Basil King, Artist
Basil Hershel Cohen was born in London, England in 1935. In 1947 his family immigrated to Detroit, Michigan and changed their surname. He becomes Basil King. Basil attended Cass Technical High School where he was introduced to Albers' color theory and then at age sixteen became the youngest student at Black Mountain College which he attended from 1951‐56. There he studied painting with Esteban Vicente and Joseph Fiore, pottery with Peter Voulkos, and writing with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. Through college contacts he met Willem deKooning, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Michael Goldberg, Frank O’Hara, Paul Blackburn, Jack Spicer, and other painters and poets in New York and San Francisco. These relationships were variously immensely influential on his subsequent development.
Following Black Mountain, Basil lived for two years in San Francisco before moving permanently to New York City in 1959 following his marriage to Martha Davis. During the early 1960's, King worked as a studio assistant for Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. Basil's early work (1959‐1968) was defined by efforts to be part of the major trends of his time‐‐abstract expressionism and then minimalism. Exhibits in group shows at Dorsky, American Gallery, A.M. Sachs Gallery, Jansen Graphics Gallery, Zabriskie, and Great Jones Street Gallery increased his sense that he needed to move in other directions.
In 1965, Basil had a breakthrough into a new approach that employed fluid forms and combined abstraction, surrealism, and figuration. His first work in this mode, titled "Venus", has been lost but the “Algate” paintings exemplify this phase of his work. He received important encouragement from Frank O'Hara during this transition. Further encouraged by the critic G.R. Swenson, Basil formed a small group that exhibited together in the NYU Loeb Student Center in show called "Origins and Cycles." It attracted little attention. Following the deaths of Frank O'Hara in 1966 and G.R. Swenson in 1969, Basil moved to what is now Park Slope, Brooklyn, with Martha and their two daughters.
Pursuing his ongoing interest in poetry and cross‐disciplinary works‐‐he had already contributed art to accompany many poetry books and small press journals‐‐King founded Mulch magazine in 1971 with two young writer friends. In the period 1970‐75, Basil received studio visits from Irving Sandler, Jim Rosenquist, David McKee, Joan Mondale with her art advisor Mary Anne Tighe, and, with negative results, the historian Martin Duberman.
During the 1980‐90's, King's art included series grounded in imagery from playing cards, the European nature figure The Green Man, and importantly, baseball. His baseball works were exhibited in Cooperstown, and in an internationally toured exhibit "Diamonds Are Forever"; a major work was purchased by Tom Seaver. Studio visitors included Dorthea Rockburne, Esteban Vicente, Meredith Monk, Ping Chong, Russell Banks, Bob Holman, outsider art specialist Tom Patterson, Ron Padgett, Fielding Dawson, Ralph Lemon (with whom his daughter Hetty was dancing), Raymond Foye, and Vincent Katz.
In 2002, King is included in “Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art” at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia, Madrid, curated by Vincent Katz. His painting series expanded in the 2000's to include “Cities,” “Europa,” “Family Photos,” and "Basil's Arc" a series of homages to painters he most admires from Jackson Pollack ("First Love") to Rembrandt. He also completed “The Towers” a series on paper in ink, charcoal, and colored chalks, following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. King made a number of European visits between 1986 and 2013 that jump started his work as a serious writer and included presentations and screenings of his art in the U.K. most recently at Kent, Sussex, and Brooks Oxford universities.
In 2006, Basil changed his painting medium by incorporating molding paste, chalks, ink, and charcoal along with oils. He created “Rimbaud’s Seaside.” a 12’ x 15’ ephemeral mural on paper at The Bowery Poetry Club, celebrated with a reading by a dozen poets of Rimbaud translations and homages. A solo show of “The Green Man” paintings was held at Poets House in 2010.
In 2012, a group of poets formed The Friends of Basil King to bring attention to his work. They commissioned Nicole Peyrafitte and Miles Joris‐Peyrafitte to create a short documentary. The result, “Basil King: MIRAGE,” is a 22‐minute film showing Basil at work in his studio, a number of his paintings and works on paper, with a voice‐over by King of text from his autobiographical mirage: a poem in 22 sections. The Friends then organized a daylong symposium on the work of Basil King culminated by the premiere of this film at Anthology Film Archives. A collection of 12 critical responses to King's work, stemming from this event, is published in this issue of Talisman.
Although King has painted the city pigeon in one form or another since 1971, he has been much occupied with bird imagery since 2012. He employs his mature style which effortlessly combines abstraction, surrealism and figuration in an utterly distinct form. In fall 2016, he had a solo show “Basil King, Between Painting + Writing" at Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center, Asheville, NC, followed by “Basil King: Birds” at St. Andrews University, Laurinburg, NC, and a solo show, “Basil King: Bird Scripts,” at the John Molloy Gallery, New York City in February 2017.
Click here to view a sample of Basil King's work from 1961 to present.