Provincetown's Chris Busa on Ekphrasis

Publisher of 30-year-old Provincetown Arts Magazine

By: - Jul 23, 2015



During graduate school at Boston University in the 1970s I regularly visited Provincetown researching the artist Karl Knaths and the history of the renowned artists colony. The Provincetown Art Association and Museum was founded in 1914. Eugene O'Neill got his start with the Provincetown Players and Tennessee Williams also spent significant time in the community.

Other renowned residents included Hans Hofmann, Norman Mailer, Robert Motherwell, Edwin Dickinson, Myron Stout among many. There was the important Sun Gallery which showed the figurative expressionists run by Yvonne Andersen and Dominic Falcone.

There is now an annual Tennessee Williams Festival which we plan to attend in September.

During a visit in late April we met with Chris and the artist Jay Critchley for dinner at Napi's. Jay was about to open a museum exhibition of his humorous, conceptual work and Chris was the publisher of the catalogue.

The annual issue of  Provincetown Arts Magazine, the 30th, is now out and proves to be thick with articles impressive for their range and depth. There are dual cover  stories on the critic John Yau and sculptor of found wood, Paul Bowen.

My review of the Native American artist George Morrison is also included. It is based on the traveling exhibition which we viewed at the Heard Museum in Phoenix last October. The article is wrongly identified as being altered from an essay for the artist's catalogue. A version of the Morrison review as published in Berkshire Fine Arts.

Over the years I have contributed to the magazine and we met with Chris prior to dinner to discuss his many years of observing and covering the arts in one of the nation's most renowned artist colonies.

Charles Giuliano How old is Provincetown Arts Magazine?

Chris Busa This summer is the 3Oth annual issue. You were there at the beginning when we launched it.

CG You cover the fine arts as well as literature. It started as a newspaper and evolved into a magazine.

CB Initially, we put out three separate issues during the summer. Then we switched to the idea of an annual magazine. We were running around like crazy with three different printing bills. We decided that we could consolidate.

When I started there was a guy Tony Kahn he was Terry Kahn's brother. He was the editor of The Banner. He said "You'll never survive as an annual." I said to Tony "Christmas comes once a year and we don't forget about it. The summer season comes once a year and we don't forget about it."

So it's a built in seasonal activity and it has worked as an annual. I couldn't do it in the winter. There's no point to that. First of all it's like a book. I write six or seven  articles for every issue. We average 170 pages and sometimes more. A page contains 1,500 words.

It's quite an undertaking. I do an awful lot of reading. I have a staff.

CG Is that manuscripts?

CB Mostly books which I have to read for articles.

John Yau, who is on our cover, has published 50 books. So I've read 20 of them before I started this year's work. I read his two books on Jasper Johns and his Warhol book. I read a collection of essays Passionate Spectator.

Each year it's like earning a master's thesis to write a six to eight thousand word article. The main article for the cover. It entails a lot of work, effort and growth. It means taking on new challenges. This time in particular I was interested in Yau because he's in the tradition of Frank O'Hara. He's been coming here for years. He did the first article on the  Fine Arts Work Center when they had a show at Graham Modern in 1980 or so when Berta Walker was the director.

He wrote about people like Paul Bowen and Jim Peters. They were my colleagues at the time. He helped me to get my article on Bowen published in Arts Magazine. I had met him downtown in New York hanging out with Jeannie Motherwell. They had gone to college together at Bard.

I have known him for many years. He was married to Frank Stella's daughter. But that didn't work out.

CG Art historian Barbara Rose was his mother in law.

CB Yes, for a period of time. He studied with John Ashberry at Brooklyn College for his MFA. Ashberry encouraged him to write about art. Ashberry wrote about art for the International Herald Tribune when he was in Paris for a decade.

After Bard, John spent the summer in the New York Public Library reading all of Ashberry's Tribune articles. Ashberry never wrote about the big names. He always explored the niches. That became an ethos for Yau. He publishes with Black Square editions which references Malevich. He has taught at the Work Center for many years. There was a problem at Rutgers before he became a professor there. He teaches a graduate course as well as an undergraduate course. He has his own art history course.

CG Let's talk a bit wider.

Around WWI Provincetown became the foremost artists' colony in America when many gays, artists and creators left Paris and settled here.

These included women written in Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas the artists Ethel Mars and Maude Squires. Others included Ethel, a pianist and Agnes an artist, the sisters Weinrich. Ethel married Karl Knaths who built a home where the three lived together. One summer Tennessee Williams rented a cottage from Knaths. B.J. O. Nordfeldt introduced the White Line woodblock prints. Blanche Lazzell was experimenting with abstraction. Edwin Dickinson and Ross Moffett were prominent artists early on between the wars.

They founded the Provincetown Art Association in 1914.

Let's fast forward. Is Provincetown still a significant artists' colony?

CB Absolutely. For the publication people like my father (Peter Busa) dominated the cover in the beginning. Now it's all the people I grew up with. Like Paul Bowen and John Yau who is my age. He developed as a poet writing about painting. That's very different than an art critic or an art historian. He finds a parallel insight into the working process and motivation of an artist.

Another guy we are publishing this year is Barry Schwabsky. He's the art critic for The Nation.

CG In what sense is P'Town still an art colony?

CB Look at the people who are in our milieu. If you want to know where the art colony is don't go to the bars. Read a copy of Provincetown Arts. It's all between the covers.

Last year I wrote about the Art Association and cut it down by 6,000 words from 15,000 words. It says a lot of the things you were just talking about.

CG Aren't there concerns. Paul Bowen, for example, now lives in Vermont.

CB He still shows at Art Strand.

CG Jim Peters is now our neighbor in North Adams.

CB There are new artists coming in every minute.

CG How can they afford it?

CB The Work Center brings in  a lot. Each year they bring in ten artists and ten writers of the highest standards. They bring in guest artists and writers one after the other. Really stellar, new, talented individuals.  They're chosen by the fellows. These are really hot to trot young people. Every week at the Work Center there is a lecture, slide show or exhibition. There is a mingling between the fellows and invited guests.

The Art Association has grown enormously as I wrote in my article about Chris McCarthy. I used your article (interview) quite a bit.

CG Did you quote from it?

CB I paraphrased from it.

CG I hope I got a little credit.

CB In my 15,000 word piece I'm sure I did because I used it a lot. I interviewed her myself and covered a lot of the same material with detail. I also included the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) and all of that stuff. Moving from Boylston Street to Fan Pier which she had a part in had a parallel in her having to raise $8 million to add a new wing to the museum.

The local trustees were freaking out. They were just used to paying the light bill. How she pulled that off is a miracle. She got a lot of important donors like Robert Duffy to pony up. He donated a hundred paintings including Myron Stout and my father, Motherwell. It was a gift of a hundred paintings for the centennial. There is a wing named for him.

There's been an influx of money here.

The Work Center offers winter stipends. They stay here and through networking find all kinds of possibilities. The capitalist economy takes money out of circulation. The art economy, however, is a gift economy. There's bartering.

In the poetry world you don't make any money by publishing but you get good jobs through the resultant prestige. There are grants and prizes.

Provincetown teaches artists how to live as artists. The Work Center teaches them how to spend the entire day, with no job to distract them, and focus entirely on their work. Before that experience many of them had to squeeze in some time in the morning or evening. That's an important experience for people to learn to think and function as an artist.

There's a big two week celebration of Motherwell at the Work Center. I'm giving a lecture as a part of that on the theme of ekpharsis.

(One particular kind of visual description is also the oldest type of writing about art in the West. Called ekphrasis, it was created by the Greeks.  The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present.  In many cases, however, the subject never actually existed, making the ekphrastic description a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer.  For most readers of famous Greek and Latin texts, it did not matter whether the subject was actual or imagined.  The texts were studied to form habits of thinking and writing, not as art historical evidence.

Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad stands at the beginning of the ekphrastic tradition.  Two things about it became central to the genre.  First, the passage implicitly compares visual and verbal means of description, most dramatically by weaving elements that could not be part of a shield (like movement and sound) with things that could be (like physical material and visual details).  This emphasizes the possibilities of the verbal and the limitations of the visual.  Second, the thing being described comes to seem real in the imagination of the reader, despite the fact that it could not exist.)

It's about how poetry speaks differently from visual art. This is what I have explored from the beginning of the magazine. As Matisse said "Every artist should have his tongue cut out."

Having absorbed the ethos of Motherwell who was my neighbor for many years. I grew up with his daughters. My father was his colleague. He started The Documents of Modern Art through translations of European artists' writings. Then he started a magazine called Possibilities with Harold Rosenberg. It dealt with what happened in New York in 1949 for that entire year.

That became the basis for my doing an annual. He did it for one year and I've done the magazine for 30 years.

CG Did that connect for Forum '49 that summer in Provincetown?

CB It was the same time period and Motherwell participated in Forum '49. He was always very involved in discussions with artists and symposia.

CG I read his Dada book. It's a wonderful anthology. Talk about growing up here.

CB I was born in New York City and grew up here during summers.

CG When did your father buy this house? (Actually there is a dispute about that house among the heirs. The home that Chris occupies was purchased when Provincetown real estate was still relatively affordable.)

CB He bought his house in 1952 but he was in NY from 1932 to 1952. He taught at Cooper Union.  He stopped teaching because he had major patrons like Walter Chrysler. They bought his entire annual output for decades. He had taught at Cooper Union, the Art Students League, Brooklyn College, and NYU.

CG Talk to me about summers in Provincetown.

CB Sometimes I would stay here with my father until October or November before we went back to New York. I started school here.

CG Were you an only child?

CB I'm the oldest of five.

I became bilingual in terms of the local world as well as the one in New York. When summer came my entire set of friends would shift. There were the winter people I walked to school with and played basketball with. The summer people in the neighborhood were painters or psychiatrists. At the tennis club I became involved with a whole other ethos.  I gave lessons to Mark Strand, Stanley Kunitz, Erica Jong, all kinds of interesting people. I swapped lessons for art or rare books as a part of what I call the gift economy. I bartered a lot for dinners at Ciro's. He took lessons and there was no cash. There was a lot of that back and forth.

When I was thinking of starting the magazine a client asked me if I had done a marketing study? I thought about it and for 14 years I had run my own business. So right from the beginning of the magazine we were in the black. Ads have always paid our bills.

CG Was Ray Ellman your partner? (He works half the year as an accountant during tax season and the other half in the studio. He is on the magazine's  board and does commissioned portraits.)

CB He was my partner in the very beginning. He dropped out four years later. It started in 1985 and he dropped out in '90 or so. After that I changed the legal structure to a 501c3. That's when we started to get grants. The reason I changed it to non profit is that we were doing the Kunitz issue in 1992 and I needed fifteen grand to pay the printing bill.

I didn't know what to do. I sent a letter to a hundred people and twenty five grand came in within a month. I figured if they would do that for a profit they would do that for a non profit. Now that it's 30 year old we have expanded our board. Terry Kahn is the new president. He's Jack Kahn's son, the New Yorker writer. Margaret Murphy, the director of the Work Center is now on the board. We've got savvy people and are getting NEA grants.

CG In addition to the magazine how many books have you published?

CB We're published 22 books. The latest is the Jay Critchley catalogue for his show at the Provincetown Museum.

CG The magazine seems to have crosscurrents between fine arts and literature. The other night we saw the Clifford Odets play Waiting for Lefty  directed by Bragan Thomas at Provincetown Theater  and attended the reading of his play based on Caligula. It's great to see theatre again in Provincetown which of course has a great tradition.

In New Orleans recently we attended parts of the Tennessee Williams Festival and met David Kaplan who directed the Hotel Plays. He runs the Festival in P'Town and we have arranged to attend in September. So there is a real diversity of the arts reflected in what the magazine covers. There seems to be no end of material from the historical to present.

We heard John Lahr speak about Williams in NOLA. Since then both Astrid and I have read his 600 page book. So that is great background for attending the festivals. In New Orleans we saw a production of Suddenly Last Summer in addition to readings and panel discussions.

You pursued graduate level research on D.H. Lawrence.

CB I wrote a dissertation on Lawrence which I could revise but I am an ABD.

CG Same here.

CB When my father was teaching there were always fights between the art history professors and studio artists.

CG That's usually the case.

CB As the critic Stanley Fish put it having professors running MFA programs is like having animals run the zoo.

CG You are trained in literature but growing up as the son of an artist you have an understanding of the fine arts. How does that work its way into the magazine?

CB To me it's all connected. Provincetown Arts focuses on art and writing but theatre, architecture and film are also topics we cover every year. Art and writing are solitary activities. Theatre is a sociological art form. We do all aspects of the arts including the politics. Which is why I did an interview with Governor Deval Patrick. Karen Finley got the idea to become a performance artist by attending the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. She was inspired by politics as spectacle.

The ten years I spent at Rutgers University teaching and working on my doctorate was highly sophisticated. Some of the top people were my professors.

CG Didn't you publish a book on Lawrence?

CB It was an anthology which I wrote a long introduction to. It's a big fat book called The Erotic Works of D.H. Lawrence. Crown Publishers did it and it sold out. That gave me a sense of completion for that work. I taught until a couple of years ago at Wilkes University near Scranton. I got the job through Mike Lennon who is the biographer of Norman Mailer.

We do the best we can with a staff of just five people. Susanna Ralli our editor was with Houghton Mifflin for many years. The graphic designer is Irene Lipton. Heather Bruce is in advertising and  Ingrid Aue handles marketing and advertising. It's a small staff of really good people. Irene did many books while in New York and worked for Random House. They are all pretty savvy. So we do a lot with very little.

We're getting more and more grants and are surviving. We pay salaries every month. Each year we get a grant from the Mass Cultural Council. They used to give us $10,000 but now with cutbacks that's about half. We've gotten three NEA grants. We've been funded by Dedalus which is the Motherwell Foundation. We got a major grant from the Judith Rothschild Foundation. We also have individuals who give us money.

The annual budget is only $175,000. It should be at least $200,000. We're working on fund raising with the new board. We're trying to digitize all of our back articles. You can get onto scholarly indexes and sell articles for a fee.

We will end up doing an anthology Best of Provincetown Arts. I have two books of memoirs which I am close to being done with. One is personal and the other is about the magazine. It's a collection of all of my published pieces and is about 800 pages. It's called Provincetown Arts an Editor's Memoir.

I needed a long piece on Motherwell. I have only done short ones. But I am doing this lecture at the Work Center about his works illustrating James Joyce and Stéphane Mallarmé, Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot. He did a series of artists' books. Very high quality. He worked with Tatania Grossman and some of the top printers. They are very elegant books.

One was for Octavio Paz another for Lorca called At Five in the Afternoon about the bullfight with the refrain of "At Five in the Afternoon."That amused me because it's when the bullfighter was killed but also cocktail hour.

Like the magazine I feel thirty years old. A lot of problems have surpassed me. My mother died recently. I won a major lawsuit about her house. My brother unfairly influenced her and had her change the will to favor him. There was a big trial in Plymouth and we won that flat out. My brother was convicted of fraud and has to play the legal bills.

CG I started coming to P'Town during my college years. We had no money and would sleep in the dunes. We would be up with first light and visit the Portugese bakery for a loaf of hot bread to eat on the pier as breakfast.

There was a lively gallery scene that was beginning to change. This was the mid sixties and before that there were a number of serious galleries.

CB Yes, in the '50s.

CG Now there is a proliferation of galleries that are geared to tourists.

CB Except for Merola, Berta Walker, Schoolhouse, Art Strand. There are good galleries.

CG But there was a time when there were serious galleries like Sun Gallery, Sam Kootz.

CB Ivan Karp, Martha Jackson, Gallery 256, Sun Gallery. I was talking to Jeannie Motherwell who lives near my girlfriend Ingrid. She saw Yvonne Andersen (Sun Gallery) just last week. I just wrote a piece about Mimi Gross who showed at Sun Gallery. That's how she met and married Red Grooms.

As kids Mimi and I were close and we have started to spend time together. The Chaim Gross Foundation in New York has been sponsoring poets and artists in collaborations. Charles Bernstein, a language poet, got us together. It's all part of a network.

CG When I came here in the 1970s as a graduate student it was still kind of funky. You could stay with Frank Schaefer at his White Horse Inn which was affordable and friendly. There was always a way to shoehorn your way in. Now and then I got put by Mervin Jules or Rhoda Rossmore. I loved the diner on Shankpainter Road for a bowl of Portuguese soup. The town has become ever more expensive and precious.

I recall lively interactions with Reggie Cabral a collector and hustler. He never let critics and art historian examine his collection which was notorious for works of questionable attribution. At one time I tried to work with him on a possible exhibition. He blew me off saying he knew the work better than I did because the artists drank at his bar. (The A House). Some of them settled bills with paintings. The collection went to his daughter April who has her own problems in addition to seeing after the works.

So there was still a lot of richness when I was researching. There is not much left of the historical connections although you say that new artists arrive all the time. This new generation will have to make and tell their own histories.

CB There's no question that you're right. There has been a slow evolution. You put a frog in cold water and bring it to a boil, The frog adjusts to the changing temperature until it dies.

I bought this house in 1978 for $32,000. My father's house is 600 Commercial Street. That's the house we had a lawsuit about. That's a sizable house with two lots and three buildings on it.

CG Where did you get the money?

CB I was teaching tennis and a wealthy graduate student. I would make over $30,000 in a summer of giving lessons. I had forty grand in the bank when I bought my house. I put $20,000 down and the mortgage was $180 a month. It was cheaper than rent. Then I didn't come here for about four years. I rented it to friends.

You probably saw the documentary by Deborah Forman which talked about real estate prices driving out artists. They're trying to do affordable housing here now. The town is well aware of that need. The Work Center has bought a lot of property and a motel to house visiting artists. There is a network of supporters particularly among people involved with the Work Center. It's a big operation and quite famous. Fellows have won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards.

The artists have been less successful than the writers. Jack Pierson and Ellen Gallagher were fellows. Dennis Johnson, a poet and Sam Messer, an artist, started collaborating when they were fellows. In the same way that I describe poets writing about painters. There is an osmosis of the working conditions that they can parlay into an understanding with evocative ways to describe the work.

Today I subscribe to the art magazines mostly to look at the pictures and the ads.

CG I let my subscriptions lapse because there is essentially no critical content in the mainstream art magazines. It is all about sustaining the inflated art market. As a veteran writer told me, and I have experienced myself, the writing is handled by too many people.

When even the publisher got his hands on my article suggesting rewrites it just wasn't worth it to me. This was after I had pretty much come to agreement with the editor which itself was a complex process. I asked her what she wanted and wrote to spec. But that wasn't good enough. Not long after she quit or was fired.

There was a time when there was at least a pretense of separation between sales and editorial.

That's why contributors to Berkshire Fine Arts have a lot of freedom. It is based on trust. I sense that is largely how you work as well. The ultimate beneficiary is the reader.