The following text appeared in LIT 12 (Volume 6, Number 2, Spring 2007), which featured a small sample of papers presented at The New School Ashbery Festival (April 6-8, 2006). It has been modified slightly for accuracy and web compatibilty.
IN CONTEXT: "Created Spaces" as a New Resource in Ashbery Studies
by David Kermani
NOTE: The presentation on John Ashbery's "Created Spaces" at the New School's Ashbery Festival consisted mainly of a narrated photographic tour of Ashbery's house in New York's Hudson Valley. The following text presents some background information and a few of the basic ideas involved with this large and complex concept. Readers may refer to related images at the Rain Taxi website, where a portfolio on Ashbery's Created Spaces is featured in the periodical's Summer 2008 online edition.
Though it has sometimes been labeled abstract, John Ashbery's work is firmly rooted in the real world. Indeed, one of my main goals more than thirty-five years ago, when I began work on my bibliography of Ashbery's work (published in 1976), was to map some sort of context for his poetry. I hoped to show that by placing the poetry within the larger scope of his world and work (including his critical writing), its significance could be assessed more clearly. In recent years, through The Flow Chart Foundation and its project, the Ashbery Resource Center, my work has again become focused on various types of contexts—particularly on an artist's environment and its relationship with his work.
During the past two decades there has been increasing interest in Ashbery's own physical environments, his apartment in New York City and especially his late nineteenth-century house in the Hudson Valley. Although much of that attention has been of the type promoted by "lifestyle" and "shelter" publications, scholars, artists and writers have recognized a connection between the spaces Ashbery lives in and his own creative work. This idea was first expressed in the mid-1980s by the late James Ryan, curator of Olana, the estate of nineteenth-century artist Frederic Edwin Church, near Ashbery's house. Ryan predicted that Ashbery's residences, particularly his house, would come to be seen as important components of his work, much as Olana was then starting to be viewed as one of Church's great works of art and, as such, important to understanding his artistic development.
While Ashbery doesn't acknowledge any intention other than making agreeable places in which to live and work, visitors have sensed that there was something more happening as well. A few years after Ryan's observation, poet Rosanne Wasserman presented her paper "A Tour of John Ashbery's Paintings at Home" at a National Poetry Foundation conference, noting that, like Olana, Ashbery's house was "a masterwork of visual imagination, revealing not just the personality but the muse of its artist-owner."
A decade later, artist Archie Rand collaborated with Ashbery on the project "Heavenly Days" (published in Nest in 2003, and discussed as part of another program during this festival), in which Rand expressed his idea that Ashbery's house is a primary source and reservoir of his poetic voice: in Rand's terms "the home of the oracle." Rand painted a sequence of forty-seven panels depicting interiors of the house (to which Ashbery would later add lines of text from his poem of the same title), stating that he was trying to "paint the atmosphere around the objects." In 2004, poet and UMass-Amherst professor Dara Wier chose to approach the subject from a historical perspective, selecting as the topic for her graduate seminar on aesthetics an examination of environments created by individuals who had a significant impact on the culture of their times, using as examples Thomas Jefferson and Monticello in the eighteenth century, Church and Olana in the nineteenth, and Ashbery and his house for the twentieth; the group studied reciprocal relationships between domestic environments and other works created by those individuals.
Intriguing forays like these into Ashbery's private world have prompted the Ashbery Resource Center to undertake its "Created Spaces" project to facilitate further investigations into the relationship between his literary and domestic environments. For students of his poetry, this relatively unexplored context can add important dimensions to the poetic experience.
But Ashbery's created spaces also function on another level as context of a different sort. They are the repositories of his "domestic archive" (a term recently applied to the "Created Spaces" concept by Michael Snediker following a visit to the house, referring to the accumulation of furnishings, objects and memorabilia, along with their accompanying emotional associations). He has built surroundings from the materials in that domestic archive in order to produce an atmosphere conducive to his work, one that would nurture his poetic instincts and fuel his creative process. Although obviously functional, they are also a type of proto-poetic environment that serves as a resource for Ashbery's poetic voice. Analysis and understanding of this context can provide insight into the poet's creative process.
Ultimately, though, Ashbery's created spaces are more than just "contexts." Many feel that they offer an unusual type of artistic experience, that they are themselves a kind of physical poetry. They are manifestations of the same sensibility and creative impulse that produce Ashbery's structures of words, environments that parallel his writing. Ashbery's created spaces can be seen as independent works of art, collages through which one experiences a different type of poetic space—a three-dimensional Ashberian milieu.
©2006 David Kermani