Discovering Rick Barton

Rick Barton, “Untitled (Inmates reading)” (1959), pen and ink, 10 1/4 × 14 1/2 inches. Rick Barton papers, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles

I am not alone when I say that I had never heard of Rick Barton (1928–1992) before his exhibition, Writing a Chrysanthemum: The Drawings of Rick Barton opened at the Morgan Library & Museum. Kudos to Rachel Federman for curating a show on an unknown artist and diving deep into his work and life. I soon learned that Barton is either omitted from or mentioned in passing in well-known histories of the Bay Area Beat Movement. And yet, marginalized figures who are often recognized by only a few others during their lifetimes are apt, as Walt Whitman declared of himself, to “contain multitudes.” This is true of Barton, who attracted a small group of devoted followers, all committed to drawing as a daily practice. Little is known about Barton, who was part of the heady confluence of artists, poets, musicians, visionaries, crackpots, hipsters, pacifists, anarchists, and petty criminals, many of whom were queer, who gathered in San Francisco shortly after World War II. Although he went to and worked on drawings at the Black Cat Café and Fosters, hangouts for Bay Area artists and poets, he existed on the periphery of that group.

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