I SPOTTED HIM in the city this summer, a naked young man sitting with his ankles crossed, hands clasped on the jacket thrown across his lap. This banner-sized reproduction of a drawing hung outside New York City’s Morgan Library & Museum to advertise a new show by an artist I had never heard of. Something about the affectionate rendering of the male form made me certain he was gay.
That hunch was confirmed in both the show and the accompanying book Writing a Chrysanthemum: The Drawings of Rick Barton. Born and raised in hardscrabble circumstances, Barton (1928–1992) got his art education from visiting the city’s museums and the New York Public Library. He dropped out of high school, enlisted in the Navy, and was discharged, possibly for mental illness, settling in the Bay Area in the 1950s like many gay men of his generation. A self-described paranoid psychotic, he self-medicated with alcohol, marijuana, and opium, and obsessively drew pictures. He attracted a group of acolytes who congregated in coffee shops and gay bars, including the Black Cat Café, and instructed them in drawing using Chinese and Japanese tools and traditions that he probably picked up while in the service. Drawing seems to have been a kind of meditative practice for Barton, not so much an act as a state of being.
Michael Quinn writes about books in a monthly column for the Brooklyn newspaper The Red Hook Star-Revue and on his website, mastermichaelquinn.com.