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John Ashbery (1927–2017)

An AP report by Hillel Italie confirms that poet John Ashbery has died. He is perhaps best known for his 1975 collection of poetry Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. The volume’s titular poem is a fifteen-page reflection on the 1524 painting of the same name by the Italian Renaissance artist Parmigianino.

Born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, Ashbery grew up in Sodus in Wayne County, where his father was a fruit farmer. He began his studies at Harvard in 1945, where he met the writers Harold Brodkey, Robert Bly, Donald Hall, Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, John Hawkes, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Zimmerman, and Barbara Epstein, a founding editor of the New York Review of Books. Ashbery received a master’s degree from Columbia University in English and then found employment writing advertising copy for Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill. In New York, he became influenced by the work of John Cage and befriended the young painters Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Nell Blaine, Fairfield Porter, and Jane Freilicher, about whom the poet wrote a Passages for after she died in 2014.

Ashbery’s peers included Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, and Ron Padgett, who would collectively become known as the New York School, a moniker that Ashbery disliked. He won the Yale Younger Poets prize for his first collection of poetry, Some Trees (1956), which was awarded to him by the poet W. H. Auden. During his time in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship, he began writing art criticism and editing small journals. While there, he also met Pierre Martory, a writer with whom he lived for nine years, and whose poems he would later translate. After about a decade in France, Ashbery returned to New York and became the executive editor of Artnews while continuing to work as an arts journalist. His art criticism was later collected by the poet David Bergman, forming the book Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles 1957–1987. His husband, David Kermani, who earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at Columbia, would later become director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Ashbery dedicated two books, Flow Chart and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, to Kermani, and in 2016 showed his own collages at Tibor de Nagy. A book featuring Ashbery’s artwork is forthcoming from Rizzoli in 2018.

Among the many honors Ashbery received throughout his life are a MacArthur genius grant (1985) and the National Humanities Medal from then-president Barack Obama (2012). The poet published more than twenty-five books, the most recent of which was 2015’s Breezeway.