An Original Copy
Vernon “Copy” Berg’s Thoughtful, Playful, Singular Art
by John McIntyre
Vernon Berg III was better known as “Copy,” in recognition of his similarities to his father. In Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the US Military, the writer Randy Shilts observes that Berg was “the carbon copy of his dad, right down to the deep blue eyes and second-tenor voice.” But the nickname—one he “gleefully adopted”—was an ironic touch given the restless energy and reluctance to repeat himself that’s evident across his life at large, and the scope of his work as an artist. Copy Berg died in 1999 at the age of fifty, but twenty years on, his legacy appears all the more impressive.
Berg was the son of a Navy chaplain. Given his identification with and admiration for his father, he was all but fated to serve. He attended the Naval Academy and went on to serve on the USS Little Rock. And as anyone might, he met someone during his stint on the ship and fell in love. E. Lawrence Gibson was a civilian working at the Naval Academy as a theater director. Their commitment was serious enough that they decided to hold a marriage ceremony in Central Park. There was no chance of legal recognition for their union then, and this lent a winning sort of purity to the move, a small, shared declaration of love between a couple and the people closest to them. And because this was decades before Obergefell vs. Hodges, the ceremony also worked as a statement of principles, true to Berg’s conviction that gay Americans deserved equal treatment under the law.
It was a conviction he’d soon get to defend, for it turned out his private life wasn’t so
private. Naval officials had placed Berg under surveillance. All the while, he and Gibson went about their lives unselfconsciously, sharing among other things an apartment in Gaeta, Italy, where the Little Rock docked. Naval policy allowed for discharging service members found to be having same-sex relationships. Those discharges were listed as “other than honorable,” and Berg viewed the regulations as requiring him to capitulate rather than compromise. He challenged the unjust statutes legally, a bold decision in an era when mainstream publications like Time referred to him as an “avowed bisexual” with the implication that it made him a kind of outlaw at best.
Randy Shilts recounts a moving scene from the trial, in which Berg’s father, who by then held the rank of Commander and had earned citations for valor for his ministerial work during the Tet offensive, testified to his experiences hearing the confessions of gay soldiers. He estimated that a soldier per week came to him to tell him they were gay, and that he’d known high-ranking officers who were gay as well. “This week has been a learning experience for me,” the elder Berg said from the stand, and went on to speak out against blind prejudice, and to share the hope that theirs was an age of enligtenment. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “that will make such inquisitions unnecessary in the future.” Berg prevailed at trial, and his discharge was changed to honorable in 1977. It wasn’t a total victory—he didn’t win reenlistment, as he’d hoped, nor did it change the military policy of discharging gay and lesbian service members. It did, however, open the way to the next phase of his life. He made the move from the military to the art world with uncommon fluidity.
Berg had begun work as an artist while an enlisted man, though his attentions were necessarily divided. There was an undisclosed cash settlement as part of his lawsuit, and he put that money toward a graduate degree in Design from Pratt Institute. From there he built professional momentum as an artist. The writer Andrea R. Vaucher has posed the question of whether AIDS “push[es] the artist to be more formally experimental? More open to other mediums and means of expression?” Copy Berg’s career might be exhibit A in the case that it does. His was an art that is varied, energetic, and vital. His activism and his insistence upon equitable treatment, first for gay service members, and later for people living with AIDS, helped sustain his drive as an artist. Near the end of his life, he noted that, “Art has not had content for a long time—it’s been abstract and removed from popular dialogue.” He unflinchingly engaged with issues like living with AIDS in his work, but remarkably enough, he managed to do so with seeming whimsy, at times even calling to mind the irreverent British artist David Shrigley, whose cartoonish offerings are an almost unfailing source of deadpan humor. Look, for example, at I take 40 pills each day, in which a Berg line drawing shows a body from the chest down. The framing, though, remakes the upper torso into a kind of vessel that’s filled with pills. Above the image, it reads, “I take forty pills each day.” The juxtaposition is jarring; the image seems unserious, tossed-off, a kind of absurdist hybrid creature, but the text makes it plain that Berg means for us to imagine the body reduced to a vehicle for consuming and processing pills.
But where Shrigley’s work is geared exclusively toward humor, Berg at times offers sobering observations like the one that accompanies a quick, stylized black and white sketch of a man and woman dancing. “Ages 15 to 24 are most likely to become infected by HIV,” it reads. Another line drawing shows a head tilted back with its eyes pinched tight shut, and lightning bolts emanating from its mouth. “My HMO won’t pay for $670 of my drugs each month,” the accompanying text reads. Somehow the period at the end is especially devastating for how it turns a remarkable state of affairs to a matter-of-fact summary of life with AIDS, circa 1997. More striking still, the series gives way to, The Cocktail Does Not Work for Everyone, another simple line drawing in which a man struggles to surface in a martini glass. This piece works, too, as an extension of The AIDS crisis is not over, in which the last panel reads, “The CDC announced that they expect a 60% failure rate for all protease inhibitors.” The message is stark and unvarnished, a reminder of the dangers of self-congratulation and complacency with so much left to address.
In The Art of AIDS: From Stigma to Conscience, the writer Rob Baker asks whether, “AIDS art, by the very fragility of its nature, demand[s] different or less stringent staandards than other art?” Whatever the answer to Baker’s question on a broad basis, there’s little doubt Berg believed that his own work would stand up to the passage of time. A New York Times piece from 1995, four years before Berg’s death, found him sussing out arrangements to find a home for his work after he’d gone. He was, Berg said, “in the dubious position of owning everything I made.” Berg received meaningful assistance from the people at Visual AIDS, and as a result, we have an extensive visual record of his work. But even his time of doubt about his work surviving him didn’t undermine his faith in the value of what he’d done, or of art, writ large. “When Salvador Dali first showed his paintings of melting clocks, there were riots in the streets of Paris,” he’d said on another occasion. Surely there were times when he wished his own work would touch off such a heated response, to force people to confront the urgency of the themes in his work.
His abstract works such as Island Fantasy, Berg’s figures could seem to nod to Guernica, or at the very least display Cubist influence, though in fact Berg characterized his work as using “an American cartoon vocabulary to play in surrealistic ideas.” He was an exuberant colorist as well – think of his restaurant mural 103, Cat Tango, or Fantasy Seascape with Pirate Ship. And he was uncompromising to the last. A late exhibition at Paul Robeson Gallery on the Rutgers-Newark campus featured six nude photographs of Berg by the artist Marcus Leatherdale. One photo depicted Berg masturbating, an act he suspected they took as mere exhibitionism. He lamented the fact that students at the time didn’t “see AIDS as relevant to them,” and said, “I presented masturbation as an alternative to a death sentence. They thought I was just showing off.” In light of his steadfast stance in confronting his dishonorable discharge, his AIDS advocacy, and his commitment to the power of art, Copy Berg’s showing off, to the extent he ever did, was in the service of a larger good, an effort to draw attention not to himself, but to larger, greater ends that might benefit us all.
For more information about the work of Copy Berg and Visual AIDS, log on to: visualaids.org.
John McIntyre edited Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps. His writing has appeared in The Millions, The Poetry Foundation and The American Scholar, among other publications.