West Beth Artist Housing is a complex of buildings way west in Greenwich Village, a short walk away from the lumbering Hudson River. West Beth used to be the famous Bell Laboratories, where the first sound motion picture, the first TV broadcast, and the first binary computer were first demonstrated. It was the home of firsts for The Future. Those firsts are inseparable from the USofA’s movement away from being a web of isolated communities to being one giganto power on the world stage. In fact, not only did Bell Labs help make us a great power of the 20th century, it also paved the way to our position as the first great power of the 21st century and therefore, the first great power of the POST HUMAN ERA (echo, echo, echo, followed by evil laugh, then fade out).
Bell Labs closed in 1966. But soon after – in another first – it was converted to living quarters for the city’s artist population. Little 850 square foot, cookie cutter studio apartments – very narrow but lengthy, with bathroom and kitchenette – were handed out to some of The Big Apple’s big population of struggling artists. Thus West Beth was born, and gave life to those in search for the meaning of it. For the most part, anyway. It was a rather utopian gesture developed out of sacred ruins of American Industry. Now, some New York artists had affordable housing and could continue arting with a little more ease. Barton Benes was one of those artist.
I rode the elevator in West Beth to the 9th floor and walked into Barton Benes’ apartment. My friends – Matt, Brian, Danni and Greg – from the North Dakota Museum of Art – were already there, packing up Benes’ things. Benes’ passed away last year – aged 69 – and had bequeathed the contents of his apartment to the NDMoA so that the museum could recreate his apartment as it was in NYC, in Grand Forks, ND. I was glad to be a part of the packing. I’d heard Barton’s apartment was filled with all kinds of slightly to downright macabre artifacts and oddities from all over the world. I was not disappointed. Upon entering the apartment, I also entered – at once – a museum, freak show, live game trophy room, arsenal, opium den, 18th century English library, mausoleum, apothecary – and a place with so many rat droppings it could’ve been a breeding ground for the hantavirus.
“Barton wanted this place to be his life’s work,” Brian said. “This apartment was his life, his masterpiece.”
We spent hours boxing and moving items to an empty apartment on a lower floor. Each time we’d come back to Barton’s, we’d give a collective sigh, for it looked like no progress had been made, whatsoever. The room was chock full of stuff – floor to ceiling. We twisted and turned, sucked in our guts, squeezed in and filled more boxes. There was a pressure to the room. More so, a force emanating from all the nicknacks and from the eyeballs of the stuffed goat, bull, foxes, squirrels and giraffe – yes, I said giraffe – and many other creature’s that I’d yet to google as of this writing. Everything pushed in on, and over us as if a crease in the fabric of Space had developed by our dismantling of Barton’s life. I felt like I was committing a cosmic wrong – erasing a man from ever existing. But, this was Barton’s specific wish, his last request. After noting that fact – several times throughout the day – the eyes of all the animals would turn their gaze from me and back to the underworld. The chlaustrophobic feeling let up a little and moving around got a bit easier.
Barton Benes first made a mark on the art scene by working with cash – which had been pulled from circulation, that he’d procured from the United States Treasury. He’d shred or cut up the dead currency and used it as papier mache, to decorate ash trays, compasses, drafting tools, necklaces, etc. The works sported the dollar – that we so slave to gain enough of so that we may be able to slow down one day and make a decision with the kind patience that a fat wallet allows – in ways outside the magic and sugary appeal it holds, and shows us God Money is just paper. Needless to say, Barton did not gain fat wallet from those early artistic searches with the dollar. Later, after testing HIV positive in 1982, and watching friend after friend die – he began using his own blood as an artistic medium, along with the blood of others stricken with HIV and AIDS. He would fill his and their blood into water guns, blot it on tips of darts, fill up perfume spritzers with it. When someone would die, he’d work with their cremated remains. He’d keep the dead of the fallen living in his work as he, himself, struggled to stay alive. I don’t know if his wallet got any fatter because that, but I doubt he made much, if any, because just about everybody – even New York’s art scene – were hesitant and fearful to exhibit Barton’s work. North Dakota wasn’t, however. North Dakota showed the blood, ashes and truth. North Dakota looked Barton in the eye, and a fat wallet can’t buy that satisfaction. A little fame did come his way, though, as he kept at it. I’m sure that was a nice consolation prize.
Joan, Barton’s neighbor for many years, poked her head in on Saturday.
“I just wanted to see it one more time,” she said, with one of those sad smiles one earns from the passing of someone close.
Brian and I followed her to her apartment to help the super switch out Joan’s old air-conditioner with Barton’s newer model. Joan was a sweetheart. She showed us how she made great use of the limited space of the studio. High shelfs and loft space on top of cabinets capitalized on the high ceilings. But even for all the spacial utilization, the place still felt cramped, like a pen. Joan was around 60 years old, and she had to climb a latter then crawl in 3 feet of space onto her bed every night. Not only that, but at about 60, she was still living in supportive housing. Wasn’t she tired of that? Fortunately, I didn’t insult her with that question, because at the moment I formed it in my head, I realized I’d been the butt of a MAJOR joke…a joke I play on myself all the time. And I heard the Cosmos laughing when I froze in revelation.
I – once again – had fooled myself that, at some point, living goes onto a kind of cruise control and smooths out. That when we get older, the roads get less bumpy, and there would be less of a struggle – month to month would be more like year to year. That there would be no mystery attached to the next dollar I needed. I mistakenly thought that – for Pete’s sake – the world gives a body a break and says, Alright, old kiddo, that’s enough. You’ve done good, now get outta the ring and relax a little. Come, lets get a mojito.
I’m not naive. And I know everybody’s gotta die someday, and about that, I can say I’m truly not worried – actually I’m kind of curious. And, of course life is a struggle for all of us. But damn, if it’s not easy to forget that the 401K, the full health insurance and the stock options come to those who take a job that offers a retirement package. Maybe like those employees at Bell Labs. Someone hell bent on artistic search can all but be certain that a comfy retirement will not be there when he or she can go no further. And, from what I hear from my friends with jobbie-jobs that offer retirement benefits – working on their own masterpieces in their own way – the modest-yet-carefree-American-retirement is going the way of the do-do bird. Social security will be obliterated soon, co-pays are getting higher, just about everything from birth onward is a pre-existing injury today – and as far as gambling at the stock market’s table, it seems only the dealer’s winning. So maybe there won’t be a retirement playground for any of us. I guess that makes all of us artists.
Only a tiny percentage of artists hit the golden lottery. Movie stardom, genius grants, royalties to a #1 hit go to those artists who are bankable. But most are gonna toil as they search for enlightenment but only find love and then realize that the two are one and the same and find it’s that realization that one really needs to continue onward. Love tells us we need not fight anything or anyone, only search. The artist who goes into the wilderness of reality and finds the answer of love, learns love’s lessons stone solid, and will tell you life was absolutely worth it – every thorn and fang. But, oddly enough, the artist has to rely on survival instincts to the very last breath, when they cross over to the great beyond – in bed, on oxygen in their narrow, crammed part of the studio, where the guts of the TV were invented. And – quite possibly – alone.
Barton didn’t die alone. He had a group of warm, loving friends send him off.
But a little fame or no, there were no candles, pin-ups, or crying teenie-boppers at the entrance to West Beth the night of Barton Benes’ passing. He wasn’t an Elvis, or a Cobain, or even a Ledger or Winehouse. He was just an artist and his apartment said it all – A life is full of twisting and turning through the dead and dying and sometimes it feels like its all on top of you – the sunlight fails to reach you and you can only see the eyes of the animals. Then you keep going.
But death is not the end! The North Dakota Museum of Art is gonna do what they can to recreate the great roadside carnival that was Barton Benes’ life – which includes a stone from Larry Hagman’s gall bladder! Seriously! They hired me to be one of the drivers. So, I’ll be heading out on the road to Grand Forks this Tuesday, doing my little part for getting Barton down the road…and adding another road trip to my masterpiece in the process.