Poetry News

Barney Rosset's Last Grand Gesture Still Brings Controversy

By Harriet Staff

On the fourth floor of Barney Rosset's 4th Avenue apartment, a mural, 12 feet high and 22 feet long, stands as the Everygreen Review and Grove Press publisher's final pièce de résistance. In an conversation with The New Republic's Alyssa Reeder, Astrid Meyers Rosset (Barney Rosset's fifth and final wife) opens the Lower East Side apartment to NR readers to discuss Rosset's last, and unusually visual, accomplishment: and the task ahead for admirers who would like to preserve it. From New Republic:

In 2012, when Barnet Lee Rosset, Jr. died, he left behind many nicknames: The Old Smut Peddler, The Last Maverick of Publishing, and The New York Anarchist, among others. To his friends he was Barney; to everyone else, he was the longtime publisher of Grove Press and later, the editor of the politically charged, “sex-positive” quarterly, the Evergreen Review. He drank rum and cokes exclusively and frequently. He fought obscenity charges in the United States Supreme Court and won, single-handedly bringing the words fuck and cunt to American letters.

“Barney was in publishing, but he was never part of the publishing establishment. He was south of 14th Street, he was in the Lower East Side, a fixture of the underground, a loose cannon,” Astrid Meyers Rosset, Barney’s fifth (and final) wife explained to me over tea one afternoon. I had reached out to her through a series of mutual friends, hoping she could tell me more about Barney, and about his final piece of work. She was kind, uninhibited, and she greeted me as if she’d met me before. We talked for three hours.

“Rosset wasn’t a conventional publisher, but he was respected in the industry,” she said. “No one wanted to do what he was doing but they wanted it done.” What Rosset was doing, of course, was taking the American government to court. Barney spent his career ruffling the feathers of conservative thought—he was known for his work, nurturing controversial new writers. But what is left out of Rosset’s obituaries is the mural he spent the last years of his life working on, a single painting—12 feet high, 22 feet long—that spans the entire length of his fourth-floor living room wall.

It’s brightly colored with acrylic paint, mostly blue, with ponds of gold and specks of red. In February of this year, Meyers Rosset opened the loft up to to the public for an evening to display Rosset’s wall. Staples in the literary scene, artists, and old friends of Rosset’s came to see the mural. If you get close enough, you can see the layers of paint, the toy soldiers bought nearby on Astor Place, glued to the wall, and cufflinks embedded in the paint as eyes. Rosset had a box filled with different things—flattened soup cans, pictures he had taken while in China with the photographic unit of the Army in World War II—he’d intended to put on the wall. He died before he could add them.

The 4th Avenue building where Rosset’s painting lives, will, like most turn-of-the-century East Village apartments, be demolished—and, when it goes, we’re liable to forget Rosset’s legacy. The question now becomes: How can we save the wall? Or rather: Why should we? [...]

Learn more at The New Republic.