The Burt Britton Collection at Bloomsbury Auctions, New York, 9/24/09

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Portrait of the Artist: The Burt Britton Collection
at Bloomsbury Auctions, New York, NY
Thursday, September 24th at 2:00pm

Only in New York could a man like Burt Britton pursue successive careers as bartender and bookseller, both equally supportive for his passion for the arts, especially the arts of the word. His enthusiasm came to fruition very late one night at the Village Vanguard, when Britton served drink after drink to a solitary last guest, Norman Mailer, trying to get him to leave, so he could go home to bed. Mailer repeated over and over again, “What do you want from me, kid?” Britton’s entreaties for him to go home did no good. Without thinking, Britton said, “Norman, here, on this piece of paper, do a self-portrait for me, drink your drink, and let’s call it a night.” And that, according to the collector, “began all this madness.”

For years after that, Burt Britton, who went on to work at the Strand Bookstore, and later joined Jeannette Watson in founding Books & Company next to the Whitney. All proved to be ideal lairs for catching writers, actors, musicians, photographers, artists, and cartoonists he admired and cajoling them into drawing self-portraits for a collection which eventually numbered over a thousand sheets. I imagine book-signings presented excellent opportunities. Britton was relentless and comprehensive, but, rather than a calculated, systematic enterprise, his collecting seems more like one of those crazy passions that strike New Yorkers in the own spectacular but private fashion, resulting in collections of thousands of records, books, or antique blacksmithing gear in walkup apartments. But Burt Britton was never secretive or solitary. He published a book of his collection in 1976.

Norman Mailer, Self-Portrait

Norman Mailer, Self-Portrait

The appearance of the Bloomsbury catalogue on my desk at a time when I was reading obituaries for the Café des Artistes inspired a dreamy fit of nostalgia. The 213 lots in this sale cover a whole period in the city’s intellectual life, not only in terms of books you might have read, but people you’d see in the street, or a restaurant, or, of course, in a bookshop. Books & Company in its time was well-known as a denizen of the names one might see on the spines. Like the Café des Artistes it was a place where the people from across the Hudson could observe celebrities at leisure and at work. The store in fact was a late-comer, a fruit of the autumn chill, after many of the scores of quirky bookshops that gave New York much of its charm had already disappeared. As such, it was a bit too elegant and a bit too clean to be taken seriously. It represented the New York bookshop in the same way the contemporary Algonquin stands for what it used to be. It was a literary boutique. Nonetheless, it was the only place left where one could find all the available works of Dickens, Yeats, or Tennessee Williams on one shelf, and I could never keep away from it for very long.

In any case, there are numerous treasures in the Bloomsbury sale, some simply for their artistic quality. Others present surprises. It may not be a surprise that the polymath Anthony Burgess was a vivid and energetic draftsman, but I had no idea John Updike was capable of such elegant line. He was, after all, a life-long art lover. It’s also fascinating to compare literary types like John McPhee, who clearly took pleasure in drawing, but others find amusing work-arounds, largely to avoid embarrassment. All the drawings tell a story of their own, even if we’ll never know what most of them are.

One of the best, to my mind, is the sketch that started it all. Norman, of course, must have been very drunk, but the line still shows a strong gesture and sense of design. By contrast, Saul Bellow, in 1973, drew a spare delineation of a cryptic profile which does little to recall his physical appearance. A bold signature and date extending from the eyes (omitted) to the jaw compensate for its lack of authorial or personal habitation. Contrast Truman Capote’s equally spare cipher, which is the man all over. Joan Didion wrote a wrote a few descriptive lines about herself in red marker, while her husband, John Gregory Dunne, provided a thumb print and a signature. A similar reticence towards self-visualization appears in Philip Roth’s almost formless representation of his own head, while John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Penn Warren gave vivid, cartoonish icons of themselves.

Among the most fascinating works in the sale are Borges’ self-portrait as a labyrinth and Hunter S. Thompson’s surreal collage of himself as a hieratic, owl-like figure standing on mountains.

Jorge Luis Borges, Self-Portrait, pen and black ink on paper.

Jorge Luis Borges, Self-Portrait, pen and black ink on paper.

Among the actors, Dustin Hoffman’s is spare and distant, suggesting with few lines a Rushmore-like profile. Lauren Bacall’s is a conventional and not excessively competent sketch of herself in younger years, but it has its charm. Zero Mostel had a go at Picasso, while David Niven and Paul Newman offered very amusing self-caricatures. You will find a string of great names in music: Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis, John Cage, Mabel Mercer, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins.

Some of the most interesting drawings come from photographers. Richard Avedon’s brooding, almost menacing collage bristles with thick, angular pencil strokes and rough fields of shading. André Kertesz’ “I am the camera!” shows an eye set into an early Leica body. His approximate contemporary Brassaï produced another wide-open eye blossoming from a stem, which grows from the “B” in his signature. Harry Callahan’s, quite a rarity, given that little has survived from his studio, is a spare, elegant street scene, showing himself standing concentratedly by a lamp-post, photographing the cars passing by. You’ll also find Berenice Abbott, J. H. Lartigue, Arnold Newman, Gordon Parks, and W. Eugene Smith.

Harry Callahan, Self-Portrait, blue chalk-pencil on tissue.

Harry Callahan, Self-Portrait, blue chalk-pencil on tissue.

Finally, the professionals. Many of the great names of the sixties, seventies, and eighties are there, among them Romare Bearden, Red Grooms, Philip Guston, David Hockney, Alex Katz, Robert Motherwell, and Larry Rivers, a few architects, not to mention cartoonists like Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Edward Gorey, Al Hirschfield, David Levine, and Edward Koren. Hockney’s sly self-portrait on a book cover only partially visible in a tote bag is fully finished, and with elegance. Motherwell’s, an abstract daub of yellowish-tan acrylic over thick pencil strokes, has a monumental and poetic air, while River’s “AUTO-PORTRAIT” is and intense confrontation with the artist’s sharp gaze, as he emerges from a book. Labelled “automatic, five minute,” it bridges academic practice and the automatic drawing he studied with Hans Hoffman. This is a splendid piece of draftsmanship and both inner and outer observation, and it’s hardly the only work in this sale of impressive quality in its own right, apart from the charming context in which these works were created.

There are some interesting omissions as well. Perhaps they’re just not in the sale. There’s no Leonard Bernstein, no Jasper Johns…and no Burt Britton.

New York has diminished with the slow disappearance of its independent book stores. Booksellers are melancholy people these days. Apart from the economic distress, which goes back long before the demise Books & Company, many will tell you that it’s just no fun anymore, without the people coming in to look, enquire, and chat. Fortunately the Strand is still with us. Let us hope the days never come when bars are unprofitable and boring.

Hunter S. Thompson, Self-Portrait, mixed media.

Hunter S. Thompson, Self-Portrait, mixed media.


About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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