village, I love the Visiting Nurses who are keeping me alive, I love the North Dakota Museum of Art for agreeing to reconstruct my apartment with all its contents, in short, I love being alive.  Yes, I wish -- wish intensely -- that I had known him.

Attribution:  All the illustrations in this post are courtesy of the North Dakota Museum of Art.

Thought for the day:  Sanity is knowing when to get crazy.

                                          © 2012  Clifford Browder