The life and death of Günther Barth
A collaborative work in progress
Ian Burston & William B. West
William B. West (web manager for mindsinplay.com)
Ian Burston (Lives Lived Project)
Just about all lives are interesting and everyone has a story, their story, to tell. Most of us keep our life story private, for our eyes and ears only. If inclined to talk about our life experiences we are still left with the challenge of the well told tale rather than one that is incoherent. Sometimes there are listeners who are interested in what they are told about the story teller but often they are bored and the listener falls asleep. Oh well.
What an absurd, impossible task. Making sense of the mind (the life) of Günther Barth or for that matter anyone else is more like writing a novel than a realistic biography. How the hell did I let myself get involved in this project. Just because I have a website on mind/brain science is no reason to believe I have anything of value to say or make sense of Günther Barth. But that totally misses the reality of how I got to this place as a collaborator with Ian Burston to produce a script that would serve as the biography of Günther Barth.
I guess this project serves as one of those perfect storms. It starts with Günther Barth reading posts on my website mindsinplay.com. That prompted him to ask whether he might work with me on a popular mind/brain science book based on my words and his pictures. So now, 3 years later, the book is still incomplete and Günther Barth is dead and Ian Burston, who was to interview Barth found his way to my doorstep with boxes and boxes of material that would be the foundation of a Günther Barth video biography and I was stupid enough to agree. to tell him ‘count me in”. I would not have considered a collaboration with Ian Burston were it not for the fact that I was broke and he had a load of money from the Barth Foundation to complete a documentary based on the life of Barth. Oh well here we are.
Some background thoughts, doubts and associations
I didn’t think of this until until now. This? The three of us (Barth, Burston and I, William West) are 3 peas in a wrinkled dried up pod. How can three people who seem so different be as alike as motherless fraternal triplets? Each of us keeps exploring ways in which our missing mom might have taken care of us and transformed us into butterflies. Well for one of us, Günther Barth, it is too late, but maybe not. Maybe his biographical documentary will resurrect him into a super hero. Three peas in pod. That resinates in a curious sort of way. All three of us are hiders, private, walled-off, invisible accept for those moments where we toss tinsel in the air to distract and deflect, successfully. Where does that leave us. Alone and with each other.
Ian Burston and I have agreed to work together on the Barth documentary that would concentrate on his many accomplishments lie his enormously productive life as an artist, his illustrator of popular books and most recently his combination of the art world through his control of galleries and art schools throughout the world. What is still up in the air is whether we can airbrush the Barth life style. The man had a history of being cruel, a despot, controlling, totally self-centered and untrustworthy but more about that later. We would not have considered including a revisionist script of the life of Barth if it were not for the big pay check, the ‘generous’ stipend from the Barth Foundation. They wanted a product that would do Barth and the foundation proud and powerful. So here we are locked in the same cramped space in order to create some bigger than life sized Günther Barth myth.
It will take some time and some fits and starts and stumbles before Ian and I can complete even a scanty sketch for this documentary script. In time you will learn much more about each of us, together, separately, along with some others who have crossed our paths.
So…I guess it makes sense to start with a brief picture of Günther Barth’s life, which must also include the mysteries surrounding his death (which remains an active investigation by the New York City Police Department). To fill in his portrait we felt it would make sense to create a catalogue of samples of his art as well as some of his illustrated children’s stories meant for jaded adults, which he wrote during the last 10 years. All of that material will be posted separately on the website mindsinplay.com.
Before we meander through time and the Günther Barth closet of creative work and relationships we need to stop and catch our (my) breath which means saying something about our own lives, that of Ian and myself. I guess a brief bio sketch and glimpse of each of us will at least give you a sense of our twisted perspective on what we are trying to do and in that way you can be forewarned about our biases and limitations as observers and archivists. Be patient with us, maybe even occasionally sympathetic or not.
At this moment but not the next: Later today Ian Burston will be coming by to pick start my involvement in his Barth documentary. In the meantime I am not sitting in front of my computer but instead I am on a park bench, shivering, dead leaves swirling around my feet, broke, discouraged, and why wouldn’t I be and going nowhere watching the young skirts dancing by with no chance to reach under their skirt and have them smile back at me, not directly nor over their shoulder as they disappear along the park path, past the park bushes.
Thinking back, so often peering at the past instead of forward, to what.
How could I have missed it? Earlier this morning I read over all those notes that I sent Eva, years ago, when I was young, in my mid-twenties, and dumb, and her replies and then I read stories I sent her, and I could hear her giggling notes in response, and that she loved them and me, and I could hear her voice and mine and the touch of their hands, all over but that was wonderful magic, and a long time ago.
I could feel my jaw drop, feel the air all gone from my lungs, and I kept staring at my image of all my notes to Eva and the poems and some of the stories I wrote with her as the star and could almost hear her whispers. No one was around and I shouted out loud, or was it a shriek maybe and if not should have been, “You fucking idiot. Don’t you get it? You loved her, loved each other, really, no mistaken it. Just think of all those words and all those times together.” And what followed were word as thoughts, “You were an asshole when you suddenly walked out on her, and of course you hurt her, a hard biting hurt, and you never got it then. But then you were young, not now….however you continue to be playing asshole because you are one and so what if you don’t want to be in that role in this dumb play. Too late but not so late that you would do the same stupid stuff all over again. Because you are looser. What an idiot. So what do I do with brother Ian? “
So many letters and poems and I loved writing them because she was in my life and I so alive and the air crackled with the excitement of it all. Susan would sometimes read the poems back to me, slowly, pausing to sigh or because some of them made her laugh out loud, and if I were there with her she would laugh so hard that it made it hard for her to hug me at the same time. I guess many of the poems were corny but they were real to both of us. They were poems and notes that were filed away but until we were together again, whispering, and then one day I left and Eva was alone, waiting for me to come back, but I didn’t and then it was too late and now it is even later, much too, late, and this scene repeated itself once again. This time no shouting just a grumbled indistinct sound “you idiot” but I also knew, know now, that deed, and other deeds like it, would just continue. Were the poems a front to keep Susan at a laughing distant? …. and so it is all over again with, Ruth, and then Evey and Jay and once again “you are an idiot and knowing it doesn’t seem to help.”
A few hours later: Ian rings the doorbell and I let him in. He is carrying several boxes.
“Hey, Billy boy, I have a bunch more boxes downstairs and want you to bond with all of them. After all, we are partners and that is our mother load of shit.”
Ian is drunk and doesn’t do much to hide it. Oh well
About the dead and where Günther Barth lived when alive:
About us the living
My collaborator, Ian Burston, and I have led very different professional lives and life styles. Nevertheless we share in common an identical way is which we cope and adapt to the world around us…especially people. He too is a loner, someone who is an observer of others. After ‘choosing not to be an active researcher I write illustrated enhanced stories about the mind/brain science of others. As to Ian, he dabbled and failed as an actor and then film maker and now interviews others in attempts to capture the essence of their lives.
Both of us are loners, not by choice but starting with how we were weened from our bottle. Some images stick hard and sting. When I was a young student I remember sitting at the head of the stairs in Mrs. Bard’s rooming house. There were 5 other students who had rented rooms. We could walk to the campus in less than 10 minutes when we wanted to be on time. What I remember most clearly is staying hidden, in my room or looking down the curved staircase as life went in and out of the front door. While my courses sometimes excited me my life was empty and lonely. My ‘minds’ eye is fuzzier now but nevertheless I can still see some of my ‘fellow’ students tip toeing past the front door, late at night, with their arms around a coed. Sometimes I saw them embrace at the foot of the stairs, and in the dim light I could see a hand reach under her blouse and could still hear her gasp, softly, but loud enough to which I were there with her rather than my fellow roomer. I made sure that I had enough time to sneak back into my room, alone. I had read Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf and imagined that I was the hero in the story who also used to sit at top of stairs looking down at the life below. That fixture in my imagination provided little comfort and I, by now well accustomed to my place in the universe, and would fall asleep alone in my bed.
That was a long time ago and I am the same outsider, the same student in a grown up body. Although I have learned a great deal about all sorts of things, science, driving, how to shop for clothes, cook, but the fundamental features of my liver, spleen, kidneys, and mind, have not changed much. Remarkable how much we can learn and still be so naïve and ignorant of the secrets of how to live.
As for Ian, he too has trouble coping especially when it comes to people, relationships, commitment to anything and everything. Ian is a drunk knows it and can’t help filling up his glass over and over, promising himself that tomorrow will be different and it isn’t. All the boxes of books, drawings, stacks of DVDs, remain scattered in place and he dances around it all, scared, super vigilant, which does him little good. Understand that I am not trying to expose Ian. On the contrary, I feel compassion for him, to the extent that I can, and he cares about me, but that can disappear in an instant, especially if and when we hit rough spots in our work together on the Barth project. For now just one more note, it was Ian that got the money from the Barth Foundation, and it was Ian that invited me in as a collaborator, and for me that was huge because I am middle aged broke with diminishing prospects aside from, for example teaching a silly college course for non-science majors called ‘Mind/brain science for Poets’. At least the coeds that sit up front are cute, wear short skirts and enjoy being seductive.
As to us, the triplets, including the dead Barth are interesting but once you peek inside us it is quickly apparent that we are experts at non-commitment. We know how to do that all too well. Too bad, eh?
Are Ian and I over our heads, overwhelmed with this project? Maybe. No one has forced us to work on this project but the funding was right, and w4e both agreed that the Barth story was an irresistible dish to dine on. Hard to see what a picture of our concluding report would look like despite our glib proposal to the foundation. How much time do we have before the Barth Foundation will ask for our progress report, and then what? Will they be more than a bit disappointed? Will they continue to buy our plan that we would deliver a script that would read like panels in an impressionist mural which would be include a patch work of biography, correspondence, vignettes, sketches, stories he wrote, samples of his art and of course an account of his huge international interconnected art galleries and art institute (schools) that he controlled with an iron, no a gold, fist. It surely will not be a linear tale that we tell. One of the foundation board members reacted to this ‘impressionistic mural’ idea for out script by pointing out that he thought we were bullshitting. I think that board member also knew I was out of money and Ian Burston was a drunk. Surprised he didn’t speak up but I guess he didn’t want to spoil a party. What that same board member also probably knew is that some of the material we need to work with is in the hands of the New York City police as part of the ongoing investigation dealing with the mystery behind Barth’s death where murder was a distinct possibility. Oh well, I guess stumble on beats standing still.
Much more needs to be added from my notes including:
1. Time line of Barth life
2. Relationship with Liz Mann
3. Police investigation findings
4. correspondence and Barth diary