by Michael Thomas Davis
John Ashbery and collage? Of course.
Frank O'Hara and MoMA, the way art and artists permeate his poetry. James Schuyler and art criticism. Ashbery's solid contribution to understanding the art of the second half of the twentieth century. The connection between the visual arts and the writing of both generations of the so-called New York School of poets is a given—to mention it is to risk cliché. But it doesn't stop with writing about art; there are the collaborations between poets and artists: O'Hara's and Grace Hartigan's Oranges, O'Hara's and Larry Rivers' Stones, Joe Brainard's and O'Hara's collages, Ashbery's and Brainard's Vermont Notebook, Ashbery's and Joan Mitchell's The Poems, Ashbery's and Alex Katz's Fragment, Jim Dine's and Ron Padgett's The Adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Jim and Ron. But one can go beyond this circle and point to many modernist writers and artists who pursued, often in a complementary fashion, both media: Sylvia Plath's drawings, e. e. cummings who preferred to be known as "painterandpoet," Elizabeth Bishop's watercolors, Lorca's drawings, Picasso's poetry. Further back one might mention Alfred Jarry, whose drawings of his Père Ubu are as indelible as John Tenniel's Alice illustrations. Finally, though never a "public" artist, the skillful caricatures found in Verlaine's letters give us images of Rimbaud which convey both the complexity of the two poets' relationship and that of the younger poet's elusive, enigmatic personality.
For the writers and artists of Ashbery's "circle," the comics, film, and postcards provide a shared visual and literary vocabulary. Collage is the perfect medium through which to appropriate this vocabulary: These ephemera, when caught in the artist's creative web, coalesce into something enduring, something that communicates.
In Ashbery's collages the postcard often figures prominently, both as a source of the cut-out elements and as the ground upon which they are deployed. This is most appropriate. Not only have Ashbery and his friends exchanged and collected what must be literally thousands of postcards over the years, but postcards are inherently collaborative objects and are meant to be works that combine text and image: the message written by the sender upon the back of the picture sent. Without both, the postcard is incomplete, but when completed it becomes an inscribed sign of relationship. Postcards are literally correspondence—true souvenirs—attempts at filling an absence: "Wish you were here!" Given this, the postcard by its very nature suggests many possibilities for further elaboration, possibilities that Ashbery has both explored and exploited in these works.
The power of Ashbery's collages derives in part from the often improbable conjunction of elements which fascinates the viewer without revealing precisely what is occurring or its significance. In many of these moments, we also find a palpable but hard-to-define beauty and humor not unlike that in Ashbery's poetry. For me, perhaps the best example of the incorporation of all these aspects within a single collage is L'Heure Exquise (1977).1
The elements which make up this collage are quite simple. The ground is a postcard of a desert night sky with giant cacti. The sky is literally rendered electric blue by multiple bursts of lightening. A blond in a white strapless dress dominates the foreground. She is seated, slightly leaning backward, supporting herself upon an arm. Her other arm is raised, the index finger of its hand extended upward. She appears to be making a point, speaking to (or is she joking? prompting? admonishing?) a large macaw perched upon the knee of one of her shapely, long legs. The bird has its beak open, further implying a conversation. The Technicolor brilliance gives the collage the feel of "the movies" and intensifies the over all effect of the image. It is as electric as the lightening which flashes all about it. And yet, despite the collage's drama, the "conversation" between the woman and the parrot seems intimate. What is going on here and why, in the midst of a desert and all this meteorological mayhem? The clarity of the image enhances its mystery. The juxtapositions do have a logic, but one which is impossible to pin down. This is the pleasure the collage gives. It brings us to the brink of meaning, of story, only to leave us there, caught in a skein of delightful, unresolved tensions.
In the late 1940s, while at Harvard, Ashbery made his first collages. These early works reflect an approach to his materials that Ashbery has maintained and developed down into his more recent work. But what is apparent in this early work is the influence of Max Ernst (1891-1976). Like Ernst's collages, Ashbery's are often designed to both amuse and haunt. The early pieces Late for School and Seaport (both ca. 1948) are good examples of this strategy. Later in the 1960s and 1970s some of the strongest influences in his collage work were much closer to hand, particularly Joseph Cornell and Anne Ryan (about whom Ashbery wrote insightful essays). And, looking at these works, I am also reminded of Ashbery's associations with the artists Jess (1923-2004), Joe Brainard (1942-1994), and Donald Evans (1945-1977).
Donald Evans was not a collagist, but his subject matter intersects with Ashbery's frequent use of the postcard. Evans specialized in highly detailed "photo-realist"-like paintings of stamped envelopes and arrays of postage stamps. Most of the stamps, which appear so real that his paintings could easily be described as trompe l'oeil, were entirely imagined and from equally imaginary countries. However, Evans often addressed his painted envelopes with their elaborately realized stamps and cancellation marks to real friends. Ashbery has occasionally used postage stamps in his collages, and Cape of Good Hope (ca. 1972) could be seen as a reference to Evans' work, with whom Ashbery was acquainted.
Jess, like Ashbery and Joe Brainard, worked in various media. Throughout his career Jess produced paintings, "assemblies," and what he called "translations and salvages," as well as poetry. But Jess's collage work-especially his often outsized "paste-ups"-were much admired by Ashbery, who characterized Jess as "… a snapper-up of unconsidered but considerable trifles."2 Jess often spent years on a collage, which stands in contrast to Ashbery's and Brainard's approach to their work. But both would agree with Jess when he commented that in the making, "The collage takes over, it becomes the maker and I become the instrument."3
Chutes and Ladders (for Joe Brainard) (2008) is a testimony to the significance that Joe Brainard's work and friendship continues to have for Ashbery. In a way, it is a posthumous collaboration. Ashbery enjoys the process of collecting collage materials, but usually only selects and cuts out the individual pieces with a specific collage in mind. Brainard, on the other hand, hoarded cut-out collage elements, creating masses of materials with which to work. He would often gather a selection from his trove and include them in his letters to friends, inviting them to use them in collage work of their own. In one instance he sent a packet to Jess, who appreciatively wrote back: "Thanks tremendously for your surprise package of goodies! ... Anyhow, if I hadn't already just finished sealing a sheet on the Midday Forfit4 paste-up, your recent arrivals would surely have floated right into place they are so right for its color activity ..."5
Over the years, Brainard also sent packets of collage materials to Ashbery, which he kept, waiting for the moment when he would be inspired to use them. Recently he took these cutouts and assembled Chutes and Ladders (for Joe Brainard), the first of three in this "Chutes and Ladders" series, which is the largest format in which Ashbery has ever worked in collage. Its ground is not a postcard, but an image of a Victorian game board of "Chutes and Ladders" (also known as "Snakes and Ladders"), from which the title of the collage is taken. (The game boards are actually scanned and printed reproductions of fragile old boards Ashbery has collected over the years, this particular one acquired during his years in Paris.) Over the surface of the board, Ashbery has taken Brainard's cut-outs, along with other materials, and created a dynamic collage full of movement. It is hard to linger upon one section of the composition for any length of time. One's eye is compelled to rove over the welter of images, reflecting the nature of the board game, which is full of quick moves and reversals.
It is interesting to note that this board game originated in India where it is known as Moksha-Patamu. It was meant to reflect the contingencies of reincarnation—the squares representing either the virtues or vices one might pursue in life and their consequences in the cycles of rebirth. The goal of the original game is to reach the release of Nirvana which is associated with the square numbered 100. The game was introduced to England in the 1890s for the moral instruction of Victorian children. Given all this, the dynamics and movement of the "all over" composition of the collage may be seen as representing the playing of the game as well as the game's nature as a metaphor for the playing out of life.
Remarkably, Ashbery has taken material reflecting Joe's aesthetic and his iconography and, while maintaining his own distinct vision in the piece, presents us with "variations" on Brainard's themes. It is as if Ashbery, on one level, were envisioning in this collage, using Brainard's own materials, something that he wrote about Joe's work years before:
"Maybe that's why the work today hits us so hard, sweeping all before it, our hesitations and his, putting us back in the place where we always wanted to be, the delicious chromatic center of the Parcheesi board."6
As to the relationship between Ashbery's writing and his visual art, this is a complicated but rewarding topic that unfortunately cannot be adequately dealt with in a short essay such as this. One might begin by thinking of these collages as "literary" in the sense we discussed above in relation to the collage L'Heure Exquise. Some of the works can give an impression of a story—of an "implied" narrative. This ambiguity has often been commented on as a feature of Ashbery's poetry. In a sense, the smaller collages may seem austere and uncomplicated because of the juxtaposition of only two or three images upon the post card ground—and at times only one image is overlaid, as in Chateau (ca. 1972). This apparent austerity contrasts with the rich complexity of many of Ashbery's poems. But it's really a question of the scale of the composition and the nature of the individual components being used: those two or three elements, and/or the ground, may contain such visual riches that the entire "austere" collage is brimming over with lushness.
If one thinks of the way Ashbery captures a multiplicity of images, impressions, or ideas in the net of a few lines, one can see many relationships between his literary and visual works. When we move beyond the trap of the "literalness" of the recognizable image and consider the abstract nature of the materials and the system of composition, we witness the same creative process that is at work in the poems, but expressed through another medium. In each format, the individual elements, the "vocabulary," are placed in relation to each other according to a certain "syntax" (called "composition" in certain fields), through a creative process that results in an artifact of some sort (poem, collage, etc.).
There is, of course, the much-noted use of collage and film techniques in Ashbery's poetry; he acknowledges beginning to incorporate techniques of cut-up and collage into his writing in 1958 while he was living in Paris, as exemplified in such (in)famous works as "Europe" and "The Skaters." And, as mentioned above, a consideration of the issue of scale is important to this discussion, because Ashbery is as adept with the single-line poem as he is with the mammoth, book-length work Flow Chart, or the tiny postcard as well as the much larger game board.
Other important aspects of this subject are Ashbery's legendary mixing of elements of high and low culture (and everything in between), and his frequent use of difficult and/or repetitive forms such as the sestina and pantoum in poetry, which have a visual equivalent (the game board) in his collages. Of course, Ashbery's often noted irrepressible sense of humor, his boundless curiosity, and his desire to experiment and innovate are apparent throughout his delightfully unpredictable works in various literary and visual media.
In his poem "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name"7 we are offered something of a description of Ashbery's creative process, a mini-lesson on how to make a "poem-painting" or a collage:
[…] Now, About what to put in your poem-painting: Flowers are always nice, particularly delphinium. Names of boys you once knew and their sleds, Skyrockets are good—do they still exist?There are a lot of other things of the same qualityAs those I've mentioned. Now one mustFind a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed,Dull-sounding ones. […]
The ways in which these pieces are put together depend on the inherent nature of the individual components, whether words or visual elements—their shapes, colors, textures, associations, etc., as well as on the talents and intentions of the artist. But the end result, in Ashbery's case, transcends the mere arrangement of those words or visual elements. These works (as critics of Ashbery's poetry increasingly agree) require the participation of the reader or viewer to complete themselves; they are inherently collaborative works, waiting for what we will bring to the experience in order to close the loop. Ashbery deliberately leaves room in his work for us to participate in his creative process, which then becomes "our" creative process. At the conclusion of "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name" the poet describes this state of mind and his desire for communication and understanding, for this active collaboration with another, even if such contact is, by its very nature, fleeting:
[…] SomethingOught to be written about how this affectsYou when you write poetry:The extreme austerity of an almost empty mindColliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicateSomething between breaths, if only for the sakeOf others and their desire to understand you and desert youFor other centers of communication, so that understandingMay begin, and in doing so be undone.
The works in this exhibition span some sixty years, from ca.1948 to 2008. The year 2008 also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of one of Ashbery's earliest collages (a collaboration with a Harvard classmate) which was used as the cover for the Harvard Advocate in November 1948. This year also happens to be the fifty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Turandot and Other Poems by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1953, with drawings by Jane Freilicher, which was Ashbery's first published collection of poetry.
1. The title of this work appears to refer to Paul Verlaine's poem of the same name in his La bonne chanson (1870). The poem "L'Heure Exquise," along with eight other poems from Verlaine's book, was set to music in a song cycle by Gabriel Fauré entitled La bonne chanson (1892-94).
2. John Ashbery, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987, edited by David Bergman, (New York: Knopf, 1989). p. 295.
3. Quoted by Michael Auping in the Introduction to Jess: Paste-Ups (and assemblies) 1951-1983, (Sarasota, Fla.: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 1983).
4. "Midday Forfit: Feignting Spell (Spring)" (1971)
5. Jess to Joe Brainard , August 24, 1971
6. John Ashbery, from the Introduction to the catalogue Joe Brainard: Retrospective, (New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1997)
7. John Ashbery, "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name," published in Houseboat Days (New York:Viking/Penguin, 1977), and included in Selected Poems (New York: Viking, 1985) and Collected Poems 1956 - 1987 (New York: Library of America, 2008).
The author would like to thank David Kermani, whose conversation and insights during the writing of this essay helped to develop several of the ideas expressed herein.
Michael Thomas Davis is adjunct professor at Rider University's Westminster College of the Arts in Princeton, NJ. His most recent publication is "In Pinocchio's Thrall: Jim Dine's New Pinocchio Sculptures," the catalogue essay for Jim Dine: Pinocchio, a major exhibition of Dine's sculpture work at Pace/Wildenstein Galleries (New York, May 4-June 9 2007). He is currently at work on a biography of the writer/artist Joe Brainard.
Copyright © 2008 by Michael Thomas Davis.