John Berger dead at 90; Dore Ashton at 88

Some weeks ago, when John Berger died, I meant to offer a little tribute to him. He was a major figure as art writers go (Ways of Seeing, and so on), and a talented poet and novelist. Soon enough the window to do so seemed to have passed, or I was too busy and preoccupied to do so, and I let the idea go without marking his departure. Now the art critic Dore Ashton has passed, and I don’t mean to let that go by unmarked. She had a remarkable career, one filled with perceptive and connected work – connected in the sense that she was deeply familiar with key figures like Philip Guston, and in that numerous of her works were natural progressions that built on what she’d previously done. Now is every bit a proper time to read her remarkable book on Abstract Expressionism, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, for observations like this one: “The circles of artists in New York in the late twenties and early thirties were often generated, or at least stimulated, by the energetic foreign born.” Food for thought, that. Ms. Ashton was eighty-eight at the time of her death. Berger was ninety. What legacies they left us, what brilliant, extensive bodies of work. What better benediction than this poem of Berger’s?

When I open my wallet

to show my papers

pay money or check the time of a train

I look at your face.

The flower’s pollen

is older than the mountains

Aravis is young

as mountains go.

The flower’s ovules

will be seeding still

when Aravis then aged

is no more than a hill.

The flower in the heart’s

wallet, the force

of what lives us

outliving the mountain.

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.

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