I’m not the only one who’s been complaining lately that our art museums seem to have lost their nerve. In Artforum last year, for instance, Alex Kitnick lamented that “the dream of the avant-garde museum…has vanished into historical oblivion.” One side effect of the general malaise is that when a museum and its curators not only live up to their promise of serving all who are passionate about art—artists themselves first of all—but go to heroic lengths to do so, it’s newsworthy. You’re tempted to want to pin a medal on someone’s lapel. That’s how I feel about the Morgan Library and Museum and its associate curator of modern and contemporary drawings, Rachel Federman, for organizing the recent exhibition “Writing a Chrysanthemum: The Drawings of Rick Barton.”

What’s was above-and-beyond about the presentation at the Morgan? It’s the fact that it happened at all—that a prominent civic institution is lending its space and putting its imprimatur on an artist who can’t even be called forgotten; “never known” is more like it. So there’s no consensus on the significance of Barton’s work, no previous validation of its place in art history. Beyond the walls of a few stray Bay Area bookstores, this art has never been shown before; it has no market, no collectors, no fans; there is no writing about it to consult, no history of its reception or interpretation—and, in fact, there is almost no surviving information about the artist. Federman got on the case after William Anthony (another artist far less well-known than he should be) donated a collection of works on paper to the Morgan, including a few of Barton’s prints. The curator had to risk determining all on her own that this project—which includes 70 works drawn during a period between 1958 and 1962—was worth doing, and the institution had to back her in that decision.

Luckily, Federman’s bet paid off. Suddenly, 60 or more years after they were made, Barton’s drawings are finding admirers, among them Lucy Ives, who declared in The New York Review of Books that “the simultaneous whimsy and emotional agony of Rick Barton’s style is not to be missed,” while John Yau in Hyperallergic praised the artist’s “adventurous spirit and acute visual memory, his particular genius.” It makes sense, perhaps, that Barton’s art would appeal to critics like Ives and Yau, who are also writers of poetry and fiction, for one of the closest things we have to a direct statement from Barton about his art is the one that inspired this show’s title; it was recorded by Etel Adnan, one of his North Beach acquaintances, who much later become famous as both an artist and writer herself. “I am not a painter but a writer,” Barton said. “One day in Peking I was sitting on the main square drawing a chrysanthemum and a little boy stopped close, looked at what I was doing, and told his father: ‘Look, he is writing a chrysanthemum.’ He was right. I am a writer.”

Adnan’s 1998 essay “the unfolding of an artist’s book,” excerpted in the Morgan’s exhibition catalog, has until now been Barton’s sole entrée into history. Adnan, who went on to make the accordion-fold book (or “leporello,” as she called it) one of her main mediums, explains that it was Barton who’d introduced her to the form and enjoined her to use it. She gives an oblique yet vivid picture of the man, “a person who was spending his life sitting in two or three eating places in San Francisco and drawing ceaselessly…. Rick Barton should have been a San Francisco legend. But he lived in a kind of anonymity, I should say clandestinity, because he was a thorough opium smoker and lonelier than a sailor.” Adnan describes the Chinese inkpot and brush that Barton carried with him and calls him a “great intellect” who spent his hours in reading and discussion and whose art, as she glimpsed it on a café table, put her in a “state of wonder.” Yet none of the many who admired her art and read her essay ever knew anything more about the man who produced what, for her, was “one of the most lasting of my artistic impressions.”

The scarce information that Federman has been able to add fills out the picture—a bit. Barton was born in New York City in 1928, and raised by a single mother. The 1940 Census listed his mother as a laundress, although her son later spoke of her as a prostitute. He had the makings of a working-class autodidact—drawn to the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library from a young age—and at some indeterminate point began living his life as a gay man. In 1947, having completed two years of high school, he enlisted in the Navy, serving in the Pacific. Later, back in New York, he attended (or so he later claimed) a school that was conducted at that time by the French émigré painter Amédée Ozenfant, the proponent of a Cubist-derived “purism,” though Federman has not been able to document this independently. What’s more certain is that at some point Barton was committed to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital—as a “paranoid psychotic,” he later said.

In 1956, Barton turned up in the Bay Area. What Adnan called “the magic atmosphere of a San Francisco which was still primarily a harbor with all the feelings of alcohol and transiency that harbors create”—the capital of American bohemia and a gay mecca—must have been irresistible to a character like him. It was the period that the poet Kenneth Rexroth dubbed the San Francisco Renaissance. What’s strange is that Barton seems not to have intersected with any of the active circles of underground artists and poets in the city, many of them also gay, for instance the circle around Robert Duncan and Jess Collins—although Federman has found a letter indicating that Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg’s lover, had met him (and recognized that Barton, like himself, “was in mad houses a lot”). And he contributed illustrations to one of the publications of the Auerhahn Press, one of the signal San Francisco publishers of the era, responsible for the appearance of books by such countercultural luminaries as Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and David Meltzer. Its first publication, in 1958, was The Hotel Wentley Poems by John Wieners, which was named after a place whose ground-floor coffee shop, Foster’s Café, was one of Barton’s favorite writing spots.

As clandestine as he may have been, Barton had some kind of charisma, gathering a group of followers whom he dubbed the Academia Vinciana. (His devotion to Leonardo da Vinci is also evident in his practice of making inscriptions on his drawings in mirrored writing, as the Renaissance master had done.) One Wentley Hotel denizen recalled Barton as “the philosophical mentor of that group,” saying: “Rick held court, always insisting each new inductee to the ‘circle,’ whether they wanted to or not, join his painting school.” His insistence was not universally endearing; William Anthony himself says flat-out, as talented as Barton was, “He was an arrogant prick.” But Barton’s lover at the time, David Nelson, has told of how “Rick’s extreme dedication to art influenced many others to take up line painting. At one time there were half a dozen of us or more in North Beach, all using yatates”—portable, pipe-shaped Japanese writing kits—“painting at café tables. We often sat at the same tables working together.” Nelson also recalled Barton briefly managing a gay after-hours club, where—ever the aesthete—he featured Bach fugues on the jukebox and tried to school bikers in line drawing: “‘See here,’ he would say, ‘You enter the drapery through the still life! You enter the figure through the drapery!’”

What comes through in these rare reminiscences is Barton’s sense of his art as a special knowledge to be passed along to a group of adepts, his conviction of its importance despite its lack of public recognition. He seemingly made no attempt to enter the world of art galleries, but occasionally exhibited his drawings in area bookstores. Henry Evans, the owner of one of them, Porpoise Bookshop, published 13 portfolios of Barton’s prints; Evans later donated his collection of his friend’s art—hundreds of drawings as well as the prints—to the UCLA Library, where most of the works in this show have until now waited patiently to be seen.

Barton’s days among his acolytes in the cafés were sometimes interrupted by spells in jail on minor drug charges. Little is known of his activity after the early 1960s, and the last trace of his existence that Federman has been able to find is a letter dated 1971, which seems to indicate that he was still pursuing his art. But there the trail ends. According to Nelson, Barton died in San Diego in 1992.

That this artiste maudit was, as Federman says, “above all an aesthete” is immediately clear from his work. And if he really was self-taught, well, he was a conscientious student. That he had put his youthful (and later) peregrinations among museums and libraries to good use is evident as well. In her catalog essay, Federman points out borrowings, in Barton’s drawings, of imagery from sources as wide-ranging as Nicolas Poussin and Jan van Eyck, Katsushika Hokusai and Albrecht Dürer. As for his insistently linear style, she mentions a plethora of possible influences: Pablo Picasso, George Grosz, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau. Barton was surely aware of all of them, but I am surprised she makes no mention of the most widely known American artist of the day, Ben Shahn, whose sharp draftsmanship is particularly close to Barton’s style.

But where Barton’s artistic sophistication shows is not primarily in his magpie references; it’s in his ability to use a technique of somewhat limited range in such surprisingly varied ways. Not only did he limit himself to line alone—without shading, let alone color—in almost all his art, but his line, in its very purity, allowed for little nuance or variation: no hatching, no stippling, no washes, just even lines of nearly unvarying thickness and density. Nor does he structure his line by clearly distinguishing its entrance and exit from its main movement; in fact, given his propensity to fill the page by having his lines intersect the edges of the page, one would say that he conceives his lines as always fragments of much longer, potentially infinite ones—Euclidean, one might say. The line itself has a constant, almost unvarying character, and with another artist it might have become monotonous. But in Barton’s hands, the spaces it opens up and the rhythms it follows feel endlessly variable, and his handling of these variations—the juxtaposition, for instance, of more open passages, areas left blank, with passages densely packed with lines—gives his work much of its richness. One of Barton’s strangest and most fascinating drawings, inscribed Alone Again and dated June 3, 1960, is divided horizontally into two zones; in the upper one, we see what seems to be a figure wrapped in the covers on a bed—though the motif is so tersely defined that it could just as well be a cover bunched up without anyone under it—while the lower section describes in great detail, and as if by X-ray, the springs and other underlying structures of the bed itself. The contrast between the density of information about the bed and the indefiniteness with which the sleeper in it (if indeed there is one) is conveyed gives the work its poignancy.

Alone Again is not unusual, in Barton’s oeuvre, in conflating two distinct viewpoints—only, perhaps, in the neatness of the dichotomy between them. While his drawings are typically more or less based on observation of his surroundings, they eschew the putative realism that pretends to show the entirety of a single scene at a single moment. Barton’s best drawings construct their own fictive places out of a multiplicity of moments. Rick Barton’s Chinese Line (April 25, 1960) shows a quartet of musicians playing in a run-down domestic interior—bare light bulbs, a ramshackle bookshelf, and an upright piano that is not the sort that would likely appear on a concert stage. And yet, in the foreground, there are the heads of an audience facing the rostrum, and at the left there’s a fragmentary view of a couple of musicians (presumably the same ones, but who can say?) shown from a different angle and much closer up, perhaps from the viewpoint of one of their fellow players; and above these float a few more audience heads glimpsed from behind. But strangest of all, at the center of the drawing, there’s Vermeer’s famous kitchen maid pouring milk, the modestly scaled painting blown up so that its monumental figure appears to be as large as the four musicians—and the pitcher of milk has taken the place of the pianist’s head! Barton’s is, evidently, the realism of dreams.

Not all of his work is this fantastical. Barton did many studies of ecclesiastical architecture. He does not appear to have been pious himself, but he was devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe; in any case, the depiction of churches seems to have put him on his best behavior, turning him into something more like a straightforward illustrator. Something more exciting happens when Barton does not strive for objectivity but rather includes himself and his process of drawing as part of the imagery. In a 1959 drawing that reflects his time in jail, several men in prison bunks—though again, we are left with a doubt: Could they be the same man, seen at different times and in different poses?—seem to emerge directly from the pen-wielding hand that rises from the bottom of the page to depict, for example, a man reading an open book, which might well be the notebook in which a scene such as this could be recorded. It might almost be a trick image on the order of M.C. Escher’s well-known Drawing Hands lithograph, but Barton’s drawing conveys a psychological density, an emotional self-consciousness, that moves past a purely intellectual construct. His achievement here is closer to what Amiri Baraka—then Leroi Jones—admired in Wieners’s Hotel Wentley Poems: “the sense they make for us that we are watching the poet; disposing as he is at the moment of the poems’ emergence.”

As Adnan evidently realized, the great vehicle for Barton’s free-associative thought process—his version of “the unfolding of one’s mental operations,” as she put it—was the accordion-fold book or leporello, comparable to “those long unfolding horizontal scrolls that are not meant to be grasped in a single vision like a painting, but rather to be read, visually, in a sequence.” In contrast to a scroll, however, which the reader can unroll to any length at any point, the leporello necessarily defines the extent of the page, while leaving one free to view two or more pages at a time.

Two of Barton’s sketchbooks were on view at the Morgan. In them, we can see how deftly he manages the transition from scene to scene, often beginning a quasi-cinematic “cut” just before the edge of a page, so that its significance isn’t clear until one has unfolded the next page. This makes the most of the artist’s practice, which we’ve seen in his self-contained drawings, of combining multiple (and not quite reconcilable) viewpoints in a single picture. So, for instance, on the 13th page of a 30-panel book Barton used in 1961, we see one of his typical apartment interiors—floorboards, a door, the foliage of a house plant—with the left side of a man’s head staring out toward the view, intersecting the right edge of the page. But turn the page, and the right side of the man’s head is located in a different space altogether: a crowded café where one of those Academia Vinciana drawing sessions is in progress. The point is not to surprise the viewer with this quick switch of contexts; on the contrary, it’s the continuity that impresses—the fluidity with which even the most instantaneous change is achieved, and the equanimity with which it is accepted.

Looking back on his childhood, Barton called himself a “dead end kid.” Clearly, he never accepted the idea that he had to stay stuck; art would be his entrée into a deeper life. And his art, especially in the accordion-fold sketchbooks, takes for granted that, even in prison, there’s always a way to slip between one reality and another. But since the exhibition (and, presumably, Barton’s known extant oeuvre) peters out in 1962, when he was just 34 years old, one is left wondering: What other realities might his art have succeeded in encompassing?

The four years of work on view here give the impression of a complete, solid, and closed oeuvre—not unlike that of certain remarkable artists who died young, before they had to confront what Edward Said once gloomily called “the boring or frumpy or faded quality that one associates with middle age.” Of course, in Barton’s case at least, this is an illusion: He lived another 30 years and was making art for at least some of them. Somewhere, perhaps, there’s another cache of his drawings that would continue the picture. When it turns up, it will be in part thanks to Federman’s efforts that it will be recognized.