John Ashbery: Collages: They Knew What They Wanted

Tibor de Nagy Gallery, September 4 – October 4, 2008

John Ashbery, "Conservatory," 1972. Collage, 3 ½ x 5 ½ in. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

For those who still need a guide, poets can be divided into two groups, those who have at one juncture or another used collage (or a related methodology) in their writing, and those who haven’t. The former are interested in what has been called (rather negatively) the experimental, while the latter regard themselves as traditionalists. John Ashbery, Robert Duncan, and Marjorie Welish belong to the former, while Sharon Olds, Robert Pinsky, and Charles Simic belong to the latter. By some curious turn of fate, in poetry the traditional is more highly regarded than the experimental, while in art it is just the opposite. Alongside a large body of work that has yet to be collected and published, at different points in his life Duncan made beautiful drawings as well as collaborated with the artist Jess, with whom he lived. In addition to being a poet, Welish is a painter who has written intelligently and cogently about such difficult artists as Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly. Of course, middlebrow thinking, especially as it is expressed in The New Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and the ridiculously irrelevant New Criterion is excruciatingly boneheaded about poetry. They seem to be waiting for the Georgian poets to rise from their graves, storm the battlements, and, of course, triumph. If I sound a tad cranky, it is because I am tired of the shrill fear and deep self-loathing animating their reviews of poetry.

Let’s relocate to a more pleasant climate. If, in Ashbery’s case, you didn’t suspect that he might be a man with a pair of scissors (along with Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Joseph Cornell, and his friend Joe Brainard), then you probably haven’t read a single thing he has written. Ashbery has written eloquently about collagists (Anne Ryan and Kurt Schwitters), as well as used collage in his poetry. Not one to shy away from trying wildly different methods and difficult poetic structures (pantoum, sestina, and canzone, for example), it is wonderful to learn that, in addition to his voluminous literary production (poems of all different lengths, plays, a collaborative novel, French translations, hundreds of essays and reviews on art and literature), Ashbery made collages at four different periods in his life, with the earliest dating from the late ’40s and the most recent completed this year. The rest of the collages are from either the early or mid-’70s. Around two dozen of these collages are the subject of the poet’s first one person show at the age of eighty-one. It should be noted that the exhibition is at Tibor de Nagy, which published Ashbery’s first book, Turandot and Other Poems (1953), illustrated with four drawings by Jane Freilicher. From the essay that Ashbery wrote for the exhibition’s catalog, one deduces that there are not very many more collages than the two dozen shown here. Perhaps this exhibition will inspire him to make one.

If the most recent and largest works are any indication of the artist’s age, he seems as young as ever. This is because Ashbery, a friend since 1975, continues to be an enthusiast who gets excited by all manner of things, from the loftiest realms of high culture to the weirdest currents of popular culture. (He has also written insightfully about the films of Guy Maddin, Jacques Rivette, Ed Wood and the team of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur). His friend Joe Brainard (1942-1994) inspired the recent collages, all of which use the board game Chutes and Ladders as a ground. It seems that Brainard periodically sent Ashbery images he cut out and urged the poet to use in collages. Ashbery’s flawless incorporation of cutouts into the background image compels the viewer to look closely to see just what the poet has added and altered. The game seems an apt metaphor for life’s ups and downs. I was not only touched by Ashbery’s heartfelt acknowledgment of Brainard in his catalog essay, but also sensed how lost this world, where friends could gather around a table after dinner and make collages, had become.

In many of the collages, particularly from the early 1970s on, innocence and tenderness mix seamlessly with the sinister in ways that seem emotionally in keeping with “Girls on the Run,” Ashbery’s book-length poem inspired by Henry Darger’s anatomically incorrect drawings and watercolors of girls (they all have penises) from his massive epic, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. In Ashbery’s poem, attuned to the many languages, and their tones and registers, spoken by the different tribes he depicts running amok in America, surely the word “Girls,” a campy term for gay men, deliberately and sweetly inverts Darger’s mixed-up genitalia. Ashbery’s ability to make the figure (the word) evoke the ground (context) is unrivaled. In the collages, his method is straightforward enough; he cuts out a figure, often of a young boy, and places him against a rather banal background (woods, a greenhouse-cum-conservatory). His innocence is disarming because it enables a disquieting atmosphere to slither into his virginal conjunctions, the sense that the author knows that devastation and knowledge go hand-in-hand.

In Biarritz (1972), two men watch a ship (Noah’s Ark?) foundering on the rocks, while a manhole cover hovers in the sky, like a UFO. In his poems and collages, Ashbery looks at the most familiar things as if they were utterly new to him, even strange. Rather than judging, he investigates. This is what he has in common with Georges Seurat, whose drawings recall that period in early infancy when we can only make out dark and light, and we must feel our way through the world. Ashbery’s innocence enables him to take a deep delight in the world, to see it with a fresh, unjaundiced eye. In another collage, Superman slams a car against a deserted beach, and the viewer is left wondering how this omnipotent creature deals with frustration and misunderstanding. It is certainly a state that poets are familiar with, but few are delighted by. And this seems to be Ashbery’s special province; he doesn’t let the public’s incomprehension get to him, nor does he elect to speak to only a handful of readers, as if he regarded them (and, by extension, himself) as special. This seems to me to be the hardest road to take in any art form, particularly if one wants to maintain a democratic stance, which isn’t the same as claiming to be a populist or anti-elitist. As a poet and collagist, Ashbery rescues sentiment from the sentimental, while other, more traditionally minded poets eschew the sentimental only to devolve into it with all the graciousness of an angry giraffe. Over the course of his career, Ashbery has given us many delightful and surprising gifts. With this exhibition, the list has just gotten longer.

Contributor

John Yau

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