PRINT February 2000




To the Editor:
After my complete dismay and sadness from reading the October 1999 Artforum article “Frank Appraisal,” I would like to share a few thoughts. Hilton Als’s “slant” is an outrageous, libelous diatribe!

The exhibition “In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art” seemed to be a launching point for Als to vent his personal fury with a vicious attack against Frank O’Hara. Portraits are often more about the artist’s psyche than about the artist's model! In addition to Als’s mocking response to various portraits and photographs, he touts an uneven and, in many instances, inaccurate book of confusion of fact, fiction, and hearsay—City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara by Brad Gooch. Gooch projected death and created a cynical, ominous tone that distorted and diminished Frank and his fully accomplished life. Neither Als nor Gooch knew Frank O’Hara.

Frank’s life and work were filled with intelligence, caring, great wit, and integrity. His energies were focused on the present—writing poems, plays, essays, working at the Museum of Modern Art, being supportive of other poets, artists, great friends, and projects. He delighted in music, dance, theater, and film. He was very clear about the struggles, obstacles, and injustices of his time. Frank was just forty when he died thirty-three years ago. I am his sister. He was a splendid, loving, generous person.

For specific understanding, here is a primary source—Frank’s writing on the poets and some of the artists whose works are included in the exhibition “In Memory of My Feelings.” The following are excerpts from Frank’s essay “Larry Rivers: A Memoir.”

The milieu of those days, and it’s funny to think of them in such a way since they are so recent, seems odd now. We were all in our early twenties. John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch and I, being poets, divided our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artists’ bar, the Cedar Tavern. In the San Remo we argued and gossiped; in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip. So far as I know nobody painted in the San Remo while they listened to the writers argue. An interesting sidelight to these social activities was that for most of us non-academic and indeed non-literary poets in the sense of the American scene at the time, the painters were the only generous audience for our poetry, and most of us read first publicly in art galleries or at The Club. The literary establishment cared about as much for our work as the Frick cared for Pollock and de Kooning, not that we cared any more about the establishments than they did, all of the disinterested parties being honorable men.

Then there was great respect for anyone who did anything marvelous: when Larry introduced me to de Kooning I nearly got sick, as I almost did when I met Auden; if Jackson Pollock tore the door off the men’s room in the Cedar it was something he just did and was interesting, not an annoyance. You couldn’t see into it anyway, and besides there was then a sense of genius. Or what Kline used to call “the dream.” Newman was at that time considered a temporarily silent oracle, being ill, Ad Reinhardt the most shrewd critic of the emergent “art world,” Meyer Schapiro a god and Alfred Barr right up there alongside him but more distant, Holger Cahill another god but one who had abdicated to become more interested in “the thing we’re doing,” Clement Greenberg the discoverer, Harold Rosenberg the analyzer, and so on and so on. Tom Hess had written the important book. Elaine de Kooning was the White Goddess: she knew everything, told little of it though she talked a lot, and we all adored (and adore) her. She is graceful. . .

It is interesting to think of 1950-52, and the styles of a whole group of young artists whom I knew rather intimately. It was a liberal education on top of an academic one. Larry was chiefly involved with Bonnard and Renoir at first, later Manet and Soutine; Joan Mitchell—Duchamp; Mike Goldberg—Cézanne, Villon, de Kooning; Helen Frankenthaler—Pollock, Miró; Al Leslie—Motherwell; De Niro—Matisse; Nell Blaine—Helion; Hartigan—Pollock, Guston; Harry Jackson—a lot of Matisse with a little German Expressionism; Jane Freilicher—a more subtle combination of Soutine with some Monticelli and Moreau appearing through the paint. The impact of THE NEW AMERICAN PAINTING on this group was being avoided rather self-consciously rather than exploited. If you live in the studio next to Brancusi, you try to think about Poussin. If you drink with Kline you tend to do your black and whites in pencil on paper. The artists I knew at that time knew perfectly well who was Great and they weren’t going to begin to imitate their works, only their spirit. When someone did a false Clyfford Still or Rothko, it was talked about for weeks. They hadn’t read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness for nothing. . . .*

This essay by Frank O’Hara creates a certain reality in response to the incredible Hilton Als diatribe.

—Maureen O’Hara
Rowayton, CT

To the Editor:
I just ran across Hilton Als’s inexplicably rabid commentary on Frank O’Hara, which I had somehow missed, and I find it hard to believe that you printed such a preposterous, gratuitous, and malignant rant.

Als, starting off from the assumed perspective of an American health nut, obsesses on O’Hara’s “too-thin human form,” without mentioning that he himself is perhaps “not too thin.” Then he goes on to attack O’Hara for putting down, “way down,” whomever he didn’t like, noting that the “malice behind O’Hara’s eyes” in the various portraits contributed by friends, “as diverse as Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Jasper Johns, Grace Hartigan, and Fairfield Porter,” has “a sickening effect—unless guys who look and behave like O’Hara happen to be your type.”

I don’t know where Als located this mother lode of malice in O’Hara; it is certainly not to be found in his poetry, his criticism, or even in the biography by Brad Gooch that Als thinks is so essential. O’Hara could no doubt be bitchy in his cups, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more generous supporter of artists and writers, despite their flaws. All I can think of is that there’s no fag basher like an unbeautiful homosexual “critic” spurned by a beautiful homosexual artist.

Perhaps Als is upset by an imagined notion that, had they been contemporaries, O’Hara might have found his person unattractive or his work poisonous. Maybe what gets Als’s goat is not O’Hara’s physical beauty, which was far from conventional, but the beauty of his work and of his soul. I would recommend that anyone who made it through this spurious screed give O’Hara’s manifesto, “Personism,” a read to get a feeling for O’Hara’s feelings.

I guess O’Hara’s “Lana Turner Has Collapsed” poem is an easy target for Als to make O’Hara out to be a camp queen, but what about “The Day Lady Died”? Frank O’Hara was certainly guilty of writing about his feelings (he was a poet), and writing criticism while curating (if that were a capital crime this magazine would be dead). Right, and Andy Warhol was “a gleam in Eleanor Ward’s eye,” Allen Ginsberg felt the need to become “a spokesmodel for the United Colors of Benetton before there was such a thing,” and James Schuyler and LeRoi Jones were “mad”? Hilton Als is a dumbass.

—Glenn O’Brien
New York

*From The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald M. Allen. Published by Alfred A . Knopf, Inc., New York, 197l/University of California Press, Berkeley. 1995. This memoir was originally included in the catalogue for “Larry Rivers,” an exhibition of the Poses Institute of Fine Arts, Brandeis University, in collaboration with the Detroit Institute of Art, 1965.