In the permanent collection, gift from Barton Benes

The artist Barton Lidice Benes gifted the contents of his New York apartment to the Museum, which includes over $1 million in African, Egyptian, and contemporary art, plus much more as touted in the New York Times when it announced Barton’s gift to North Dakota (2/6/05). The Museum dismantled the collection and reassembled it as the Museum’s first period room: a Twenty-First Century Artist’s Studio.

Reuter and Benes were introduced in 1987 by Harvey Hoshour, the architect who planned the original design for the renovation of the “Old Women’s Gym” on the campus of the University of North Dakota into the home of the North Dakota Museum of Art. Hoshour died before the renovation was complete so Reuter turned to artists to complete the building. Barton Benes designed the Museum Shop and later the Museum’s Donor Wall. The new building opened in 1989 with a survey exhibition of Benes’ art.

Other exhibitions followed in 1995 and 2004. In 1997 the Museum commissioned Benes to create a “flood museum” comprised of metaphor-laden, flood damaged objects contributed by the people of Grand Forks. The work, twenty-four-feet long and five-feet high, is divided into eighty pigeonholes, each containing a reliquary object such as the “favorite toy of flood kitten Iris who drowned but not before moving several kittens to safety in a vent.”

The Museum’s goal is to raise $2 million to fund the project to dismantle Benes’ apartment in New York and recreate it in North Dakota in a reconfigured Museum space. The second million is to build an endowment for exhibitions and programming.

For more information on the Benes acquisition or to support it, call the Museum at 701.777.4195.



Barton Lidice Benes:
A Dance with the Gods

If I were to compare Barton to a poet, it would be to John Donne, ‘who played with death throughout his work and made it a lover along with an enemy, thus allowing us to live more fully.’ 
-Laura Whitehorn

Barton Benes and his treasure trove spent decades tucked away in a glorious boxcar space in Westbeth, the artist community in New York’s West Village. There, rare works of art joined ranks with the arcane, the wistful, the amusing, the deeply serious, and a “maddening and morbid array of things” (a human toe found on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge, a stuffed mink wearing a mink coat, a two-foot hour-glass housing cremation ashes). Now that Barton has departed and with the help of legions of friends and strangers, that strange and mysterious cornucopia is taking up residence in the North Dakota Museum of Art.

There was something wonderfully American about Barton. One would meet him and know that this was a guy to whom anything might happen. A film star might call and invite him to dinner. A national television network might invite him to come on the morning news to make good some crazy claim of his that they read about on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. He might be in the vanguard of a new art movement, or several art movements (book art, money art, AIDS art, and rubber-stamp art). He might beat AIDS—and he did for three decades. Barton and the gods had a long history with each other.

On May 30, 2012, Barton departed New York University’s Medical Center on his final journey, leaving behind a remarkable compilation of magnificent art and inglorious stuff coupled with the art of his own making.  Within all of it he shadow-danced with a host of gods: those of modern technological medicine, of ancient Egypt, of Christendom, of the Africa illuminated through traditional sculpture, of commercial America, of philanthropy and do-goodism, of childhood, of hope and despair, of death, of the dead, of the dying, of taboo, of memory, of life.

Barton once said, “Living in my apartment is like living in a seventeenth century curio cabinet.” He continued, “My work has been attacked in British tabloids and featured on the cover of ARTnews. I’ve been fascinated by relics ever since I took a monk’s bone from the catacombs in Rome in 1963. Then I went to Africa in 1970 and the real collecting began.” Barton lived for sixty-nine years, always an artist, always an artist exploring what it means to be human. That is the overriding theme of his life’s work and the thread running through Barton’s Place, the Museum that evolved within that 850-square-foot space where he created the artworks that now grace museums and private collections around the world.

Death and its bedmate, memory of the life that was, begot both his living Museum and the art he created. Example: Brenda. She was born in New York City of an alcoholic mother and from birth was doomed to misery. Abused and neglected, she and her two siblings soon were placed with a foster family in Harlem. The home was poor but stable; still, at age sixteen Brenda fled to search for her “real” mother. She moved in with her, and life began to unravel. While still a teenager, she gave birth to three children, one right after the other. The first two were put up for adoption. Brenda started to use drugs, and through some shared needle somewhere along the way, she contracted the AIDS virus. Soon she lost all her family. Her youngest child was taken by the state. Even her brother Christopher, who was determined to make a better life of his own, fell out of touch. Brenda became one of those lost people to whom no one pays much attention. When she died, Christopher was located in time to assume responsibility for the cremation. Years passed and one day Christopher sought out his friend, Barton. Tucked under his arm was a Tupperware container filled with Brenda’s ashes. The foster family didn’t know what to do with them and neither did Christopher. Almost simultaneously they agreed that Barton should turn the remains into a memorial—with one caveat: Barton insisted that Christopher must approve his concept before he would begin the work.

The artist mulled it over. He wanted to create work that would bring Brenda more acknowledgement in death than she had ever found in life, more dignity in dying than she had known in living. He cast about for a visual metaphor and he found one.

Barton, himself HIV positive, had come to hate the AIDS ribbon. He saw it as nothing more than a politically correct fashion item. That year everyone had worn one for the Academy Awards. You could buy one inset with diamonds in fancy jewelry stores. Repulsed, Barton countered, “If you want to do something about AIDS, contribute to research or make dinner for a sick friend. Don’t wear one of those awful red ribbons.” He decided to take the image of the red ribbon and give it a potency it never had.

The artist set to work fashioning 200 four-inch-high AIDS ribbons of heavy paper, coated with glue and breaded with Brenda’s ashes. They were to be installed on a museum wall, row upon row, in exact order, one after another. The elegant shapes dressed in that refined, ash-gray, textured surface would be given context by an engraved, bronze plaque centered below:

The Cremated Remains of Brenda Woods
Born July 5, 1947
Died November 1, 1989

The work, glimpsed on a far wall is serene and beautiful. Only when the viewer steps close and realizes that these exquisite objects are made from the ashes of a real-life Brenda does the piece take on its discomforting power. In death Brenda achieves the grace and dignity denied her in life.

Barton succeeded in his art because he was a master of balancing despair with hope, faith with sorrow, the underbelly of life with laughter. Like a tightrope walker, he perfectly maintained the tension between opposing forces. Were he to fail, his work would fall into prettiness, or sentimentality, or ghoulishness. Instead, the artist reaches across time for sacred and historical images that have been the traditional carriers of hope: a crucifix, a rosary, a carved god, a wishbone, a lucky penny. Then he intertwined the symbols of hope with equally powerful symbols of defeat. His collections expand and intermingle with these same metaphors and symbols.

Barton Lidice Benes could laugh while all went down around him, as AIDS decimated the artistic community, as his own body gave way his humor remained intact. It is as if his spirit was steeped in Norse mythology which teaches that even though the gods destroy you, if you laugh in their faces as they are killing you, you defeat them.  Even his name defied loss. Barton’s father gave him his middle name “Lidice” in honor of the village in Czechoslovakia that was destroyed by the Nazis on June 9, 1942. The official announcement came over the radio a day later from Germany. “Lidice is dead. Its residents, and its very name are forever blotted from memory.” Barton’s father responded, “No, it is not. It will live on through my son.”

After World War II ended the village was rebuilt nearby and a rose garden now flourishes on the original site. Decades later Barton was invited to Prague for an exhibition of his work and to celebrate the  memory of the old village which lives on in Barton’s name. Once again he became a celebrity.

It took a long time for Death to find Barton. But through his laughter, his Museum, and his art, Barton Lidice Benes won. His glorious, small Museum with its treasure trove of art and artifacts from across the ages is testimony to the place of art in shadow dancing with the gods.

–Laurel Reuter, North Dakota Museum of Art Director