Basil King’s work in the late 1960s
Late in the sixties Basil King painted a series of heads he called “The Aldgate Brides” or sometimes “Brides of Algate”–spelling not his concern nor consistency in titling either. Aldgate is an actual place in London, near Commercial Street, near the street on which Basil lived until he was a little over four years old and the Blitz began. It’s also to my ears a word of optimistic meaning. It might mean old but sounds like all gates.
The figurative “Aldgate Brides” came out of work I called his biomorphs, which in their turn came directly after "Venus," the first painting he did after recovering from a breakdown he suffered in 1965. It was a crisis of faith, purpose, and aesthetics all coalesced as a huge pause. "Depression" seems too thin and limited a term for it. He could work, but only at household tasks, baby care, minor part-time money-jobs. He could leave the house for long walks in the city. The pause was major break from the style and substance of his previous abstract and abstract-minimal visual art.
From his Black Mountain College days when he was a teenager through his mid- twenties, Basil worked in violent (and brilliant) abstract expressionist modes. Then, as the Ab-Ex world waned, he moved into cerebral investigations he called “School Figures,” -- his foray into minimalism. These paintings were composed of boxes, boxes that danced and spun proposing deep space and urgent motions. No true minimalist would have countenanced such behavior. Basil was interested in minimalism, but only in the hands of others. He complained that by eliminating overt emotion, by flirting with purity, he was literally painting himself into a box. And he hit a wall.
With recovery, well after the birth of our second child Hetty, came "Venus," which was worked over so many times that finally the surface was inches thick and the weighted canvas sagged from the stretcher bars. "Venus" was here, she was there, as Basil struggled to unhook his image from the influences of deKooning and then Matisse. She was indeed, as Venus can be, quite a bitch. He eventually abandoned the canvas. Did he throw it away? I don’t know. But I do know working on it gave birth to a buoyant series I tagged biomorphs. They were paintings of three-dimensional, almost sculptural tubes and cylinders. They were abstract and not abstract. They were sea creatures in deep waters or embryonic forms floating in far outer space. They were sexy and somewhat alarming. I think he did ten of them until something else appeared: "The Brides" or "The Aldgate Brides."
These works were also abstract and not abstract. Basil was creating recognizable human figures without a trace of deKooning or Matisse to anchor them. They were all composed alike, on canvasses of about the same size and in a strictly limited (minimal?) vocabulary of cartoonish forms. Each head was a round bald light-bulb shape; each had eyes of layered ovals, two lips tilted, a large bulbous nose, and a neck and shoulders divided with a distinctive soft triangle, on the side opposite the tilted mouth. Why was it clear that these patterns were women? Sexual characteristics (hair, eyelashes, breasts) were totally absent. But women they were. And what gave each a distinct personality, making her different from all the others? The construction persisted from one painting to the next, but they were all uniquely individual.
Basil's use of limitation and repetition links to Josef Albers, of course. But more overtly than any work by Albers, these toons are packed with stories. Each one has a history, a narrative, a personality, is a female who knows things, and after looking at any one of them for a while, you know things about her too. Basil added to this by giving each a personal name -- “Roberta” was one, “Primavera” another.
In this series, Basil’s devotion to narrative emerges for the first time. Then and since his narratives are always innate, never truly explicit. They are tip-of-the tongue stories, as familiar as Greek myths or movie plots. Basil has continued to do work in series, often with strictly observed limitations and a constrained palette, ever since that time. The protocol will be held to but then abandoned when the series is complete. Theme and variation, call and response, riff and counter riff.
Were the Brides ugly? Were they profound? Like Tar Baby, they “don’t say nuthin.” The series is painted in a deliciously glowing thin paint on barely primed canvas. The sheer beauty of the paint surface bothered some people who saw them back then...they were not just bothered; they were outright offended by the contradiction between seductively beautiful paint surfaces and those unlovely noses, blobby lips, and bulging eyes. It would be much better, some said (meaning the images would be less disturbing?) if they were painted with angry slashing strokes, or with thick impasto, or in violent colors. Was Basil a racist? A couple of people actually asked this—connecting the bug eyes and lush lips to stereotypical cartoons of Aunt Jemima and Lil Black Sambo.
But Basil, like his friend Hubert Selby, Jr., who loved his thwarted evil characters, loved these ladies, and it wasn’t a worry to him if you couldn’t call them beautiful. The paintings were perfectly, even classically balanced. Beautiful. The paint was delicate. Beautiful. Ah, but the ladies themselves had no reserve at all. They stared, leered, simpered, or rested with slightly open mouths, popping off their dirty white canvas backgrounds. They have the oddest staying power. I haven’t seen a single one of them other than on a slide since Basil left his big 39th Street studio in Brooklyn in 1992 – that was when we put hundreds of his paintings into storage — yet describing “The Brides” is very easy for me.
"The Brides" series came to an enormous climax in his "Aldgate Narcissus" mural (1968-1969). Here the cartoon formula is left behind. Abstracted figures – male, female, both, and neither, populate the complex. "Aldgate Narcissus" would be thirty-five feet long if it were assembled flat, but when it’s set up as Basil intended, it plunges into and emerges out of a corner. It’s made up of six panels. The two outside edges are nine feet high and four feet wide; the middle four sections are each four by six.
This project drove Basil out of his studio in the back of the Anderson Theatre in the summer of 1968. This project had to be large, he said. And the canvas had to be shaped. I thought the six-panel idea was for convenience as there’s often an issue about getting big works in and out of buildings, except for museums or for artists who have studios in buildings equipped with big freight elevators. But that wasn't the reason. In 1968 I didn’t know how much he loved early Renaissance altar paintings, and I didn’t know them myself, although the Met has some fine examples that I must have walked right past. In any event I didn’t connect them to this idea, not even when he showed me the plans he had scribbled out for the stretchers.
Basil was able to borrow a larger loft space from Karl Steuklen, a painter friend who had a floor on Bowery at the edge of Chinatown. Karl was off to Vermont for the summer but didn’t want to leave his space unattended. This was a simple handshake deal. No money involved. Rents weren’t such crippling issues in the late sixties, and things were like that then among the artists we knew.
When Karl returned to the city at the end of August, he needed his loft back — but the painting was a long way from finished. There was nothing to do but disassemble it and truck it back to the Anderson Theatre, back to where Basil's studio was the unused storage room, meant for stage flats and set elements. There, queerly but appropriately, it fit both height and width with just inches to spare. Not only could Basil finish it, but it seemed it actually was the walls of that studio.
In the mural, the shapes shift and weave across the panels, literally in the process of becoming figures, and producing, in the final left-hand corner, a sweet powerfully incipient child’s head, turned out to face the viewer and smiling benignly on all the energy working across the picture’s six panels. I recognize that infant face as our daughter Mallory. It’s a picture of creation out of massive, sexually charged disorder. It’s a picture of a relation between the abstract and the figure, with neither submitting unnecessarily to the other. The violence and the lyricism are both aspects of this conflict.
Basil finished the painting that winter and the poet Paul Blackburn organized a showing for it the following spring. Paul had a long-standing relationship with the Poets Theatre and the Reverend Al Carmine at the Judson Church. He persuaded Al to make the main sanctuary space available free for a Friday night event. Paul planned to get an audience for Basil’s art by orchestrating a marathon poetry reading to go along with an exhibition of the mural. Paul and his new wife Joan had just recently moved upstate, to Cortland, New York, for a good teaching position but his links to New York were strong. He’d get the downtown world to turn out, he said. But it didn’t happen. In the end only nine poets accepted Paul's invitations to appear. And one of the nine bugged out at the last minute. On the designated Friday night the church held a scattered gang of the closer pals and buddies of the people who were reading and after the reading, everyone dispersed. There would be no outflow, no build of interest, no ripple effect.
Per agreement with Al, Basil and I were to take the painting down on Saturday morning. Judson had a full schedule of services and other events for the weekend. Then Al phoned us. Two people who were to be married that Saturday evening wanted it up for their wedding. Would that be okay? They told Al they thought the painting was “groovy” and they wanted to be married in front of it.
I’ve no idea who they were; Basil didn’t ask their names.
But I do wonder if they have photographs of themselves in their wedding clothes in 1970 in front of the painting? Except for their wedding and that Friday evening reading, "Aldgate Narcissus" has never been seen in public. Basil assembled it once as he was moving out of his 39th Street studio in Brooklyn, just for our own private look, but otherwise it has spent its time carefully wrapped and stored. Narcissus in chambers, like a nautilus, fresh for a future.