Ellen Levy’s Criminal Ingenuity

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants performing a ballet choreographed by George Balanchine, Madison Square Garden, New York, 1942.

Criminal Ingenuity: Moore, Cornell, Ashbery, and the Struggle Between the Arts, by Ellen Levy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 260 pages.

POETS CAN’T STAY OUT OF MUSEUMS, where their metaphors reign as things. Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters on Paul Cézanne give us some of the best images of the painter’s subjects, whose “apples are all cooking apples” and whose “wine bottles belong in the roundly bulging pockets of an old coat.” In his constant return to Cézanne’s 1907 memorial exhibition at Paris’s Salon d’Automne, where several paintings held him in thrall, the poet rehearsed a central dilemma confronting anyone who would bridge the distance between the arts: not simply how to minimize what’s lost in translation from object to description, but also how to distill the specific experience of an artwork within another art’s system. Ben Lerner’s excellent novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) riffs on this struggle. In its opening scene, an American poet living in Spain on a fellowship performs his morning ritual of gathering the day’s necessary supplies—notebooks, pocket dictionary, Federico García Lorca’s Collected Poems, John Ashbery’s Selected Poems, drugs—and heads to the Prado to stand in front of Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. The implicit question posed in Rilke’s and Lerner’s texts concerns the possibility, and subsequent communication, of a profound aesthetic experience. “For a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes,” is how Rilke described it. Or, as another poet who haunted museums, Frank O’Hara, once addressed the painter in his poem “To Larry Rivers”: “Don’t complain, my dear, / You do what I can only name.”

These lines are echoed in O’Hara’s 1957–60 lithograph collaboration with Rivers, “Stones”: “Poetry was declining / Painting advancing / we were complaining / it was ’50,” the series famously begins. O’Hara was always collapsing categories, both aesthetic and personal, in his poetry and at the Museum of Modern Art, where he rose from a job at the front desk to associate curator in the Department of Painting and Drawing. He and Rivers had met at a party held by Ashbery (“Parties were ‘given’ / we ‘went’” read O’Hara’s next lines), the kind of gathering where guests enjoyed, in Joe LeSueur’s wonderful description, ample martinis, Manhattans, and “a few bags of potato chips.” Anxiety over the relative autonomy of words and images was hardly unique to O’Hara’s tangled cohort—it runs deep as the Western tradition—but earlier Dadaist and Surrealist cross-pollination of the arts had given an exuberant edge to the trepidation, leading to an experimental ferment in mid-century New York. (The countervailing force, of course, was Clement Greenberg’s criticism, which delivered a stringent pruning of that mix.) Enter Ellen Levy, whose dense but rewarding book is something like the bag of chips at the intellectual cocktail party: It avoids glamour for crisp pithiness and it fuels the gathering of luminaries it serves, even as it leaves one hungry for more.

Levy focuses on the relative wallflowers at the American modernist party, via the poets Marianne Moore and Ashbery and the artist Joseph Cornell. (True to form, O’Hara is a blurred figure passing across the lens of many discussions.) All three, Levy argues, share a special status as insider/outsider with respect to the establishment. They were unaligned powers, owing fealty neither to literature nor visual art, and their work hovers on the threshold between word and image, sampling from both when neither had clinched hierarchal dominance. In standing outside the historical struggle between the arts, these figures still managed to define, or offer a counterdefinition of, their historical moment. Levy stakes her claims against the foil of the “institution,” a term that for her in fact connotes an amalgam of institutions—the people and vested parties in both disciplines that, at the time, were bent upon autonomy—while suspending her own argument in the hybrid space between the arts. She reads art’s broader institutions as if they were individual works of art, split between two myths of autonomy: poetry’s distance from commodity, an ostensible result of its academic disinterestedness, and visual art’s direct accessibility to experience. Moore, Cornell, and Ashbery “strive to remain as long as possible in a state of uncertainty”: what Ashbery described as “a kind of fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.” Levy associates this vague condition-cum-position with the Freudian term ambivalence and all its oppositional potential and sexual tension. Repurposing a phrase from one of Moore’s poems, Levy calls this “fence-sitting” and its resulting artwork “criminal ingenuity.” How to be in but not of the institution, or perhaps the other way around—that is the question.

If this concept sounds intangible, it allows for a nuanced reading of these artists’ canny maneuvers to place themselves outside the mainstream while often holding central positions within it. Ashbery makes his claim for poetry from the literary margins of the art world. Moore called “Marriage”—one of her best-known poems—a “thing” and “a little anthology of statements,” as if the act of keeping objects safe, more than writing poetry, best described her practice. And Cornell’s oeuvre embodies the polemics of the in-between: His strange boxes, with their recycled objects and references and exhortations to artists and writers he admired, are a visual manifestation of this place.

In Cornell’s hands, metaphor had objective weight. Much of his output defied definition—and for a time, market recognition—including the assembled sheaves of scrapbook portraits he considered “romantic museums,” storehouses of private mystery and public kitsch. But Levy convincingly argues that Moore and Ashbery are surrealists of a sort too—suspending quotation, images, even physical things (including Ashbery’s collection of unused airplane vomit bags) between refuse and commodity, between personal biography and “the personality”—that is, the poem’s public, disembodied voice. In a 1966 review, Ashbery cited Moore’s “kaleidoscopic collage effects” as having taught him how to navigate a world overwhelmed by media and useless information. A year later, in reviewing Cornell’s Guggenheim retrospective, Ashbery similarly argued that the “work exists beyond questions of ‘literature’ and ‘art’ in a crystal world of its own making: archetypal and inexorable.”

Moore, Cornell, and Ashbery make incursions across disciplinary lines; they also demonstrate “criminal ingenuity,” Levy argues, relative to institutions outside the arts, including marriage. Levy suggests that marriage in fact might be “the institution, the one on which all others are founded” and—like modern art itself—a site of risky “enterprise” even as it is also a dangerous snare, a web (per Moore, appropriating Sir Francis Bacon) of “circular traditions and impostures.” For Levy, Ashbery, Cornell, and Moore were all unmarriageable “by nature” or “by law,” and their work reflects a complex interplay of desire and renunciation, dissimulation and disclosure. Moore described her own “negated sexuality” as “foiled explosiveness” (such potent heartbreak!), and, like Cornell, lived with her mother until late in life. Whatever heteronormative establishment it embodies, the institution is an uninhabitable place that must be reimagined; this leads to much productive displacement and also to the book’s most dense and abstract arguments, in which the paired pleasure of rhyme (and therefore coupling) might be deferred in a poem by Moore, or the cutout birds of Cornell’s boxes might stand in for his own sublimated desire.

Elsewhere, Levy’s situational metaphors coalesce into actual spaces, and here her reading opens up too. Imagining the structure of O’Hara’s poems allegedly written in and around Times Square during his lunch breaks from MoMA, Levy writes that “the beginning of each lunch poem finds the poet stepping out into the world of everything that the museum excludes.” This is contrasted nicely with a poem such as “Digression on Number 1, 1948,” published in a monograph on Jackson Pollock in 1959, in which the poet wanders distractedly through the museum’s galleries until he encounters the title work, and arrives at his final, abrupt half line: “I see.” A poem like this isn’t accidental in circling back to Rilke’s letters on Cézanne, for to perform the struggle between the arts is also to exist there, figuring the institution of poetry within the museum.

As a battle tactic, “criminal ingenuity” is guerilla warfare, the practicing individual versus “mass practices,” to borrow Ashbery’s description of commodified media from his poem “Definition of Blue.” The asymmetrical strategies of flexibility, timing, and imagination that mark these artists’ navigations between the arts enable all manner of daring sorties. The suspended connections they establish can propel word and image together in a dizzying spin of the modernist Rolodex. Strange and bright as the art they describe, accounts of these intersections mark the book’s most agile passages. For instance, Levy recounts how Cornell commissioned Moore to write on George Balanchine for a guest-edited 1946 issue of Lincoln Kirstein’s Dance Index, focusing on a ballet choreographed in 1942 for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants. In Moore’s indelible description of this publicity stunt, the elephants were as “enhanced by a skirt as the grace of a venerable live oak would be enhanced by a skirt.” Levy links Moore’s empathetic discussion of animals and routine to her own narrative as a “reluctant participant in the routines of femininity and of modernism,” citing the figure of an animal (elephant, parrot, octopus, etc.) as potent placeholder for love and artistic recognition in both Cornell’s and Moore’s art.

Criminal Ingenuity’s framing exposes its own risky enterprise. The strength of the title phrase is also its breaking point: So many heavy-hitting factors of modernism accumulate there, including class, sexuality, and tradition. As Levy admits, when telling a story of margins, they inevitably turn into centers. And can we take for granted the established centers against which her figures push? Like the artists represented, Levy assembles an original and oblique meditation on finding space to create within modernism, and she presents a veritable alphabet of its players: Here are Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin and T. S. Eliot. (One wishes that Leo Steinberg were at the party, too, particularly as David Levi Strauss has demonstrated that critic’s importance to the modern lineage of word and image.)

What effects does “criminal ingenuity” leave behind, collected in the pockets of the work? And what do we make of these spoils? “Images are given to poets,” literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky wrote at the start of modernism in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique,” and “the ability to remember them is far more important than the ability to create them.” But images are given to audiences, too. If there is a true victor in modernism’s struggle between the arts, it might be us looking back as reader-viewers. We can refer to words as much as images when we say, “I see.”

Prudence Peiffer is a senior editor of Artforum.