New York

John Ashbery, Promontory, 2010, collage, digitized print, 13 x 7 3/4".

John Ashbery, Promontory, 2010, collage, digitized print, 13 x 7 3/4".

John Ashbery

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Collage, by its nature a hybrid art, reveals that a whole is always composed of a series of conflicting, complementary parts. For this reason, it might come as no surprise that John Ashbery, arguably the most influential poet in America, is also a collage artist, for his poetry has always been a conflation of various discourses and modes. The experimental and the traditional have long maintained an uneasy but generative truce in his work. For instance, Ashbery might use the sestina, a form dating to the twelfth century, to relate the misadventures of Popeye.

Ashbery’s recent collages, presented at Tibor de Nagy, are generally light in tone; like his poetry, they weave together high culture and pop sensibility with élan, generating the kinds of surprises that one gets from bringing together, say, Buster Brown and Parmigianino’s self-portrait. They are also frequently self-referential; for example, Parmigianino’s painting is the subject of Ashbery’s canonical poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Art-historical influences are everywhere evident: Max Ernst, of course, as well as Picasso and Braque, Joseph Cornell, and Joe Brainard. Given Ashbery’s important relationships with countless artists throughout his life and his years spent as an art critic, art history is neither academic nor monolithic for him; it is a lived experience of conversations and encounters. Likewise, the playful referentiality of these collages never fully conceals the fact that the real stakes are deeply personal. This blurring of self and culture reveals itself in the various half-remembered images that occur and recur throughout the often relatively spare collages. Twice among the twenty-one works appears a photograph of May Lillie (taken by Frederick W. Glasier, an early-twentieth-century circus photographer) in cowgirl garb, pointing her gun directly at the camera. This image of a nearly forgotten sharpshooter, its specific references almost buried, stirs in the mind’s recesses as a collusion of cultural materials and personal associations. Pop culture for Ashbery is inextricable from the poetics of memory.

Promontory, 2010, offers the most poignant, moving image in the show. Against a digitized print of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, 1563, a young boy lies on his back amid a clutch of wildflowers, his hand shielding his eyes from the sun. It is hard not to read this as an allegory for Ashbery himself. “Yet I cannot escape the picture / Of my small self in that bank of flowers,” he writes in his poem “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers.” With fraught nostalgia, Promontory brings the viewer back to that small self loafing among a bank of flowers while a tower is built in the background, a tower to ascend to heaven, a tower that will fall and, in falling, give rise to infinite shards of language and meaning, every part a memory of that central promise of wholeness. It is haunting to consider that for Ashbery, art—in whatever form—is a longing to be a child, dreaming of language, just before so much loss, so much fragmentation changes everything. The light of such work projects another kind of dream, one in which art is recollecting—in every sense of the word—both the possibilities of what is to come and the material fragments of who we once were, the self glimpsed through incremental choices of composition and assemblage.

Richard Deming