At 60 going on six and with a big new book out, artist Barton Benes reveals what's behind his Cheshire grin.
New York, 08.09.02; Cover Boy, POZ, 08.99
The book, Curiosa -- which means exactly what it is, "a book about strange objects" -- started years ago. I went to visit my friend Jeffrey Schaire [then editor-in-chief of Art & Antiques] in the hospital. I had some sample pages from a book of my reliquaries and I brought them to his bedside. He took one look, flung it across the room and said, "This is garbage!" I called him a snob. Then for years he would say, "I want you to meet my friend Martha Kaplan -- she's a book agent." And I never did. And then Jeffrey died of AIDS. At his funeral everyone had to throw a shovel of dirt on the coffin. So I followed this woman, and we were crying, and we hugged each other. And she said, "I'm Martha Kaplan." When I told her my name, she said, "So this is how we meet."
My first reliquaries were about what society worships -- money, celebrity, power -- and the sacred objects from this religion. I place the relics -- Brad Pitt's cigarette, the O.J. trial glove -- in theme museums. What's nice is that people see the work and want to be a part of it. So now things arrive here -- like Sylvester Stallone's urine. An art dealer of mine went to a restaurant men's room, and Stallone was at the next urinal, and he didn't flush. So my friend scooped some out in a pill bottle. I let other people do the dirty work.
Novelist John Berendt wrote the foreword. He's the one who gave me Roy Rogers' snot. It's interesting what a book does. Because Abrams is the best publisher for art, all of a sudden a lot of people are taking me much more seriously, even though I've done other books. Nightline was here, and I'm doing The Today Show. I have to go to a pre-interview the night before to talk to Katie Couric. I don't think they ask other people to do that. They're afraid of what I might say or do!
People say I'm "mischievous." Well, I like being bad -- doing what I'm not supposed to. Like someone saying, "Don't go there’" and the first chance you get, you go there. My late lover, artist Howard Meyer, used to use that with me as reverse psychology. He would tell me to do something he didn't want me to do. So I'd do the opposite, and that's how he got what he wanted.
I lived with Howard for 30 years, until he died in 1989. And I always looked at guys who were single -- it wasn't that I was unhappy in the relationship -- but I said, "Oh, they can do whatever they want." And now that I'm in that position, I hate it. I see now that I wasn't missing anything. I often wonder if I can put the energy into a second relationship. But everything is different now. I like smart. And kind. That's enough, I think. I don't particularly care about serostatus. But a lot of other people care.
AIDS has been so horrible taking Howard and all my friends -- my life, really. But healthwise, emphysema is more of a problem for me right now. I stopped smoking years ago, but the damage was done. I stopped my meds more than a year ago. I'd been taking them since 1994 -- a long time to put that stuff in your body. I'm monitored every month, and I have an excellent doctor. Probably one day I'll have to get back on them. But meanwhile I'm enjoying not being toxic.
I never thought I would live to be this age. What's so weird is that I'm forever complaining about aches and pains and being older, but I fought so hard to get here. Every time I start to get upset about turning 60 in November, I think, "Well, what do you want?"