Joshua A.W. Gardner: reviews Basil King

  Joshua A.W. Gardner

  A Mythology

  Reviewing: King, Basil. History Now.
  New York: Marsh Hawk Press. 2017.
  160 pages. $15. ISBN 978-0-9964275-7-9.
  Available from Small Press Distribution
  JPR 07

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The world of Basil King is a world in which one painting, one poem, one idea, is always interrelated with others — no matter how seemingly disparate those relations may appear. Throughout King’s acclaimed career as an artist, writer, and historian (if one can make such distinctions now), the interconnections have posed a difficulty in comprehension not only for the critics, the markets, and his fellow poets and painters, but also for the artist himself.


I have interviewed King extensively in an attempt to ‘connect the dots’[1] and shed some light on his new opus, History Now. The first thing I realised was that to understand the work, and moreover the postmodern praxis that presupposed it, one would have to understand his intellectual kinship with the poet Charles Olson.

US artist Basil King, Brooklyn, 1989-03-18, photo (Polaroid) by John Tranter.


Having first enrolled at Black Mountain College in the fall of 1951 during Olson’s charge as Rector, King attended periodically over the institution’s last anarchical years.[2]


When asked about his writing classes with Olson and others, Basil responded ‘Heck, you could have had classes with Picasso, and that’s not going to make you a painter. What made me a writer was internalizing what those men had taught me, and that didn’t come until later, but it did.’[3]



King stressed the importance of understanding that this internalising process ‘which can take years’ is integral to apprehending one of the key facets that propels his historical flights of imagination: namely, that it ‘isn’t planned out,’ the work itself is not linear, because he himself is not: ‘I just think differently, I’m not a linear man.’[4]

Basil King: After Ensor (Asheville Museum)



When King states he has a ‘hard time keeping things out’ and that ‘they all come knocking at the door at the same time,’ he alludes to a historical presence that is not corrupted by the distance of a systemic abstraction.[5] Indeed, King’s credence has never been orthodoxy; he projects a primacy on the moment that breaks the distance of any ‘universal discourse;’his oeuvre imposes no domineering ideology: it is ‘OPEN.’[6]


In his sharing a sense for non-linear ‘origins’ akin with Olson, I contend that King internalised more from those late postmodern figures at Black Mountain than he claims to have. Forever finding the genesis, yet without the ‘purity’ of a delimiting linearity, these origins always ‘divide up.’[7] ‘The nature of the beast is that the primary similarity between Olson and me is that we both start with the origin, and when somebody sees that, they start seeing what I’m doing.


If Olson taught me anything, he taught me that if you don’t have the division, you’re lumped in one place.[8] ’These origins are principally divided, and in their elucidation Basil’s work manifests — hence, the perplexity — ‘When one puts all the seemingly disparate together, it confuses people; however, what I do is show that it isn’t really disparate at all, at least not how I see it.’[9] Thus explaining his conception of ‘HISTORY NOW,’ King’s work removes the binary betweenmythos and logos, story and fact.[10] He tells tales, we follow them. In these allegories, King becomes a ‘Herodotean explorer of reality.’[11]

US artist Basil King, Brooklyn, photo (Polaroid) by John Tranter.


When I asked whether there was an ‘essential Basil King,’ what I received back was a chuckling New York ‘No’ relayed as if thought over for years and laughed away in seconds. Basil recalled a time gone by when he saw a psychiatrist upon the recommendation of a friend. He hoped to get to the root of why he was not being taken on by the commercial galleries; was he deliberately sabotaging himself?


The psychiatrist asked Basil how many people constituted himself, and he replied with hesitation: ‘Three.’


She replied, ‘No, you’re seven — and perhaps even more — and you’re going to have to work with each one of them every day to get to where you’re going.’


‘No,’ Basil replied, ‘there is no essential Basil King,there never has been, and I doubt there ever will be — or even can be.’[12]


I am one of seven […]
every one of us asks
Which one is going to do the division […]
It has taken us
A lifetime
To take a fork in the road
And find a table
Wide enough to accommodate
8, 9 and 10
Muscles and Triangles
The physical and the abstract.[13]


‘Autobiography has more than one ambiguity:’ like the artist situated between ‘the physical and the abstract,’ whom unseats the unit ‘I,’ one cannot diacritically explain his work that so illustratively exemplifies Olson’s ontological plea for an indeterminate Negative Capability.[14] Indeed, to do so is to miss that very binding relation which is key to understanding — though paradoxically — what that unifying force in his oeuvre is that elides the ‘essence’ of unification. King’s work, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, ‘quotes without quotation marks;’ it transfigures the historical field, his poetry, prose and painting coalesce with the political, and — non-internal — they intermingle freely with that which is external to them: they are inter-Textual.[15]


‘Shift gears, arm yourself. The dark and the unforgiving can be corrected by the text; history and poetry, politics; language is everything.’[16] The multiplicity of signification becomes undeniably apparent — one cannot escape history in these allegories, one cannot escape its presence, culture becomes immediate, the signs: immanent. ‘In politics as it is in art it is necessary to bring disparate things together. Language has the capacity to have more than one voice, more than one line, no border needs a wall,’ King, like Olson before him, illustrates our situation without prescribing it; his artistry is polyvocal and thus his works are desirable in so far as they disperse our minds instead of concentrating them; his oeuvre explores a reality in flux and somehow makes profound the uneasy disparity of subjective experience.[17]


A postmodern in continual process, King, like his predecessor, attests to an ontology of Becoming, one that suspends the duplicitous presentation of reality and conversely explores its disparate plurality.[18] To quote from his epic Learning to Draw / A History saga:



What comes first
fantasy or reality
measure the distance the need
to draw and paint
the need to recognize something
that is not you

I paint and I draw and I
follow in the footsteps of all the painters
that came before me

fantasy / reality
the imagination and the abstract rock[19]


History, one could argue, is of the morning. And it is in this vein that King joins Olson as an ‘archaeologist of the morning,’ one who not only records but also makes history in his explorations of it.[20] A living extension of the Black Mountain legacy, King, that always shifting identity, flicks between people and mediums in moments, and poets, painters, historians — let alone the several Basil Kings — come knocking. From one moment to the next, ‘he’ struggles keeping them out; from what was a disparity, what is left is a profusion: amythology. History, now.


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[1] Joshua A. Gardner, Basil King Interviews: Joshua A. Gardner Black Mountain College Research Collection, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina. The approximately twelve conducted hours of taped phone interviews are currently in the process of transcription at the Western Regional Archives; hence I have cited the respective tape numbers (t. x.) accordingly.
[2] Gardner, Basil King Interviews, t.1. Basil recalled the physical poverty of the College often, whilst reinforcing the ‘intensity’ of its communal vigor. With the closure of the dining hall in 1952, Basil remembered learning how to cook so he could use this skill as a trade for the food he prepared for others.
[3] Ibidem., t. 2.
[4] Ibidem.
[5] Ibidem., t.9.
[6] Ibidem., t.6.
[7] Ibidem., t.4.
[8] Ibidem., t.6.
[9] Ibidem., t.9.
[10] Basil King, History Now (New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2017), x. Indeed, the back cover of this book illustrates the word ‘STORY’ derived from ‘HISTORY ‘NOW’ on the front cover (my emphases).
[11] Charles Olson, The Special View of History (Berkeley: Oyez, 1970), 2.
[12] Gardner, Basil King Interviews, t.5.
[13] King, History Now, 136-137.
[14] Ibidem., 150. See also: Olson, The Special View of History, 43. Olson deems the Negative Capability (taken from Keats) to be ‘crucial for post-Modern man,’ for it will render him ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,’ therefore opening his Symbolic lens to the indeterminacy of existence, the historically contingent ‘or what we would call today relative’ and thus to the ‘right now, as it is happening:’ the embodied event itself — the dialectic of the physical and the abstract.
[15] Barthes, Image Music Text, 160.
[16] King, History Now, 92.
[17] Ibidem., 124.
[18] Gardner, Basil King Interviews, t.12.
[19] Basil King, The Spoken Word / the Painted Hand (New York: Marsh Hawk Press, 2014), 97.
[20] Charles Olson, Archaeologist of the Morning (London: Cape Golliard Grossman Press, 1970).

Critic Joshua Gardner.

Joshua Gardner has been a visiting art historian from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, concurrently working as both a scholar and Gallerist. He is the first recipient of UNC-Asheville’s Black Mountain College Legacy Research Internship in 2016 where he has worked with the Legacy Fellow, Mary Emma Harris. Joshua was the Assistant Curator of the exhibition Basil King: Between Painting and Writing with Co Curators Vincent Katz and Brian Butler at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.


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