Shelf Life: On Poets and Painters
“If you try to derive a strictly literary ancestry for New York poetry,” James Schuyler once wrote, “the main connection gets missed.” The connection he had in mind was the inspiration taken from art—in particular, painting. It’s what made the poets of the New York School, as Frank O’Hara thought, “non-academic and indeed non-literary.” The secret and not-so-secret sharing between poets and painters has always been intense, but rarely in such a lively way as in Manhattan in the 1950s and ’60s. Painters & Poets, by Douglas Crase and Jenni Quilter ($40), is the catalog for an exhibition the Tibor de Nagy Gallery recently mounted as a sixtieth-anniversary celebration of itself. It’s well-known that Tibor de Nagy (named after the Hungarian émigré banker who co-founded the gallery with John Bernard Myers) fostered the poets of the New York School, publishing their first chapbooks and fomenting their collaborations with artists.
The catalog is more than a stroll down memory lane. Crase’s contribution is called “A Hidden History of the Avant-Garde,” and his research has brought to light considerable new information on the early days of the gallery. But what’s curious is how little this avant-garde—David Lehman once claimed it was the last one—behaved like an avant-garde, at least according to the way the avant-garde has been theorized by Renato Poggioli or Peter Bürger. There is no evident political thrust to most of this art or poetry, and neither exaggerates the value of novelty or experimentalism. Much of the art—such as the representational painting of Schuyler’s favorite painter, Fairfield Porter, or of Jane Freilicher, to whom John Ashbery was closest—might well have been dismissed as backward-looking by avant-garde critics enamored of abstraction or, a little later, the neo-Duchampian strategies of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. But as Quilter suggests, the New York poets were shrewd enough to realize that “modernism’s maxim to ‘make it new’ was old enough to distrust and treat as a fetishism.” Their own sense of the new, and of the politics of daily life, gradually parted company with that of the mainstream of the art world. What made the New York School avant-garde, and what distinguishes its way of embodying the avant-garde idea from others before and since, remains an unsolved mystery. One clue: Crase points out that Ashbery drew from Freilicher a lesson in the aesthetics of the “tentative.” To understand this art and poetry, we may have to come to terms with the paradoxical possibility of a radical modesty, perhaps akin to what Ashbery, in his poem “Soonest Mended,” called “a kind of fence-sitting/Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.”
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That ecumenism remains alive in the writing of Bill Berkson, a New York poet who as a young man collaborated with O’Hara but then moved to Bolinas, California. His new book of art criticism, For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Occasional Pieces and More (BlazeVOX Books; $16), shows that his heart remains with the New York School. He quotes at least three times Ashbery’s sage remark, “Art is already serious enough; there is no point making it seem even more serious by taking it too seriously.” This omnium-gatherum of mostly short pieces may not be the best introduction to Berkson’s criticism—for that, try his 2003 collection The Sweet Singer of Modernism—but his reviews, especially, should be required reading for any budding art critic. He shows how the job should be done. For one thing, he describes things so vividly—and in doing so evokes the process of looking and thinking with equal vividness—that you need know nothing about the art he’s talking about to enjoy reading what he has to say. “The paint is smeared by assorted vertical touches and an occasional swirling stroke,” he writes of a San Francisco–based abstractionist named George Lawson. “The style is as transparent and objective as a grammatical declension.” Technical specificity supports a sense for the feeling of the work communicated in the only way it can be, through figurative language. There’s also the question of judgment. Berkson seems open to any artistic modality the world can throw at him, but that doesn’t mean he’s carefree. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of his more cutting perceptions. Of some works by Italo Scanga, he writes, “Their nostalgia is such that they forget to be present.” Yet Berkson’s toughness is an expression of his generosity of attention, which allows him to notice everything the artist intended but also what the artist did not consider; Berkson is never dogmatic.
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William Corbett is not and never has been a New York poet. Boston is his territory. But he might be thought of as a first cousin, if only because he has edited Schuyler’s letters. And Corbett, too, has a “main connection” to art. Some of his art writings were gathered in his 2001 collection All Prose. More recently, through his imprint Pressed Wafer, he released Albert York ($17.50), a small monograph on the reclusive painter who died in 2009, “known for the little we know about him” but something of a cult figure among artists, especially but not only those of a broadly traditional bent. York’s subjects are conventional—trees, flowers, birds and such, although the sometimes exotic or inexplicably allegorical figures he places in some of his landscapes embody a more evident eccentricity—and his manner of painting seemingly straightforward, yet one feels in his paintings a reserve as profound as his own. “This mysteriousness,” as Corbett says, “adds to the painting’s aura and the viewer’s pleasure.” Corbett sees York’s work with profound sympathy; his descriptions feel about as close to the paintings as words can get, but they never quite penetrate York’s aura. I suspect no one ever will.