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PRINT January 2003

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Charles Henri Ford

IN THIS SUGAR-FREE ERA, what artist has a life more interesting than his art? The death of Charles Henri Ford (1908–2002) puts the capper on a time when precociousness and chutzpah were art forms in themselves. In 1927, on the eve of his nineteenth birthday, Ford wrote in his diary: “In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. In two years I will be famous. This is my oath.”

Not missing a beat, the poetry-besotted high school dropout started a little magazine out of his small-town Mississippi bedroom, christening it with the hip title Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms. He announced the first issue just as longtime literary journals The Dial and the Little Review were folding, so even well-known writers like Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams answered with submissions. Besides the big names, Ford introduced talents who confirmed his nose for the new: James Farrell, Erskine Caldwell, and fellow oddball teen Paul Bowles.

Through Blues he struck up a correspondence with the flamboyant young genius Parker Tyler, whose descriptions of boho Manhattan beckoned him to that hotbed of poetry and available men. Intoxicated by the Village scene, the two soon cobbled together a collaborative novel, The Young and the Evil (1933), a fragmented record of cruising, drag balls, and brittle repartee. Dame Edith Sitwell allegedly proclaimed it “entirely without soul like a dead fish stinking in hell,” an assessment that defines its lasting appeal as a proto–Blank Generation artifact.

Managing to get to Europe, the fresh-faced ingenue had no problem gaining access to the literary salons of Stein and Natalie Barney. While awaiting publication of his novel, he briefly hooked up with Djuna Barnes in Tangier, where they shared a rat-infested hovel while Ford typed the manuscript of Nightwood. Back in Paris, he met the artist Pavel Tchelitchew, a former Stein protégé whose career was on the rise. Tchelitchew—a brilliant, charismatic figure—was immediately taken with the bright blue eyes, sharp mind, and boyish demeanor of what he called “my darling huckleberries finn.” In the luminous Portrait of Charles Henri Ford in Poppy Field, 1933, Tchelitchew depicted his youthful lover with a golden halo formed by stacks of hay—an inside joke, according to Tyler, based on the Russian artist’s misinterpreting Ford’s written reference to “wet dreams” as “wheat dreams.” The love-struck Tchelitchew followed Ford back to New York, where, after some domestic readjustments, the two eventually established themselves in a sunlit East Side penthouse.

Their tempestuous twenty-six-year liaison—lasting until Tchelitchew’s death—was one of the great gay relationships, despite its bumps and indiscretions. Although never at ease with his secondary role, Ford provided unwavering support for Tchelitchew’s art and tolerance for his high-strung volatility. Discord arose largely from Tchelitchew’s powerful friends—Lincoln Kirstein, the Sitwells, the collector Edward James—who saw Ford as an opportunist. But Ford lived to score an odd kind of revenge on the past: the publication of Water from a Bucket: A Diary 1948–1957 (Turtle Point, 2001), a scattered, gossipy account of love affairs and failed writing projects that ends in the gruesome, tasteless chronicling of Tchelitchew’s health problems and death.

Beyond the bitchiness, Ford will be most remembered as editor of View, America’s last and best magazine of the avant-garde, which ran from 1940 to 1947. With a penchant for the unexpected and an unerring eye for quality, View mixed fiction and poetry with features on Max Ernst, Tchelitchew, Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and Isamu Noguchi, all of whose commissions graced its covers. View was the first little magazine to publish translations of work by Raymond Roussel, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The 1945 Marcel Duchamp issue was the first monograph on the artist and featured a cutout collage cover.

View also put an American spin on the Surrealist sensibility. Aztec and Native American poetry were featured, as well as Joseph Cornell’s worshipful paean to Hedy Lamarr. The magazine was formative for associate editor Parker Tyler—perhaps the most underrated critic in American letters. His later books on Tchelitchew, Florine Stettheimer, Hollywood film, and experimental cinema all had their seeds in View essays.

Most important, View was a quiet yet crucial force kindling underground American culture. Touchstones of the decade to come like Henry Miller, Bowles, Philip Lamantia, Paul Goodman, and Marshall McLuhan all published in the magazine. Its brand of poetic Surrealism in particular seems to have spilled over to the West Coast Beats. In the mid-’50s, Los Angeles artist George Herms remembers excitedly perusing a pile of Views in Wallace Berman’s living room on Crater Lane.

In his last five decades Ford produced poetry, photography, collages, and an experimental film. He appeared in a Warhol screen test and cavorted for Jack Smith. Longtime stints in Crete and Nepal alternated with a small home base in the Dakota on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As always, he was a repository of the bewildering, fragmented encounters that define hip art culture. In her introduction to Water from a Bucket, Lynne Tillman describes his diary as an “itinerary of lived attitudes” delivered “in bits and pieces, a collage, or . . . cut up.” Ford’s mid-’90s haiku, issued on a handout at “Alive and Kicking,” his recent exhibition at the Scene Gallery, New York, defines his art of enduring:

I don’t know how to
Take all this information!
Stash under your hat.

Michael Duncan is a Los Angeles–based critic.