Sunday, March 10, 2013

Black Ghost: On Not Forgetting Bert L. Long, Jr.

Robert Boyd

Black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow too
Whoa black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow too
You just can see him, but you can't hear him talkin'
Ain't nothin' else that a black ghost can do

On February 28, Bert Long's final exhibit of new (and old) work, Bert L. Long, Jr.: An Odyssey, opened at Houston Baptist University's Contemporary Gallery. Long died February 1st of pancreatic cancer. It's been a hard few weeks for art in Houston. Thomas McEvilley, William Stern, Anthony Palasota, the sobering news about Wendy Wagner. I got in a conversation online about a tribute written to Long by Gary Reece. Reece had written:
I remember asking him after the interview to lend me the catalogues of his shows so that I could get a better feel for the progression of the work. He was silent.

Bert: There are no catalogues.

GR: What do you mean there are no catalogues? Look man if you don’t want me to have them, just…

Bert: No it’s not that. There are none. See that’s one of the perceptions about Bert Long. There are many. The perception that he is rolling in the dough, that he is at the top of his game, that there is documentation out there concerning him. But there is none.

Have heard museum directors and curators talk about his importance, his place in all of this and when one looks around for the Articles of Validity and Worth, the catalogues, one finds nothing. Nada. 9 solo museum shows and nothing. So how should one chart the exclusion of this important variable in the story of this important artist? This question should be not asked in lieu of the funding necessary to produce a publication. Has more to do with the commitment of an institution to the artists they present; a very telling litmus test. The capacity of an institution to put together a coterie of curators, writers, graphic artists, select a publishing house, is well, what they do. And before you fix your mouths to say anything, brochures and gallery notes, though thoughtful, no, they do not count. Sent for you yesterday and here you come today. ["Thimble," Gary Reece, Not That This, February 27, 2013]
On Facebook, Devin Britt-Darby expressed surprise at this fact ("What, indeed, is up with nine Bert Long Jr. solo museum shows and no catalog?"), and sparked a conversation between him, me and Nathaniel Donnett. I could only think of one minor gallery publication for Long off the top of my head. I was pleased when I went to HBU that they had printed a catalog for Odyssey.  They were giving them away for free. As catalogs go, it's a bit eccentric--but so is Long's art.

The truth is, Long needs a full scale monograph. He needs something with beautiful photos, insightful essays, rigorous scholarship, and striking design. Something that would be a monument to the artist and would hold his memory. Something that would help to keep him from becoming a ghost, a dimly remembered figure in some remote provincial outpost in the history of art.

 HBU's Contemporary Gallery filled with Bert Long's admirers

Don't get me wrong. People aren't likely to forget Long soon. You could tell by the big crowds at HBU (which, let's face it, is not exactly in a central, easy-to-get-to location) and at a memorial to him later that evening downtown. The viewers at HBU seemed to be making earnest attempts at engaging the art--I overheard discussions between people trying to suss out what the work meant to them. It was everything an artist could want from a crowd of viewers--conversation and engagement with the work.

The work demanded engagement. A few pieces, like Purgatory, were pretty self-evident in their meanings. At least it seemed so to me. The blinking "OPEN" was like a seedy business trying to lure customers in.

Bert L. Long, Jr., Flow, 2000, acrylic on wood with fiberglass eye and gourd, 47 x 30 x 36 inches

Flow used a similar eye (perhaps from the same mold) to those included in Field of Vision, Long's installation over on Elgin. The stair-step structure with the eye at the top made me think of a piece of an ancient temple, looted by archeologists and relocated to a Western museum. The weeping could be tears for the desecration. Or it could be a fountain where the play of water represented sorrow. In in the water, we see images of eyes flowing over the steps. So that could be read as growing blindness and the regret that comes with it. The thing is, a piece like this allows a viewer to tell herself all manner of stories. It demands stories be told. These works aren't the kinds of work that you can walk by with a shrug, or that you can look at and say "Hmmm, intriguing" or "How lovely."

Bert L. Long, Jr., Road Kill, 1990, acrylic on canvas with frame of acrylic, metllic gold and silver paint, tire, reflectors and mirrors on white pine, 72 x 96 x 4 inches

For instance, a painting of a black bird with a ghostly snake in its beak can't just be seen as what it depicts. The very act of describing it makes you complicit in telling its story, which feels like an ancient myth or fable. And the "road" symbols--torn tire, reflector lights, mirrors--add a layer of complexity.

Bert L. Long, Jr., Pre-Rome, 1990-92, etching on paper in hydrostone frame with paintbrush, glass eye and plaster hand

One thing that characterizes Long's work is his use of highly stylized, sculptural frames. The frame is part of the work--and in the case of Pre-Rome, I'd even characterize it as the most important part of the work.

Bert L. Long, Jr., Quest, 1983, acrylic on trunk with frying pan, shoes, glass, liquor bottles, orange peel, name tag, credit card, chain, rope, steering wheel, newspaper, bone, keys, harmonica, tooth brush and other mixed media, 39 x 40 x 25 inches

Like early Kienholz and so many of the beatnik sculptors in California from the early 60s (George Herms, Wallace Berman, etc.), Long was a sculptural junk-man, as one can see in Quest from 1983. One thing really pleasing about this exhibit was that the work came from 1983 to 2012. Odyssey was too small an exhibit to be called a retrospective, but it was large enough to give some idea of the arc Long's artistic work.

Then after this was over, there was an event on Long's honor at the Magnolia Ballroom downtown. They called it a "Memorial/Celebration of Life/Party." Just plain "Memorial" must have sounded too somber. In fact, lots of jokes were told, as well as funny stories about Long. An assistant, Fred, gave a gut-wrenching slam-poetry-style eulogy; he literally seemed to be in pain as he gave it. But even he was able to make the assembled crowd laugh when he said that when he first started working for Long, he was amazed at how many white people Long knew!


Painter John Alexander talked about Long's talkativeness and tenacity, including a story about Long cornering Alexander's New York dealer in a gallery demanding a three person show with himself, Alexander and James Surls.

John Alexander and Jack Massing

James Surls next to a Bert Long piece

So for an event that was a memorial, it was anything but somber.

Howard Sherman and Ibsen Espada

A crowd of Bert Long's admirers including Long's widow, Joan Batson, standing on the right and Bill Davenport on the left.

Given the huge crowd there, it was obvious to me that no one would be forgetting Long very soon. But I also noticed that aside from some younger members of the Long family, none of the attendees were terribly young. I didn't see any members of the younger generation(s) of Houston artists there--I think the youngest artists I saw were Solomon Kane and Howard Sherman. It's not news that there are generation gaps in the Houston art scene. I notice this all the time. I go to an art event at the Joanna, say, and the artists there with a few exceptions all seem to be in their 20s and 30s. And there are events I attend where all the artists are in their 60s and 70s! There seems to be a lack of local historical art consciousness in Houston. A younger artist will know what happened in New York in the 60s far better than he knows what happened in Houston in the 60s.

I understand the reasons for this. When you take an art history class as an art student, they teach you canonical art history--not local art history. And socially, people tend to hang our with their peer groups, which mostly consist of folks around their own age. Young artists in their 20s tend to be night owls who enjoy going to bars and nightclubs, while artists in their 30s and 40s often are married and have kids and have a totally different schedule, and older artists find morning events amenable--in short, age tends to sort artists out in ways that make it hard for generations to come together. Furthermore, most writing about art in Houston tends to be ephemeral--it's written for newspapers (or websites). Many blogs and magazines have come and gone: ArtLIES, ...might be good, etc. For an amateur art historian like me, this means combing microfilm libraries and online databases, but for most people, it means forgetting. Oblivion.

So there are good reasons for this lack of historical memory. But the problem is that once an artist like Long dies, he risks being forgotten as time goes on. It's not just Long. Charlie Stagg. Dick Wray. Bob Camblin. Jack Boynton. Robin Utterback. Etc. The people for whom these artists were vital presences--their collectors, their colleagues, critics who wrote about them--are aging, along with the memory of the work.

So how do you make sure Bert Long is remembered? Obviously having work in the permanent collection of museums is key, and even more important is that the work is displayed and not socked away in permanent storage. And a careful archiving of his work and papers is necessary. Fortunately, that is being done by Pete Gershon, editor of Signal to Noise magazine. A documentary about Long called Bert has been produced, and that's clearly going to help.

A clip from Bert, directed by John Guess, Jr.

 And the monograph I mentioned before? It's in the works. Money has been raised for it through the Houston Artist Fund.

The Houston Artist Fund is a non-profit created to "sponsor art-related projects and organizations that intend to raise funds from individuals, foundations, and corporate donors, but do not have their own tax-exempt status."This has meant in practice helping to finance exhibits and monographs (for Lucas Johnson, for example). Last summer, they hosted a barbeque/raffle/fund-raiser at the El Dorado Ballroom for a Long monograph. Jack Massing, one of the board members, tells me that they have now raised enough money to produce the book but not to print it. So there is a little more required to move this project over the finish line. And when it happens, the project of not forgetting Bert Long will get a major boost.



  1. Thank you, Robert, for addressing the "oblivion" factor; i.e., Casey Williams for "Etc."

    The list for monographs is "long," yes. Where does the Houston Artist Fund start and stop. Who decides is "worthy?" Where does the designation "Houston" start and stop for inclusion? Many that have passed have had catalogues, including Bert (Surls and Frank Martin put it together during the early Lawndale era while Surls ruled Houston art ). Few have had monographs, especially missing is that for Don Foster (but, he was not tactful with other artists). On flip-side-of-coin, Bert worked at making every artist feel important. What's not to love!?!

  2. I would like to see someone put an exhibition together that is a historical record of Houston artist. Including living, non living all ages with a catalog for a record. It is so easy and affordable to produce a catalog these days. That would force all ages together. It could cause an explosion with positive fallout.

    1. I think multigenerational exhibits are useful. The painting show that Aaron Parazette put together at McClain gallery recently was a good example.But good catalogs are not cheap to produce. You can do some halfway decent POD catalogs, but a beautifully designed, case-bound catalog with super-high quality reproductions and great essays just cost money--even before you print it.

  3. Yeah It cost money for quality catalogs. It used to be impossible for artist to afford printed materials to promote their work. Now it is accessible. Having a catalog is helpful. Having a great one is most desirable but not always possible.

    Enjoyed your article!

    1. I like small catalogs done for gallery shows or smaller exhibits in museums and/or non-profit spaces--I wish more people did them! (Good for Dan Allison--he always publishes them). But for an artist like Long who died after a long, important career, I want to see big fancy catalog!