Bill Bartman (1946-2005)
The first book I purchased at Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) was Chuck Close’s interview with Vija Celmins in 1997, a year after it was inaugurated in Chelsea. I remember talking to a rather robustly built, energetic, and most expressive man about how we both ceased to buy art books at Ursus because of their high prices and privileged book-collector demographic. He then went on with a long, passionate speech about his mission and program at A.R.T., which was to make art books available and free to libraries in underserved communities. I told him in reply that I have recently met a few friends in Brooklyn and that we are planning to carry off a similar ideology: to publish a free journal known today as The Brooklyn Rail. He was extremely attentive, sympathetic, and kind. The man I was speaking to turned out to be Bill Bartman.
Born in Chicago, he grew up in Los Angeles, and after having earned a B.A. from Trinity College in Hartford, CT in 1968, William Bartman immediately became involved in stage and film productions throughout the 1970’s and early ‘80s. At the West Coast Theatre Company in LA, he produced and directed several plays. Around the same time, he founded an artists-in-the-schools program, in addition to a theatre program at the federal penitentiary in Lompoc, CA, which included the staging of an all-inmate production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” as well as his work as director and co-writer of the ’82 movie “O’Hara’s Wife”—a comedy-drama starring Jodie Foster, Ed Asner, and Mariette Hartley.
In the few years leading to his founding of A.R.T., initially in LA ’87, Bartman shifted his interests form theater and film to the visual arts. He soon became an avid art collector and, as most of us have known him, one of the great advocates and patron saints of the arts. Since its founding as a unique, non-profit “bookstore-gallery,” A.R.T. had published 16 contemporary artist-interview books, mounted over 60 one-person and group exhibits of underappreciated as well as young emerging artists, donated more than 140,000 art books, videos, and other art and culture related materials to thousands of rural and inner cities libraries nationwide.
There are two things that could exemplify Bartman’s populist spirit. One was the bowl of chocolate cookies placed in the A.R.T. gallery for the visitors. And the other was his passionate letter to the president of MOMA, Glenn Lowry, when the admission was raised from $12 to $20 after the opening the museum’s grand and newly renovated building, to which he wrote, “How would you expect a poor kid from the Bronx to see works of art?”
Over the years I have lost touch with Bill because of his long-term health issue, though I continued to purchase many art books and visit exhibits at A.R.T. before it closed last year in 2004. Rarely have I met a person with such a benevolent nature. What Bill had accomplished in the art world certainly has and will inspire myself as well as my colleagues at The Rail to continue our work on his behalf. The Brooklyn Rail salutes one of our own: William Bartman. We send our heartfelt sympathy to his mother, Norma Bartman, his brother Thomas, and his sister Barbara.
In the autumn of 1996, as I was leaving Chuck Close’s studio, Bill Bartman, who had been interviewing both of us individually, asked where I was going and could he give me a lift. Bill was wearing a dark business suit and a tie. I stepped out of Chuck’s studio and into a dark stretch limo. On the way uptown Bill asked me what I was working on and I explained my preparations for a wall painting, “Euclid’s Comet,” which deals with four dimensional space and which would take place in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Bill immediately asked if it was being filmed and when I replied, “not to my knowledge,” he said he wanted to make a film of the process. I gave him the names to contact.
The following June I arrived in Ann Arbor with my crew to discover that the person in charge of my project was incompetent, and arrogant. It was a new building, not completely finished. There was no water to mix the pigments with, no lights, and no phone (this was slightly before cell phones were common). Two of my friends, Roy Lichtenstein and Hermine Fried were ill and dying. I could not get word. There was no food available, no restaurants, and no grocery stores for the crew. The housing was inadequate and dirty. The scaffolding was unsafe. It was a nightmare. My pleas went unheard.
And then Bill arrived. The dark business suit replaced by shorts exposing the prosthes is attached to his right leg where he had had bone cancer and a consequent amputation. Carefully, I explained my difficulties. Now, for those of us who knew Bill, knew the love, knew the intelligence, knew the passion, knew that he had had AIDS for twenty years, as well as a bad heart, and that consequently, he often had bad periods. Well, Bill constantly performed miracles on behalf of others.
In my Ann Arbor situation, within an hour after his arrival we had phones. Soon after that, we had water. He made an arrangement to get not only film but camera men. Next came the food and then the lights and the proper housing. Simultaneously, Bill was producing Chuck’s superb book, “The Portrait Speaks.” As his infectious optimism swept over the crew, Bill and I became loving friends. He asked a lot of questions about the art world in New York in the seventies. He asked about Max’s Kansas City, the Bykert Gallery, Chuck Close then, Brice Marden, Patterson Sims, and much more. He wanted to do a book with me about that time. He accomplished so much in too short a lifetime. He had such a grand view of life. I feel his presence everywhere. In spite of being born into a body which took too many bullets, his spirit soared.
Unique is the word that can be ascribed to Bill. Sometimes people would say sort of unique, almost unique or most unique, but with Bill, he really was all-unique. I have never met or known anyone remotely like him. Bill had more energy and more will-to-live and more passion per square inch than any one I’ve known. Even when he was on dialysis or having problems with his amputation and aids on every known drug pouring into his body, he remained the most positive, passionate, thoughtful and caring person. Once in the hospital he lapsed into a coma and we thought he had left us, the next day he bounced back and was planning the next project: wanting me to go and do more interviews for another book with many other artists besides the one which I already had done with Vija Celmins. Those were great projects that I can’t imagine anybody else would ever sign up for, raise money for, and carry them through. I‘ll always be grateful for that opportunity.
But I think his greatest contribution is the library program, which really embodies his passion for information and art, and his generosity for the underserved. For most of us, we muddle around in the regular art community in which we all know each other. It’s like a big club. Bill, on the other hand, decided to go outside of that and to reach the other communities, small towns where no one sees art and has little access to art books in local libraries. That’s especially important to me because I grew up in little mill town in the state of Washington where my first exposure to art was through a few art books that I had found in the library. In Bill’s spirit and legacy, I hope that enough people will contribute to keep the staff at work and we will be able to continue his unfinished work.
I met Bill Bartman about eight years ago in his gallery on 22nd street. A friend who knew him from California suggested I show him my work. Many artists met him this way. Bill was supportive, curious, and generous with his time. Over the years he gathered many interesting artists and people around him. He was insatiable. When Bill moved his gallery to 11th Avenue to a larger space and began to have as many as six artists show each month, every wall even the hallway was an exhibition space. One leg, electric wheel chair and his perpetual health problems don’t seem to prevent him from his work. To me, Bill was always invincible rather than fragile.
What is a name for a man with one steel leg and one good leg who wears shorts all the time?
Bill Bartman, of course.
Bill Bartman is a friend of mine. I have a party every year at Thanksgiving and another one at Easter. Bill is always invited, of course.
One year he said, “I am going to bring mashed potatoes. I love mashed potatoes.”
He brought the potatoes and cooked them at my house in a huge pot.
Maybe he brought his own pot. He mashed them in the pot with his bare hands. He was up to his elbows in the pot with water running down his arms. Everyone ate all the potatoes.
The next year Bill said, “I am going to bring oranges. I love fresh oranges.”
He brought oranges and peeled and cut them in a huge bowl with his bare hands. Maybe he brought his own bowl. The juice ran down his arms and dripped off his elbows.
Not everyone ate all the orange pieces.
The next day I finished eating all the orange pieces.
Bill died at 7 Eleven September 16, 2005.
There will be no more mashed potatoes and no more orange pieces.
There will be books and more books…beautiful children’s books by brilliant artists that are for those of us who are older as well as for children, and books that are here for us throughout the rest of our lives.
A week after his death, this city’s paper of record found it sufficient to allot meager space to publish a short and impersonal obituary to Bill Bartman, a tireless champion of the arts, underneath a much longer and detailed one to a minor league baseball player who had hit 72 home runs.
While basically insulting his memory, and being indicative of that papers priorities, it was in a way a fitting illustration to Bills life and labors. If it wasn’t about him, Bill would probably respond with the scathing indignance and ruthless entertainment that he so often voiced with nary a cautionary whisper or glance.
At the price of his own physical well being, and without a grain of self-promotion, Bill Bartman created spaces in which he toiled endlessly to exhibit as many artists as the imagination could possibly hold, and which the walls, including hallways and bathrooms could possibly accommodate.
With an attitude that was unwavering and equal to individuals regardless of their fame, age, race, gender or sexual orientation, Bill toiled to exhibit and introduce and include and disseminate as much work and information that was humanly possible, and then some. At the Art Resources Transfer spaces, people exhibited, looked, read, met, bought books (at major discounts) and just generally felt that their endeavors were worthwhile. Establishing an exhibition program called “Conversations”, he insisted on dialogue as a necessary and vital part of artistic exploration and representation. Aware from early on of the computer’s and web’s potential, he would have his staff (an ever changing group of people as devoted as him) transcribe and type and scan and upload images. A courageous independent publisher, A.R.T. press published beautiful “Conversation” books and pamphlets regularly. Tirelessly working to exhibit under represented artists, he organized “The Tip of the Iceberg”, an exhibition in 5 locations of woman artists who have been working for years, regardless of their recognition.
Bill Bartman was always available. Sitting at his desk with his prosthetic leg leaning on the bookshelf by his side, he would talk with anyone who came in, and look at anyone’s work. If he liked what he saw, which was basically anything that showed serious commitment, he would look into his computer and promise a show three years down the line. He always kept his promise and he never took a commission.
Bill Bartman was the physical and spiritual antitheses of the “Art world” establishment. Living and struggling with illness he was in the words of someone who knew him well “chronically alive”. Thank you Bill. You will be missed.
—Eyal Danieli and Amanda Guest
There will be memorial for Bill on November 5th at 2:00 pm. The memorial will be held at the Friends Meeting House, 15 Rutherford Place NY, NY 10003. For directions please call (212) 777-88660.