A tribute to Barry Lopez
Alan Magee, Orion Magazine, January, 2021
Barry and I have known each other for thirty-four years. That long friendship would not have come about except for a chain of unlikely events which began in 1982, when I pulled an unadorned paperback called Winter Count from the shelf of a bookshop in Santa Barbara. I hadn’t heard of its author, Barry Holsten Lopez, and what drew me to the book’s gray, slender spine remains a mystery to me.
Reading the stories back in my hotel room, I was awestruck by their understated power and the precision of the prose. I felt as if I were in conversation with another painter—one who had concluded as I had that art begins with our capacity and willingness to observe. These stories were, among other things, tutorials in seeing. They proposed that heightened attention to the world could be revelatory and life changing, that the tactile world around us, seen properly, could lead to the edge of the mystical, and take us across that border into the realm of magic. Barry’s stories suggested, too, that the beauty we discover through sustained attention contained discreet lessons in morality, that beauty shows us the ways past our cursory judgements and prejudice.
I met Barry at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986. He was there to receive the academy’s Award in Literature for Arctic Dreams and I was attending the ceremony as a past recipient of the academy’s Rosenthal Award. I recall very little of our first conversation, only that I expressed admiration for Barry’s writing and that I told him some things about my own work as a painter. The next day he went to my 57th Street gallery where he saw one of my large paintings of stones. A few days later I received a letter from Barry—a shout of recognition and mutual understanding that sealed our friendship. His visit to the gallery surprised me; it was my first glimpse of Barry’s respect and loyalty to other artists—my first indication of the importance of friendships in his life, and of his determination to nurture a community of like-minded artists.
Soon after that meeting in New York we began the first of many collaborations. Barry wrote an essay to accompany an exhibition of my collages, Inlets, and I provided the cover image for Crossing Open Ground. In 2003 Barry and I recorded an in-depth conversation which became the introduction to the book Alan Magee: Paintings, Sculpture, Graphics, and my monotypes accompanied the chapters in Barry’s book Resistance. In 2019 a filmed commentary by Barry played an important part in a feature documentary about my work, Alan Magee: art is not a solace.
Over the years, Barry and I have been engaged in what we’ve called an extended conversation—a single thread occasionally interrupted by Barry’s travels or by my work on an imminent exhibition. We were always able to rejoin the conversation where we’d left it, ever after a lapse of several months.
We seldom talked about our finished work—or our careers. The underlying theme of our friendship and of our conversations was the practice of art—the complicated and perilous process of bringing something new into being. We agreed that the creation of a book or painting is unruly, sometimes painful and always wrought with periods of doubt. It seemed as if Barry and I were discussing the nature of work while standing backstage in a theater, amidst a tangle of electric wires, scattered tools, and open cans of paint. We both felt that, metaphorically, our work was often done in places like this, where it was easy to get lost in the rubble, where a friendship can be the only lifeline.
Every few weeks I would receive a letter or note from Barry. These were handwritten or typed, sometimes on pages from small notepads saved from hotels in distant parts of the world. The notes accompanied clippings that Barry wanted me to read, or suggested books or artists to check out. Some were just a few sentences expressing friendship and support. The envelopes were small works of art, with galleries of vintage stamps chosen to mirror the note’s theme.
We talked often about the work of other artists and asked ourselves and each other, does this book, this painting, change your life? We were drawn to art that chastened and unsettled us, but also to those artists, writers, and musicians to whom we kept returning to in order to be reminded of what was, for us, solid ground. We talked about the painter Antonio Lopez Garcia and the photographer Emmet Gowin, the poems of Milos and Neruda, Wendell Berry and William Pitt Root, the novels of Wallace Stegner and the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, about the music of Erwin Schulhoff, Keeril Makan, and Arvo Pärt.
We traveled together to places that he knew were important to me. These locales were admittedly tame compared with Barry’s favored high-risk destinations—beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, for example. Our trips were adventures of a different kind. We spent time together near our respective homes—on the Maine coast, where we explored the dusty salvage yard at the Dragon Cement plant, and along the McKenzie River where we watched spawning salmon near Barry’s Oregon home. I was able to introduce Barry and Debra to Berlin, where Monika and I had been spending a part of each year. We travelled with them to Prague where we marveled at the stained glass in St Vitus Cathedral. We paid respects to Kafka beside the little house at twenty-two Alchemist’s Street, and to the writer Bohumil Hrabal at his beloved beer hall, u Zlatého tygra (The Golden Tiger). Barry told me that Prague’s Old-Town Square, looking out from the Astronomical Clock toward the spires of Tyn Church, was the most beautiful city square he’d ever seen.
In early 2004 Barry called to tell me that he was about to begin a new book. It would be, in part, a response to the changed political climate in the US following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was, as I was, profoundly unsettled by the clamor over “patriotism” and by our country’s drift toward a surveillance state. He asked me to send him prints of nine of my black and white monotypes of faces, a group he had already chosen. (This series of monotypes began as my response to an earlier invasion of Iraq—the Gulf War that began in January 1990.)
The monotypes, Barry felt, could be arranged around his writing studio and serve as visual sparks in the creation of nine character/narrators in the new book. Barry didn’t write about the monotypes, but he was able to find his cast by looking into these monotypes and pulling his own memories from the faces. The resulting book, Resistance, is an account of nine lives and the decisions that brought each of them to the attention of a Department of Inland Security, and into imminent peril. All of these people had become, in some expanded sense, activists. Barry later told me that the fictional characters in Resistance “are us”—the scattered group of friends in Barry’s diverse and widespread community of artists.
Barry has often said that his role as a writer is to help. He did that by offering us a vast landscape of experience to consider, and he showed us how to observe and attend to our own landscapes with tenacity and kindness. Political opinions are rare in Barry’s writing, as are pronouncements or reprimands to readers. Nevertheless, Barry’s work is resonant and symphonic in its call for environmental justice and for human decency.
Writing this last paragraph—looking for words to describe the ways in which Barry’s work guided rather than pushed, I was reminded of Andrei Tarkovsky’s observation on the role of the artist: “The allotted function of art is not, as often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
Alan Magee, Orion Magazine, January, 2021