In the early 1990s, back when what is now the Met Breuer was the Whitney Museum of American Art, emerging singer and poet David Berman worked as a security guard, commuting in from Hoboken, New Jersey, where he lived with fellow musicians Bob Nastanovich and Stephen Malkmus, during the early days of their legendary slack-rock group Pavement.
On August 8, the day after his tragic death, a group congregated on the street outside the Met Breuer building to pay respects to Berman, who had since been the frontman for the critically acclaimed bands Silver Jews and Purple Mountains.
“We’re so happy for everyone to get to join together in a place that was so important to David’s life,” Lance Bangs said to kick off the event. The blue-haired filmmaker, an old friend of Berman’s, organized the event informally, and spoke Berman’s 1988 poem “Hieroglyphics Notebook #5” into a megaphone to get things going.
Berman, who wasn’t keen to do interviews, did once speak about his time working at the Whitney. He told the Washington City Paper in 2008, “Occasionally I meet an artist who had work up in a biennial or group show. I like to tell them, ‘I’ve guarded your work.’ I imagine it might be reassuring. ‘I’ve been looking out for you.’”
Though it can’t be certain which creatives he might have said this to, some artists featured in the Whitney’s 1993 biennial include Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, Matthew Barney, Glenn Ligon, and Kiki Smith, and the 1991 biennial featured Alex Katz, Nayland Blake, Bruce Nauman, Carrie Mae Weems, and Felix-Gonzales Torres.
“I’m gonna shine out in the wild silence,” filmmaker Kansas Bowling read as she, alongside artist and musician Don Devore, shared lyrics from the Silver Jews song “The Wild Kindness.” She continued, “Oil paintings of x-rated picnics, behind the walls of medication I’m free. Every leaf in a compact mirror hits a target that we can’t see.”
Above the group, dark clouds loitered, threatening a storm. Tree branches swayed in the wind, and per the writing style of Berman, which is both viscerally honest and darkly comic, the faces of audience members shifted between laughter and pained expressions. One person read the lyrics from “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan”, off of Berman’s latest endeavor with his band Purple Mountains, and as he spoke thunder rumbled and lightning strikes punctured the pink sky.
“I think one of the things David excelled at was letting us all feel less alone,” an old friend of Berman spoke into the megaphone. “It’s why this particular moment feels so painful.” He said that the last time he saw Berman, he meant to stop by his house in Nashville to say a quick hello, and wound up staying and talking for six hours.
“We spoke until it got dark, and as it gets dark here, it reminds me of that conversation.” A light rain was just starting to fall. He then recited the lyrics to “Pretty Eyes,” the last track off of one of Silver Jews’s most lauded albums, “The Natural Bridge,” from 1996.
“I believe the stars are the headlights of angels, driving from heaven to save us,” he said through a quivering voice. As he came to the last stanza, the sky finally broke into a full downpour. Before the event disbanded, he choked out, “I promise that I’ll always remember your pretty eyes, your pretty eyes.”