Bern Porter

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Bernard Harden "Bern" Porter (February 14, 1911 – June 7, 2004) was an American artist, writer, publisher, performer, and scientist.

In 2010 his work was recognized by an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.[1]


He was born in Maine and studied at Colby College and Brown University. He spent the last decades of his life living in Belfast, Maine.

As artist[edit]

Porter is best known for his "founds", which he has published in numerous collections including Found Poems, The Wastemaker, The Book of Do's, Dieresis, Here Comes Everybody's Don't Book, and Sweet End. Publishers of these works included Something Else Press, The Village Print Shop, and Tilbury House.

Bern Porter's underground reputation as an artist-writer-philosopher-scientist is well established among visual artists and writers, and his philosophy of dissent is respected. Dick Higgins, the avant-garde writer and publisher/editor of the Something Else Press, was inspired to call Porter the Charles Ives of American letters'. Recognizing Porter as one of the earliest and most prolific practitioners of Found Poetry', Peter Frank (in his book on Something Else Press) has written: "Porter is to the poem what [Marcel] Duchamp was to the art object, a debunker of handiwork fetishism and exemplary artist-as-intercessor between phenomenon and receptor. He rejects the typical artist's role of semi-divine creator. Porter's eye never tires of seeking accidental, unconventional literature in odd pages of textbooks, far corners of advertisements, the verbiage of greeting cards and repair manuals, ad infinitum."

Porter's career is complex and filled with contradictions. He was born in 1911, in Porter Settlement, Maine. All his life Porter had a love for literature, the visual arts and poetry in particular. As a child he created countless scrapbooks filled with collaged cut-outs of texts and images from newspapers. This process, used in the early scrapbooks, would later be developed into his technique of visual collaged poetry that he refers to as "Founds". As a pioneer author of artist's books, experiments in poetry, typography, and collage Porter published his first artist book in 1941. And since then has authored dozens of books and poetry broadsides as well as created paintings, sculpture, prints, and experimented with photography (included photograms in the early 1940s). He was also an early experimenter with alternative publishing, mail art, and performance poetry.

Late in his life a series of short books and pamphlets by Porter were published by Roger Jackson Publishers in Ann Arbor, including The World of Bern, a collaboration with Louise R. Roarty. He wrote a poem called The Last Acts of Saint Fuck You, which were presented in alphabetical order, with the same number of acts for each letter. He also did a recording of this that was full of reiterations.

“Lost and Found: The Work of Bern Porter from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art Library” is on display through July 11, 2010 at MoMA in New York.

As publisher[edit]

From 1944 to 1948, Porter and George Leite co-published a West Coast literary and artistic magazine called Circle.

In 1946 Porter published Kenneth Patchen's Panels for the Walls of Heaven, an edition of 750 copies. In addition, 150 copies were reserved as an edition of painted books, uniquely decorated, signed and numbered by Patchen.

Porter's imprint Bern Porter Books is best known for publishing the first editions of several works by Henry Miller.

As scientist[edit]

Prior to World War II, Porter contributed to the development of the cathode ray tube.

During World War II, Porter worked on the Manhattan Project. He worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on the part of the project devoted to the separation of the highly enriched uranium needed to construct atomic bombs. After bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Porter regretted his involvement with the project[citation needed] and became an outspoken pacifist.

In the 1960s, Porter worked on NASA's Saturn V manned rocket program[citation needed].


Further reading[edit]

  • Bern Porter, I've Left (contains Porter's ideas about science and art)
  • James Schevill, Where to Go, What to Do, When You Are Bern Porter: A Personal Biography (Tilbury House Publishing)
  • Bern Porter at UbuWeb

External Links[edit]