New York

Larry Rivers, Pyrography: Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery II, 1977, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 58".

Larry Rivers, Pyrography: Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery II, 1977, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 58".

“Painters & Poets”

Larry Rivers, Pyrography: Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery II, 1977, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 58".

In 1950, Hungarian émigré Tibor de Nagy and American impresario John Bernard Myers announced their new gallery. “Not only will painting and sculpture be here,” they declared, “but also anything that an astonished or adoring eye might select instantaneously from the cinema of life. . . . [Visitors] will be objets trouvés among objets trouvés, beheld by one another in joy.” Much of the venerable gallery’s ethos is predicted here, from the tone of amused overripeness, to the accent on instantaneity and life as cinematic. What Myers and de Nagy didn’t anticipate was that the “objects” joyously found under their auspices would often be poems and pictures. The mutual regard between writers and artists at de Nagy made avant-garde history, fusing postwar American Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism into Pop, while arcing toward the 1970s downtown literary scene around the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. There was “a certain ambience” around the place, as the poet Kenneth Koch once explained, “seeing each other all the time and being envious of each other and emulous of each other and inspiring each other and collaborating.” The exhibition “Painters & Poets” celebrated that ambience, and the élan remains so enjoyable that it didn’t much matter whether the art looked dated or amazing. (It looked both.)

With letters, photographs, posters, and other ephemera on display, in addition to books, chapbooks, broadsides, prints, paintings, collages, drawings, and films, viewing the show was a bit like sorting through the effects of a louche and brilliant gay uncle. The full space of this review could easily be spent detailing the social connections that supported the artistic experiments—the surprising fact, for example, that it was Clement Greenberg who drew up the list of mostly figurative painters for the founding roster; or the differences between Koch, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery (who knew one another from Harvard University in the ’40s) and Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Joe Brainard (who knew one another from Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the ’50s); or the curious detail that the gallery was more hospitable to female painters, including Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher, and Helen Frankenthaler, than to women poets, with Barbara Guest standing more or less alone.

There was much to read, from books propped open, to snatches of poems in images (O’Hara writing into Larry Rivers’s prints and paintings, for example, or Berrigan into Brainard’s collages). And this was a group who loved to look at one another. Thus, in Fairfield Porter’s portraits from the ’50s, Ashbery, James Schuyler, and their ilk appear as moody preppies, white shirts and khakis reflecting the ochre-chartreuse light of Southampton. Then Padgett comes along in 1970 to sit on the same flowered couch in Porter’s studio, wearing a purple shirt and hippie glasses. De Nagy Editions books, which were laid out in vitrines, evolved from elegant volumes covered in Japanese paper or sober monochrome (by O’Hara, Ashbery, Guest, and others) to eye-candy layouts of stripes and dots (by the likes of Bill Berkson, Trevor Winkfield, and Kenward Elmslie). Two works from 1975, Mitchell’s elegiac Drawing to James Schuyler’s poem Daylight (a blaze of orange pastel) and Drawing to James Schuyler’s poem Sunday” (a lavender mist), would seem to come from another aesthetic planet than Rudy Burckhardt’s boho-slapstick films Mounting Tension (1950, starring Freilicher as Rivers’s headshrinker) and Money (1968, starring Edwin Denby as a mad billionaire)—except that each would be slighter and duller if seen alone.

It is a critical commonplace to remark that, collaborative genius notwithstanding, the poets of the group transformed their medium, while the painters mostly marked time in theirs. This seems accurate, but beside the exhibition’s point. As O’Hara remarks in a snippet of documentary film from 1966, he and his friends discovered that “the only people interested in our poetry were painters or sculptors. You could say, ‘I don’t like Yeats,’ and they would say, ‘I know just how you feel; I hate Picasso too.’” Sixty years on—when poetry and visual art in New York seem hardly to know each other, and are certainly no longer lovers or best friends—the charm of a remark like O’Hara’s lies less in its Oedipal rejections than in its lightly worn yet ardent camaraderie. How not to love a movement whose manifesto promises, “I know just how you feel”?

Frances Richard