“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger.”
– Muhammad Ali
“Someone crazy calls me I say ‘Ah-hah’
I have a jar of ketchup under my right arm
I have no inner life
No time to suffer shortcomings, someone else’s
Morning after someone else’s going away
Today they went away to stay
Furnishings deranged like looks in instant photographs
One frame we squabble, next we sweetly mend
Cooling heels entwined on a daybed
– Bill Berkson, “You Sure Do Some Nice Things”
“Passing the visions, passing the night,
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands,
Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,
Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.”
– Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
June 2016 was an emotional rollercoaster. It began with the news late Friday, June 3, that Muhammad Ali had died. I clearly remember the famous May 1965 cover of Life magazine: Ali defeated Sonny Liston in the first round. It was kept in my grandparents’ library and regarded as a precious document. At least in Huế, Vietnam, Ali’s name was mentioned as often as those of the U.S. presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. The champ was one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century, mostly because he strove to be the boxing champion of the world at the same time he fought for social and political justice.
The following day, Saturday June 4, I had to switch gears for the opening of the most recent Rail curatorial project: Hallway Hijack at 66 Rockwell Place, in collaboration with the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies at Columbia University. Eighteen hallways of the newly constructed residential building were “hijacked” by artists, and turned into site-specific works. In addition to it being an opportunity to spread an appreciation for art, it offered a chance to collaborate with my old friend Tomas Vu, the artist and director of the Neiman Center. We were particularly thrilled to work together on two floors of the building. Another seventeen artists, former and current MFA students at Columbia, completed the other floors. Projects like these, if nurtured properly, can be the best opportunities for people to engage with the works of commissioned artists since the Federal Art Project of the WPA. According to Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard in their 1986 unpublished manuscript Cultural Democracy, in 1936, at the project’s height it employed over 5,000 artists and made an unquestionable contribution to the rapid developments in American art in the decades that followed.
On Monday, June 6, David Ebony sent an email informing us that the great Brazilian artist Tunga had just died in Rio. My immediate feeling was one of great loss. Tunga was to our art community in the last two decades what Joseph Beuys was during the ’70s and ’80s. We simply can’t afford to lose more Counter-Enlightenment figures like Tunga.
The worst news arrived from Orlando on Monday, June 13: forty-nine people were killed, and another fifty-three were wounded at a gay nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history. The nation was in shock at this act of violence, and so was the rest of the world. More devastating news came in on Thursday, June 16—just before the Rail Editions book reception at 192 Books for our friend, the renowned art historian/critic Irving Sandler’s second memoir Swept Up by Art—that another friend, the legendary poet and art critic Bill Berkson had left us suddenly. I say suddenly because after he survived a few severe health complications, all of us expected Bill to live forever. Bill’s spirit and attitude towards art and life will continue to serve as a guiding light for everything that we do in our lives.
Over the following days, good feelings returned—various foundations informed the Rail that they would support our drive to pay our editors, writers, and keep the journal free. But it wasn’t long before the last blow came in the form of the passing of one of the most beloved New Yorkers, Bill Cunningham, who, after the release of Richard Press’s excellent documentary in 2010, promised to sit down for a long conversation in the Rail. It’s hard to imagine what the Evening Hours column in the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times would look like without his photographs!
At this point in time I turned to the workload at the Rail HQ with greater intensity than usual. And in thinking of Bill Berkson along with the Rail’s staff, especially our two production assistants par excellence who just completed their rotation, Sarah Steadman and Georgica Pettus, I feel even more compelled to share a spirit of love and peace through the arts and the humanities.
Happy summer, in solidarity,
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.