OUTSIDE/INSIDE: Just outside the art world's inside
by Martha King
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mills
Indeed, Martha King has written a memoir in elegantly simple prose, a fascinating look into Black Mountain and creativity's boho fringe. In the late 50's as Black Mountain was winding down, the creative arts were regarded too frivolous, if not too racy, to be a chosen career, especially for women. Women were emphatically pushed to find a husband and have, at best, work one could "fall back on." In Martha King's case, she was discouraged from pursuing art by her family; still she managed, briefly, to attend classes at Black Mountain and, there, to meet her husband, artist Basil King. Basil who? Not deemed worthy by that same family, not only for being an aspiring artist but, good god!, he was Jewish! While managing to maintain her own creativity, the author subsequently devoted herself to supporting her husband's career; and in that regard, the author's memoir may raise some questions, artfully deflected in the, albeit slightly arch, preface:
The problem with memoir conventions is that the jury is still out on a
fundamental assumption firmly believed by the main character and
narrator, Martha King, about the value of the art of her partner Basil King.
Who is Basil King? How important is his art? What happens to a memoir
when the conclusion is still so open? How are you to read it? And who is
Martha, Martha Winston Davis King? Why, in defiance of all the tropes of
male-female relationships in the late 20th early 21st centuries, has she
lived her life in the context of his?
Beyond that, it’s quite possible that you don’t know who most of the people
she writes about are.
Well, if you do not know who those people are, look them up; their world is a rich, almost enviable one, in terms of the creative ferment generated therein. However, as for the more important points made above, yes, one does wonder at the unabashed, perhaps slightly old fashioned devotion that the author has to advancing her partner's work; on the other hand, the unfolding story is no mawkish tale (the couple continue to be mutually supportive of one another) but an engrossing one about the struggles, joys and challenges, as Martha King puts it, "Just outside the inside of the art world." These are familiar struggles to many a creative soul, ones that persist even into today. Besides, dammit, the book is such a good read!
To continue, then. As if disgruntled family disapproval were not difficult enough, once Martha and Basil emerge from the cocoon of Black Mountain, they faced all the possible obstacles to perseverance. For the money changers were—and, I fear still are—alive and well in the temple. King goes on to recount the creative ferment extending well beyond Black Mountain, including her contacts with the likes of Frank O-Hara, Allen Ginzberg, Hettie Jones, Bob Thompson, Paul Blackburn, and many more. But Artists need somewhere to do their work. At least some cash. Worse, the overriding criteria for success is, and even then was, contaminated by the worship of those same gods of commerce. One's day job easily became—and for many has become—one's straight jacket. In the case of Basil's art, his path was littered with under-attended exhibits, botched connections, and a stubborn (Black Mountain college induced?) persistence, adhering to one's own vision, not an imitation of the au courant. And what if, just suppose, the vision one clings to is not quite up to snuff? That, neither King believed, thankfully, though Martha's writing sometimes took a back seat to demanding day jobs just to help keep the two of them afloat.
The plot is by no means a new one in our world. Many a creative person has gone to their grave unknown and unrewarded, their talent undernourished by lack of resources and just plain bad luck. What Black Mountain began—an insistent push to explore, to experiment, can become watered down in the marketplace. Nonetheless, in the case of those who inhabit this book, the mark of the college was there; and what King does is not only draw a portrait of such people whose lives were inflected (or infected) by the college but also of and age of insistent avant-garde experimentation and accomplishment which one might very well yearn for today. Some of those persons were never well known (the author describes Basil King as "the man who wasn't there," for his not-so-well-known profile.) Some, like de Kooning and Rauschenberg, made it bigger.
When the Kings left the West Coast, and came to New York city, where so many artists migrate to this day (where else was one supposed to be "discovered"?) New York had pockets in which one could continue to do one's work. On rare occasions, I suppose it still does. Other reviewers insist that, in fact, the ferment documented in this memoir continues unabated.
Then, with luck, a rich relative here, a surprise windfall there, one could then buy a home in one of the boroughs. Not now. Now the experimental fringe is, more likely than not, priced out. Most of Manhattan and swaths of Brooklyn are increasingly become gated communities and the historically bohemian enclaves commodified, turned into hot real estate. I recall the many experimental dancers and theatre people whose work I reviewed in the '70s and '80s, when one of my day jobs was as an arts critic in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. All had fled there because they could not afford to do the experimental work their imaginations thrived on and still live in the City. Perhaps not so good at tooting their own horns, coopted, bought out, or just plain wrung out, the avant-garde's gradual disappearance from America's cultural Meccas is reminiscent of the rare and wonderful beasts of our planet whose numbers daily decrease. I hope I am terribly wrong.
Be advised, however, Martha King's OUTSIDE/INSIDE is not an exercise in nostalgia, but among other things, but, and in terms of cultural history, an important primary document. Though haunted by demons more distant than now, the book reminds us of a flourishing time and of extraordinary people who must be honoured.
Sadly Black Mountain, on a much smaller scale in the 1950s, ran into financial difficulties and closed in 1957, but not before letting many of those notables loose on the world and leaving an inspired legacy behind.*
Women and Children First, 2+2 Press, 1975
Weather, New Rivers Press, 1978
Islamic Miniature, Lee/Lucas Press 1979
Monday Through Friday, Zelot Press, 1982
Seventeen Walking Sticks, (with art by Basil King) Stop Press, 1997
Imperfect Fit: Selected Poems, Marsh Hawk, 2004
Little Tales of Family and War, Spuyten Duyvil, 1999
Separate Parts: Six Memory Pieces, Avec, 2002
Seven & More, (with art by Basil King) Spuyten Duyvil, 2006
North & South, Spuyten Duyvil, 2006
History Now. Marsh Hawk, 2017.
The Spoken Word / the Painted Hand from Learning to Draw / A History.
Marsh Hawk Press, 2014
Learning to Draw/A History. Skylight Press, 2011.
77 BEASTS: BASIL KING'S BEASTIARY, Marsh Hawk Press, 2007.
Mirage: A Poem in 22 Sections, Marsh Hawk Press, 2003.
Warp Spasm, Spuyten Duyvil, 2011.
For more, see http://basilking.net/writingBK.html
He is also the subject and narrator of a 2012 film, Basil King: Mirage, by the artists Nicole Peyrafitte and Miles Joris-Peyrafitte.
In November 2014 he narrated Black Mountain Songs, including a few of his poems, as part the BAM Next Wave Festival.
Martha King Martha King was born Martha Winston Davis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1937. She
attended Black Mountain College for three months as a teenager, and married the painter Basil King
in 1958. They have two daughters and four grandchildren. Before retiring from day jobs in 2011,
Martha worked as an editor and science writer. She also edited 2+2 chapbooks with Susan Sherman
in the late 1970s and published 31 issues of Giants PlayWell in the Drizzle, 1983-1992. Currently she
co-curates a long-running prose reading series with Elinor Nauen at the SideWalk Café on the Lower
Basil King attended Black Mountain College as a teenager in the 1950s, and completed an
apprenticeship as an abstract expressionist painter in San Francisco and New York. Although he did
not begin to write regularly until 1986, an involvement with poetry has always been part of his life,
first in doing art to accompany poems in books and magazines, later as a book artist. Today he is a
working poet/painter. Some of his paintings can be seen on the website www.basilking.net or on his
Flickr site: King New333.
* Black Mountain College