PRINT October 1999


Frank O’Hara

AS VIEWED FROM THE VANTAGE POINT of our empire’s continued obsession with health, Frank O’Hara (1926–1966), the poet and Museum of Modern Art curator, looks, if not like death, then the very body of ill health. In the photographs and paintings of the poet at the center of “In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art,” an exhibition of 102 (as often as not collaborative) works by O’Hara and his painter friends, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles through November 14, there is O’Hara’s too-thin human form, gay and white and plucky or sad, seen by this camera or that, some painter or another, lens and hand all too happy to memorialize “their” Frank, made famous as much by his wit, his cock-sucking, and his knowing “everyone” as by his poetry. A cynosure in the world where high and low art, fag hags and scared, boozy butch painters—male and female—converged in postwar New York, O’Hara, as Andy Warhol recalled in his excellent (if not wholly reliable) memoir Popism, drank quite a bit and put down, way down, whomever he didn’t like. It’s difficult to know whether the victims of O’Hara’s faggy wit and cruelty were selected because (consciously or not) he recognized himself in them, but one can’t help noting that’s often the impetus behind such unbridled vitriol. The MoCA show, which amounts to a collective portrait of the poet by his friends—artists as diverse as Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Jasper Johns, Grace Hartigan, and Fairfield Porter are represented—is also inevitably a portrait of a particular kind of self-regard, O’Hara’s own. Sometimes it’s difficult to look at (no matter how beautiful a particular Porter portrait, for example, is), since the malice behind O’Hara’s eyes, the large forehead and long, stiff proud neck, the skinny legs and bad teeth that O’Hara wanted you to love but that he himself at times reviled, have a sickening effect—unless guys who look and behave like O’Hara happen to be your type. And if you don’t like the way he looks, or the way he looks at himself, on and off the page, then you’re not being very O’Hara in your appreciation, since he was devoted to the surface of things as much as anything else. The image he was most enamored of was his own—that and his “role”: as naughty darling of the art world. He may have had more style than the preponderance of clever, poetry-loving young men who have always flocked around artists’ wives while longing for their husbands’ “visibility” or power. He was the paradigm of the art-world fag that may make you avoid the art world now, and forever. There’s no point being around the contemporary version of Frank O’Hara, who works overtime for dealers, collectors, rich wives, critics—establishing their tastes and interests while doing nothing to upset the art world’s accepted order. The reason some people don’t want to hang out with them: They are viciously territorial, conniving in the struggle to maintain their position as most beloved fag, ever.

Francis Russell O’Hara (Frank): the not unfamiliar story of the provincial (born in Maryland, raised in Massachusetts) and only boy surrounded by sisters and a mother who drank and who may have been, in the current parlance of the well, manic-depressive. In any case, there was the mild-mannered father he could never know, the lower-middle-class Irish Catholic superstitions and aspirations held onto by his elders (later, Frank dug astrology, or progressive superstition). He had a fairy’s love of discussing books with aunts and “nice” neighborhood girls, and an interest in his own girlish good looks, which lasted for a time but dissipated with all the drinking, cigarettes, and rough trade that, interestingly enough, he gave up early on, having been scared out of courting danger in Queens (or wherever) after hanging out one night with Chester Kallman, W.H. Auden’s live-in companion, who got turned on when a trick went wrong and beat the shit out of him. But that was all after the war. O’Hara enlisted in the navy to get away from home, and there he was, amidst all that gorgeous ass, floating on the seas. In the few extant photographs of O’Hara in his sailor’s suit, he looks saucy and unschooled (if very well read), his white hat cocked, as lopsided as his grin. The G.I. Bill gave him the financial wherewithal to attend Harvard, where he roomed with the illustrator Edward Gorey and read Ronald Firbank, as many glittering queens longing to have the glitter in their heads materialize in the real world (where, oh, where, is that city called Fabulous?) have done, and will continue to do.

And then there was the Abstract Expressionist scene, which perhaps more than anything else drew O’Hara to New York. But when the poet finally moved to Manhattan and befriended the brilliant but mad James Schuyler, the brilliant but mad LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and so on, he would champion not only the Abstract Expressionists but the new figurative art being made by Larry Rivers, with whom he was madly in love (you’d have to be), and Grace Hartigan, among others, all the while making a name for himself as a curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA (where he organized the 1965 Robert Motherwell retrospective, among other shows).

As a curator, O’Hara was less interested in the institution than in preserving the “naturalness” that the poet Kenneth Koch observed in O’Hara’s writing and persona. And it’s true, if you look at the catalogues O’Hara wrote and edited during the late ’50s and early ’60s, when his fame as a curator more or less matched his fame as a poet, that there is a certain naturalness or inevitablility to them. Art was no big deal. O’Hara believed that his role as a curator was not only to present the artist’s view, but to enhance it with a view of his own (and recipients of such curatorial largesse included Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, and David Smith). He wasn’t a trained art historian, which is why his work at MoMA was so refreshing and has never been duplicated: Innocence and joy cannot be duplicated.

Brad Gooch’s biography City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara should be required reading before seeing “In Memory of My Feelings.” Gooch is especially successful in bringing to life the art world of the period, when Warhol was a mere gleam in Eleanor Ward’s eye. In a way, O’Hara’s personal affect was a perfect precursor to Pop and its substantial insubstantiality, as were his poems, with their unremitting focus on Frank, Frank, and more Frank. Is there a best of Frank O’Hara, the writer? There is the famous “Having a Coke with You” (“is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne”) and his movie love, which was charming (“Lana Turner has collapsed! / I was trotting along and suddenly / it started raining and snowing / . . . and suddenly I see a headline / LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED! / there is no snow in Hollywood . . . / I have been to lots of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful / but I never actually collapsed / oh Lana Turner we love you get up”). The poems, if you can call them that—verse, perhaps? As in “He’s a versifyin’ fool!” It’s difficult to say what these scatty monologues are. Their interest stems from their somewhat forced and dumb gee-whiz relationship to the world. O’Hara suffers in them, but not because of politics (as with Auden) or any issue larger than love, requited or not. His concerns were small, so he was doomed to remain minor. Unlike his contemporary Allen Ginsberg, who was equally naive, O’Hara didn’t even feel the need to give, to become an ambassador of love—a spokesmodel for the United Colors of Benetton before there was such a thing—because it was only his love, and its effect on him, that mattered.

The voice of this particular poet: It is overestimated by mediocre graduate students and memoirists, who champion it and, like O’Hara, lack the discipline to write about things other than themselves. But unlike the majority of his supporters, O’Hara knew that there was a larger world, having gone out into it, through his imagination. Pity is, he felt most comfortable in the small, moneyed, and bohemian world that rewarded him for being Frank. Conjecture of the kind that insists O’Hara would have gone on to bigger and better things, would have developed into a major writer as opposed to a major personage—a distinction Truman Capote, O’Hara’s precursor in many ways, did not make (and indeed Capote went on to establish the writer-as-celebrity as a viable persona for the modern author)—is empty speculation. Frank O’Hara died before even he had time to find out whether any distinction between his cocktail-party self and the poet could be made. While there’s no reason great art couldn’t have been made out of the overly processed material of his life, it’s doubtful he would ever have seen the necessary distance beyond his rarefied milieu, beyond the enclaves of MoMA and the Hamptons: It was his world, and he lived to welcome you or exclude you from it.