|“He was part of a revolutionary quartet that included Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and James Schuyler; know today as the nucleus of New York School of Poetry.”|
Larry Rivers, Pyrography: Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery II, 1977. Acrylic on canvas, 76 x 58 inches.
Courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.Joe Brainard and Ted Berrigan, Untitled (Poem for Annie Rooney), 1962. Collage, 11-1/4 x 17-1/4 inches.
Courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.
The 60th anniversary of Tibor de Nagy is celebrated with a show exemplifying the gallery’s major role in nurturing collaborative works among poets and painters in the 1950s and ’60s. This is an unusual reunion of members of ”the last avant-garde” (aptly named by David Lehman), spearheaded by Frank O’Hara: poet, art-critic, and subsequently the most innovative curator at MoMA. He was part of a revolutionary quartet that included Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and James Schuyler; know today as the nucleus of New York School of Poetry.
All four were both acolytes and catalysts. Enthralled with the bold experiments of William de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, they came to New York full of ideas that revolutionized poetry and influenced visual artists, writers and musicians alike. As American surrealists did before them (in View magazine under Charles Henri Ford, among other platforms), this collaboration between poets and painters gave fresh impetus to abstract expressionism via collages of words and images, along with out-of-focus, seemingly unfinished paintings a la Larry Rivers—a central figure himself as a painter, saxophone-playing Beatnik and pop artist.
Normally I am not a big fun of themed or anniversary shows, but all of the painters and poets showcased here were unusually adept at tapping into their unconscious minds to plumb their deepest secrets and produce powerful works. This is made manifest immediately upon entering the first room of the exhibit, where one encounters a series of collages by Joe Brainard and Ted Berigan, using typewriter or handwriting, both fashioned with American flag motifs and done with evident humor. One is called Poem for Annie Rooney (1962) and reads in part, ”My rooms were full of Ostrich feathers… and someone has stolen all the peanut brittle.”
More collages follow, also by Brainard, but with poems by O’Hara, one called: Untitled (Cherries) with handwritten text in English and French. Two more, both from 1964 on paper, include one featuring charity Eastern Seal donation stamps for crippled children, titled I’m not flying, I’m thinking! and the other with layers of postage stamps from Ghana, reading, “I grew this moustache because my girl has one and I think mustaches are pretty sexy.” As becomes evident by now, the collaborations featured here fall into three categories, including poets as models for portraiture, poems written about paintings, and paintings illustrating poems.
Tibor de Nagy Gallery’s dual focus on poetry and art set the standard for the day. Tiber Press and Universal Limited Art Editions also came out with books uniting de Nagy poets and painters. In three large horizontal glass displays are books of poetry, all Tibor de Nagy Editions, by O’Hara, Koch, Schuyler, Ashbery, Guest, and others, plus letters, postcards, photographs, and memorabilia of the time.
Of course, the collaborative methods varied: For the de Nagy editions, the art and poetry was selected for the occasion rather then created; the artists involved in Tiber Press created lithographic prints for each collection of poetry; in some instances the collaborations were presented as a single work, on the same surface in which image and text coexisted. This latest collaboration between O’Hara and Rivers is presented in the second room of the gallery—12 lithographs published by Universal Limited Art Editions in 1959. With drawings and text on the same paper, the text begins, “They call us the Farters of our country, poetry was declining, Printing advancing, we were complaining, it was ’50s.”
The contributions of women artists is substantial and exemplified by paintings by Helen Frankenthaler (Cloudscape, 1951), Nell Blaine (Frank III, 1952), Grace (George) Hartigan in collaboration with O’Hara (Oranges no. 5 & no.11, 1952), Jane Freilicher with oils on linen reminiscent of Matisse’s palette (The Painters Table and Early New York Evening both from 1954), Joan Mitchell’s two pastels on paper in tandem with Chelsea poet James Schuyler (Sunday and Daylight, both from 1975), and two poets, Barbara Guest and Ann Waldman, paired with painter Red Grooms (Triptych with Madonnas and Poets, 1991).
Another series of collages, each by George Schneeman and one of the three poets: Ron Padgett (Grumps, 1969), Bill Berkson (On the Offspring,1969) and Ted Berigan (The Next Ten Years, 1977) show a prolific artist and collaborator who painted more than 50 portraits of poets (1965-2009) and completing hundreds of collaborations.
A wall-size painting collage/photomontage by Rivers and Koch in the second room of the gallery, In Bed (1982), is a surrealist-composition of humans sleeping or talking on the phone and objects (basketballs, newspapers) and animals (cats, sheep, lambs) sharing the bed.
In the same room, on a flat screen, two Rudy Burckhardt films are shown: Mounting Tension (1950) and Money (newly restored, 1968). The work at the gallery shows “a complex interplay of agreement and disagreement” as Jenni Quilter suggests in her catalog essay, and many generations of poets and artists followed in their footsteps, without necessarily achieving the same results of esthetic alchemy, so prevalent in the ’50s and ’60s.