Bill Berkson in 1990. Photo: Nancy Kittle.


“WE DO NOT RESPOND OFTEN, REALLY,” Frank O’Hara once noted. “And when we do, it is as if a flashbulb went off.”

No stranger to bright lights, Bill Berkson—O’Hara’s protégé, collaborator, and traveling companion—quoted the elder poet’s line in “Critical Reflections,” a 1990 essay for this magazine. The piece, a manifesto of sorts, lamented an art criticism where words let go of the heady rush of looking, listening, and taking it all in, to slip instead into a kind of joyless airplane mode. No flashbulbs now, just the flutter of a smartphone, endlessly dividing our attention.

Bill wasn’t about to accept those terms, declaring himself “an aesthetic hedonist.” “I’m ‘in’ art for the sensual and intellectual pleasures I continue to find there,” he wrote.

Criticism that dampens, rather than heightens, aesthetic pleasure seems to me worthless. The aesthete proceeds, by stumbles and veers, along the lines of articulated sensation, cultivating a shifting horde of passions, tolerances, fascinations, glees, and disgust that marks the temporary side effects of what keeps promising to be a civilized habit.

It’s difficult to write about Bill and not slide into his rhythms, those stumbles, and veers—the damp thump of that damn sentence, A woman has fallen, keeping him from his Costanza. The hardest part about mourning Bill is knowing that now someone else will have to read that sentence for him. We’d heard that woman fall so many times, Bill’s voice carrying over bookstore counters and galleries filled with folding chairs and a league of dedicated Listeners, those that recognized one another more or less by sight, but never went into the specifics of how we “knew Bill.”

The truth is, Bill had a startling capacity to draw others into his orbit, though he would have cackled if you tried to make him out as a guru. Decidedly not the guru type, so unassuming, so expert at keeping it casual, an easy generosity and free-flowing enthusiasm just to share the same time and place as another person. In a reciprocal stream of gratitude, he regularly dedicated poems to the people in his life, just as many unknown quantities as art celebrities. Bill wasn’t here for fame and wouldn’t abide by name-dropping; he couldn’t help it if his coterie happened to be legendary.

As a poet, Bill was particularly attuned to the odds and ends of the daily grind, the sudden high notes and spare sentences that he picked up and added to his collection of running observations, which he would publish in great globules. He didn’t force these commentaries into any faceted structure. Let posterity decide what to keep. What was that line he liked from Miró? No, not Miró, Gris. (Bill would have shaken his head at my confusing the two.) Anyway, it was a line about making a bad painting, but making a “Great Bad Painting.” Bill didn’t make bad poems. Each of his verses had that same featherweight forgiveness and acceptance of the world, with all its wonders and inconveniences, down to the three-line poem “CT Song,” which discovered a fleeting moment of fancy amid the indignities of illness: “Breathe in. | Hold your breath. | Breathe.”

For a man known primarily for his words, Bill had also offhandedly mastered the quiet pause. When he was listening to someone or looking at a work, he would cock his head just so, his eyes taking on an impish cast for a quicksilver second of consideration, punctuated by the occasional short grunt (not quite a chuckle, more like the sound old computers made when you pushed too many keys at once—still processing). It wasn’t judgment, just interest. It is what made him such a magnificent teacher. He knew how to look, and he knew how to listen, and most of all, he knew how to take his time. (Expect Delays, the title of one of his last publications.)

That’s not to say our poet didn’t have his share of killer comebacks. He had the dry martini wit of someone who knew he would always be in style, the son of a professional tastemaker—a bona fide doyenne—never fully dressed without his smile. His smile and that slight tilt of his head that meant he was listening. Oh, and in recent years, also a hat, because vanity has a way of finding us all.

When I spoke to Bill a few years back about a bump in the professional road—“chasing fire engines,” he teased—he offered the following: “I always think it’s a good idea to have a kindred spirit or two in mind when one writes reviews, don’t you? Sort of keeps the grammar between friends, and eases its extending outward.” Bill probably had too many friends to be able to take his own advice, but I knew what he meant. Even now as I write this, I write knowing full well that it’s for an audience of one, who would have listened with his soft smile, wincing at the Miró mishap, and appreciating the gentle irony that that damn woman has kept falling, even now, even here.

Kate Sutton is a writer based in Zagreb, Croatia.

Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara in 1961. Photo: Kenward Elmslie.


I FIRST MET Bill Berkson as one of his students at the New School of Social Research in New York. We became friends and later some of our correspondences became the book What’s Your Idea of a Good Time (2006). Before Bill died, we were having a discussion of the meaning of the phrase “the bee’s knees.” We thought it must mean something like: there’s nothing else like it, or it’s so rare, it doesn’t exist. But then, somebody told me that bees have a pocket, right where their knees would be, to carry the honey back to the hive and if you can see it closely, it’s red. I wonder what Bill would make of that?

Bernadette Mayer is a poet based in upstate New York.

Bill Berkson in 2011. Photo: John Suiter.


I ALWAYS THINK of Bill as young, so it comes as a shock to realize that he was old when he died this summer. I first met him in Paris, where he had accompanied Frank O’Hara on a trip in the early ’60s, and it was cheering to know that New York was still turning out glamorous, articulate young creatures. He and Frank had just finished writing their poems about Saint Brigid’s Church on Tompkins Square, something I had seen in the past but never bothered to assay as poetry material. It was a joy to show Bill and Frank, who were staying in Joan Mitchell’s studio I believe, the wonders of Paris. At one point he went to London and I had to place a person-to-person call to him there. The operator asked: Bergson, comme le philosophe? which seemed only appropriate for Bill. As was the case with so many dear friends, he and I seldom spent much time in the same city or even country. They all seem emptier now.

John Ashbery is a poet based in New York.

Pierre Boulez, 2008. Photo: Sonja˛.


A CONVERSATION I HAD about Pierre Boulez right before his death ended with the perplexing question, from an otherwise culturally literate person, “What, exactly, does a conductor do?” At the time, I dismissed this query as further support for the conclusion that I have often drawn in the art world: Never discuss music. But then this invitation came from Artforum to write a tribute to Pierre Boulez, and, well, we have to start somewhere—perhaps a discussion of music’s relation to contemporary art might be productive after all. Actually, Boulez, who created IRCAM in the 1970s (the legendary institute for research and experimentation in music at the Centre Pompidou in Paris), was continually distressed at how little serious interface there was between visual artists and musicians. With this in mind, an introduction to the art world that does more than gloss over Boulez’s early compositional experimentation does in fact seem an appropriate way to memorialize him—by way of an invitation to continue the work that Boulez was not able to see realized in his lifetime.

Boulez was the most rigorously radical composer to emerge within the lineage of European classical music after Schönberg and Debussy; he was the most original composer-conductor since Gustav Mahler; and his career followed a continuously brilliant and generative line that included significant philosophical influences on Gilles Deleuze (more on that later); an affectionate but also discordant friendship with John Cage (documented in a fascinating series of letters); and, for the last forty years of his life, he surprised many by dedicating himself to rewiring the orchestral/choral interpretation of Mahler. Here, he realized an entirely new, late-twentieth-century interpretive performance mode, full of emotional aporia and surgically precise articulations of complex sound-images, with dense layers of thematic development made crystalline in the process of shattering. Those who witnessed Boulez’s interpretations of Mahler felt the same otherworldly alien-landing-on-earth rush that accompanies listening to and performing his own musical compositions. For the curious yet untrained ear, learning how to hear Mahler through Boulez and vice versa is a good place to begin understanding his highly complex relationship between composition and conducting—or, to slide a term over from the visual-art lexicon, his “practice.” These sound worlds and compositional processes could not be further apart; it is a bit like if Willem de Kooning were to be seen as “performing” Gustav Klimt, except in music the original score remains intact, and the creative act is located in the complex performative process of interpretation.

A slightly more familiar point of contact between discourses of visual culture and music may be Deleuze and Guattari’s interpretation of Boulez’s 1960 concept of “smooth [lisse] or amorphous time and the proportional system to pulsating, or striated, time,” in A Thousand Plateaus (1980 in French and 1987 in English). Rereading this passage now, with the added emphasis that certain figures and concepts gain in mourning, it occurred to me that it is impossible to fully understand this concept—or gauge its plethora of politicized misreadings—without understanding some basic elements of musical performance and composition. Deleuze and Guattari write, for example, that “Boulez says that in a smooth space-time one occupies without counting, whereas in a striated space-time one counts in order to occupy.” Yet one of Boulez’s most significant contributions as a conductor-composer is precisely the tension he creates between “counting” and “without counting.” Counting here refers to the process by which the musician internally counts (or forgoes counting) the beat while playing, conducting, or even composing a piece of music. One of the most basic yet always difficult aspects of interpreting a score is to know when to count and when to stop counting in order to generate the right combination of sensations, affects, and pulses in what is being performed. (In fact, there are moments in performance when one is able to stop consciously feeling the beat, even when its pulse continues to drive a forward momentum, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to an understanding of “smooth space-time.”)

Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique-musique (IRCAM), 2010. Photo: Kristof Verslype.


Boulez famously abandoned the conductor’s signature baton (which has its origins in a long staff that was literally pounded on the ground to beat out the time for the seventeenth-century orchestra); he once asserted that he had “ten batons” while glimmering his fingers in front of his face. And what these ten “batons” can do: They articulate a vast range of nuance, from bending his fingers in various directions, to cupping his hand to carve out articulations of orchestral layers, to flicking a finger with one hand to indicate a cue that does not fall within the exact temporality of what the other hand is conducting. In many ways, the hands and body (sans baton) before the orchestra create a form of nonverbal communication between bodies and instruments that approaches zones related to another of Deleuze and Guattari's familiar notions: “becoming-molecular.” Watch this clip of Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic after the recent death of its most televised and glamorous music director (Leonard Bernstein) in the early 1990s.

It is the most next-level account of Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) ever documented. Here we can see what has become, on the level of performance, of Boulez’s famous insistence that “time cannot be only smooth or only striated.” This is conducting and orchestral performance at its most glorious rhythmic flexibility. By the end of La Mer, as Boulez pushes the orchestra to technical and temporal limits, as the shifting shape of his hands and motion of his arms and the timbres and rhythms and musical images the orchestra produces fully froth, we arrive at something like—to translate it into visual terms—the current scientific image of deep-sea thermal vents where mineral-rich fluids and foams incite the evolution of protocells.

Ken Okiishi is an artist based in New York.