John Ashbery’s Day Job

What’s Happening

John Ashbery as art critic.


Everyone knows that the death of John Ashbery took away a great poet. Fewer people realize that we also lost an outstanding art critic. It’s understandable: Ashbery often made light of his violon d’Ingres, perhaps in order to ward off the cliché—true enough, as clichés often are—that the New York School into which he was uncomfortably pigeonholed consisted of poets involved with the art world. Or maybe he just recognized poetry as the higher calling.

The poet Stephen Paul Miller recalls that, after several hours drinking red wine together, Ashbery told him, “All my art criticism’s crap except what I said about Brice Marden.” That was in 1977, when they were preparing a piece that was supposed to be published in Interview magazine. The conversation was never published—bumped, Miller says, in favor of a feature on Desi Arnaz Jr. That in itself would count as an Ashberian occurrence, a strange slippage to be savored according to the same sensibility that could appreciate a sestina about Popeye and Olive Oyl or a series of rhymed couplets, titled “The Songs We Know Best,” that the poet said had been composed to the beat of the 1978 pop hit “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb. (One commentator called this “tantamount to learning that many of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be read to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.”) Ashbery’s insistence that everything could be material for poetry, a leveling tendency in his thinking, should also make us wonder about his (and our) propensity to make a strict hierarchical division between his poetry, widely accepted as important, and his art criticism, mostly not taken too seriously.

Even David Bergman, the editor of Ashbery’s 1989 volume of selected art writing, Reported Sightings, followed the poet’s lead in playing down the importance to him of his day job:

In 1960, when John Ashbery accepted a friend’s offer to replace her as art critic for the Paris Herald Tribune, he was merely seeking employment in a city where Americans found it both difficult and necessary to earn money in order to live. Little did he know that the job would lead “as one thing followed another” into a career in which for the next twenty-five years almost without interruption he worked as a “sort of art critic” for such different journals as ArtNews, Newsweek, and New York.

But Ashbery was well aware that the sequence of such accidental happenings—one thing following another, as they always do—is as much as we have of what used to be called “destiny.” Prose follows poetry as poetry follows prose.

Ashbery’s art criticism was important on its own, and for his poetry, however much he might have minimized it—“as though to protect / What it advertises,” to quote his most famous and least typical poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” which was named after the painting by the Italian Mannerist Parmigianino. Why “to protect”? Because language, and propositional language in particular, poses a danger to emotional truth, whose paradoxical essence it is to mislead through appearance. Thus, for instance, “Bonnard’s pleasure is really something else: to name it would be to see it vanish.”

The commonality between Ashbery’s poetry and his art criticism, first of all, is an inimitable tone, which one can discern as clearly in the critical prose as anywhere else in his oeuvre—even in his translations. This tone—“of tenderness, amusement and regret,” as Ashbery characterizes Parmigianino’s gaze in the self-portrait whose description constitutes Ashbery’s own self-portrait—is the essence of his poetry, but also of his idea of art. Admittedly, it occurs more fitfully in the criticism than in the poetry, where it is practically the whole substance, at once a way of conveying something and the matter to be conveyed. As a jobbing reviewer working on deadline, Ashbery could turn out considerable quantities of merely intelligent observation about whatever the subject of his assignment was, but this usually allowed (or forced?) the poet to show his hand at least in a stray sentence or two. Yet along with some fairly ordinary writings, which at the same time are never less than elegant, there are other pieces that clearly meant more to him, in which he was working out the aesthetic principles that would both carry through his poetry and inform his appreciation of painting, drawing, and sculpture.

Ashbery’s idea of art was indebted to Surrealism, and Bergman rightly begins his collection of the poet’s criticism (organized by theme rather than chronology) with a section on “Surrealism and Dada.” But the sense of Surrealism that Ashbery worked with was his own, not André Breton’s. For Ashbery, it was basically the realization that art is at its best when it is, in his words, “the product of the conscious and the unconscious working hand in hand.” His prose accordingly cultivates its tone of unruffled common sense—and often the substance, not just the tone—precisely as a way of staying open to what he would call the “irrational, oneiric basis” of art.

It is this interpenetration of the banal and the enigmatic that accounts for Ashbery’s singular tone. An example: Of Joseph Cornell, he writes, “But the galleries which showed him had a disconcerting way of closing or moving elsewhere, so one could never be sure when there would be another Cornell show.” The statement is ordinary and factual enough, and, overtly at least, has nothing to do with the artist’s work; it concerns merely the vicissitudes of his public career. Yet it sets off unexpected associations, and becomes almost an allegory about the art that it pretends to leave unexamined. The simple fact that galleries are typically rather transient businesses somehow becomes an unexpected symbol for the more significant mysteries of the ungraspable form that the representation of reality takes on in the hands of an artist like Cornell. Much like the galleries that showed them, Cornell’s boxes intimate their own disappearance. That fated vanishing points to metaphysical questions: Do things really exist? If so, will they still be here a minute or a day or a year from now? Can we ever know enough to make such questions anything more than moot?

Ashbery is sensitive to the way that art often seems to point to nonexistence as the hidden truth of existence. That’s where its affinity with poetry lies. I call a witness: the philosopher Alain Badiou, who once wrote that “Any poem brings into language a power—the power to fix for eternity the disappearance of that which presents itself, or the power to produce presence itself as Idea by the poetic restraint of its disappearance.” But that idea of evanescence, like all those that assert the most potent fascination over certain minds, loses its charm when spelled out, as I’ve just so indiscreetly done. Its force is in the intimation more than in the explicit reference. Ashbery quotes de Chirico quoting Schopenhauer: “To have original, extraordinary, and perhaps even immortal ideas, one has but to isolate oneself from the world for a few moments so completely that the most commonplace happenings appear to be new and unfamiliar, and in this way reveal their true essence.”

Such isolation has nothing necessarily to do with social estrangement or any sort of definitive withdrawal from contact with others (though Ashbery does manifest sympathy with the lost and lonely ones of art, such as John F. Peto or Patrick Henry Bruce). Instead, as Schopenhauer says, it can simply be a vital moment of distance from everyday life. Whatever the artist takes on as the matter of his art, as Ashbery says of the “narrow limits” of Brice Marden’s monochromes, “will be transcended only inwardly while outwardly remaining much the same.”

This sense of the inward distance that art implants or discovers—who knows which?—within the quotidian may have something to do with Ashbery’s distrust of art criticism, above all his own. Because it is not poetry—that is, because it always seems to be stating rather than intimating—criticism always seems to be on the side of the commonplace and the ordinary when it should pay equal homage to the bizarre. If his 1972 essay on Marden was the only one of his writings on art that didn’t seem like “crap” to Ashbery—at least on one drunken day in 1977—it was probably because that essay was the one in which he’d managed to contradict his own position as a critic by proclaiming Marden’s greatness: “To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist’s chief concern,” the critic declares.

Ashbery’s understanding of the essentially commonplace nature of the artistic effects that de Chirico called “metaphysical” allows him a rare vision of the unity of modern art. This unity, in his view, cuts across even the most heavily defended stylistic boundaries, including those between art and adjacent cultural fields: “Surrealism has become a part of our daily lives,” he explains, and “its effects can be seen everywhere, in the work of artists and writers who have no connection with the movement, in movies, interior decoration and popular speech.” No wonder he sees it as “the connecting link among any number of current styles thought to be mutually exclusive, such as Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and ‘color-field’ painting. The art world is so divided into factions that the irrational, oneiric basis shared by these arts is, though obvious, scarcely perceived…. It is still what’s happening.”

Although the essay on Marden in Reported Sightings is straightforwardly titled “Brice Marden,” its original title in ARTnews was “Grey Eminence.” In his introduction, Bergman explains that, “following the usual journalistic procedure, editors rarely allowed Ashbery to title his own articles”—and so this is why, as editor of the book, Bergman gave them merely “simple descriptive titles.” However, when the Marden piece was published in 1972, Ashbery was the executive editor of ARTnews, and might well have had more say over the titles of his own articles than did other contributors to the magazine.

At first glance, that title—a wittily over-literal rendition of the French phrase éminence grise, meaning someone who exercises influence from behind the scenes—might at first seem a clever but inconsequential play on the fact that Marden’s paintings at the time were, indeed, mainly gray. But there’s more to it than that. Ashbery writes of the painter’s grays that “each seems to be the product of every color on Marden’s palette except one; and although these colors have left no visible traces of themselves, they nevertheless burn insidiously in the non-color that has replaced them.” In other words, each specific gray used by Marden, in Ashbery’s view, is animated precisely by a hidden power, a color that exerts its force through its absence.

The importance of that idea to Ashbery—that integrating the irrational and oneiric with mundane reality is still “what’s happening”—is also hinted at by the dramatic placement of that phrase as the conclusion of his essay “The Heritage of Dada and Surrealism,” which was published in The New Republic in 1968. “What’s happening” means more than simply “what’s current,” “what’s going on,” “what is of the moment,” though it certainly means those things too, and it’s typical of Ashbery to evoke such a commonplace, everyday phrase: “What’s happening, man? Qué pasa?” It also means “what’s impending” or, as the poem “As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat” has it, “the thing that is prepared to happen.”

The same phrase, albeit uncontracted, occurs in the same position at the end of the piece on Marden. There, Ashbery is speaking about the surfaces of Marden’s paintings, and he quotes the artist’s own description of a paradoxical quality that he’s noticed in them: They look, Marden says, “like they are absorbing light and giving off light at the same time”—protecting what they advertise, one might say. Ashbery goes on to explain this effect of simultaneously absorbing and emanating light by saying, in the essay’s final sentence: “Which is to say that they aren’t, like so much of today’s art, allusions or comments, however oblique, on ideas that are elsewhere: they are themselves what is happening.”

The subject of that sentence, “they,” refers to “Marden’s surfaces,” but the force of the statement seems to apply to the paintings themselves. The paintings and their surfaces are being equated, and with good reason: Even though a painting is always much more than its surface, that surface is the area or plane of communication between everything that the painting does or does not show and the person who perceives (or fails to perceive or refuses to perceive) it. Ashbery’s articulation of the inarticulability of Marden’s surfaces, whose colors “can’t even be described, let alone paraphrased,” encapsulates an important sense of how invisibility is essential to what is most radically visible.

Ashbery praised Marden for “showing the complexities hidden in what was thought to be elemental,” and it was by working in the same direction himself that he arrived at the “original, extraordinary, and perhaps even immortal” perceptions that, in his poetry, seem to have come so easily. Art historians have not willingly followed him there. Consider again his heretical idea that all the main artistic tendencies of his time stemmed from Surrealism. Sure, everyone acknowledges the roots of Abstract Expressionism in Surrealist ideas of automatic writing, and it only takes a little nudge to begin seeing the dreamlike qualities of the chromatic fluidity in the work of a color-field painter like Jules Olitski. But Ashbery’s assertion of a Surrealist basis for Minimalism is likely to raise eyebrows.

Surprisingly, he insists on an art history that is not cyclical or dialectical but linear—much more so than Clement Greenberg’s conception, in fact. “The pendulum has not swung” from an ostensibly irrationalist Romanticism to a more objective and hard-headed art of the real, Ashbery insisted, and in fact “the history of art proceeds in orderly fashion, in a straight line.” This straight line is one that, in Ashbery’s eyes, passed through something as mundane (and as tangential to any mundane consensus about the mainstream of art history) as a still life by Jane Freilicher, one of Ashbery’s favorite painters. Yet his words also resonate with Donald Judd’s praise of Frank Stella’s paintings: “The order is not rationalistic and underlying but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another.” One thing following another is Ashbery’s sense of Surrealism, and of history.

Ashbery was always frank (but gentle) in expressing his reservations about anyone’s art, and he was not averse to ranking artists of similar tendency. But he never went in for criticism of the destructive or denunciatory type—and he knew that Breton was being ridiculous in belatedly pretending to exclude Max Ernst from the Surrealist canon “because he had received a prize from the Venice Biennale and thus become an unhealthy example of success which might have a corrupting effect on Surrealist youth.” My guess is that Ashbery’s implicit faith was that all modern art was aiming at something similar, though in very different ways. His sense of the essential unity of artistic endeavor meant that he never felt the need to defend art against the danger of its being led in the wrong direction. Art’s inherent tropism toward the unity of the dream and reality, rational and irrational, was stronger than anyone’s resistance to it. And so any given artist’s failures or inadequacies could only be isolated, personal in import, with no further consequence to get upset about.

That sense of essential continuity also explains why Ashbery could discern a “metaphysical similarity” between artists as different as Joseph Cornell and Sol LeWitt. He could have quoted LeWitt’s famous statement that the conceptual artist is a mystic, not a rationalist, leaping to conclusions that logic can’t reach, but he didn’t need to. He drew instead on the experience of the art itself: “Cornell’s art assumes a romantic universe in which inexplicable events can and must occur. Minimal art, notwithstanding the cartesian disclaimers of some of the artists, draws its being from this charged, romantic atmosphere, which permits an anonymous slab or cube to force us to believe in it as something inevitable.” A massive, room-filling Minimalist object, in this view, was the unacknowledged heir of Magritte’s room-filling apple.

At this point, we might feel obliged to ask: To what extent can we accept Ashbery’s idea of the implicitly Surrealist (and therefore Romantic and Symbolist) essence of modern art as, not necessarily inevitable, but at least credible, given that so many of its protagonists might have been working on the opposite assumption? Ashbery’s linear history is, strictly speaking, antihistorical. Its recurrent interplay between dream world and reality can account for differences within a historical continuum, but not for historical change—unlike Greenberg’s notion of self-criticism, which promises progress toward a goal of perfect clarity. And then there’s the question of why a similarly Surrealist or Romantic structure of feeling should have arisen during such a different time and set of circumstances as the 16th century with an Italian Mannerist like Parmigianino. Does Ashbery’s fascination with the unconscious of the everyday offer an insight into the essence of art, or is it just an idée fixe?

As Ashbery the poet writes:

Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge.

The properly Surrealist answer to the question of whether Ashbery’s theory is plausible or fantastic, of course, would be: both. Only an idiosyncratic, rationally untenable fixation has the potential to fathom reality. Philosophy proclaims that whatever is real is rational—taking its working hypothesis for a result—but art says that what is irrational is also real. Wittgenstein defined philosophy as “a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert on us.” Art, antinomian by definition, sees resistance to that fascination, and seduction by it, as being one process—the only one by which forms of expression can be known.

It might be argued that the charged atmosphere necessary to see Minimalism in this way is something that Ashbery brought with him and imposed on recalcitrant works, and that the inevitability of the Minimalist object was entirely historical and discursive and had nothing to do with Cornell’s romantic universe. Certainly I don’t think Judd or his friends would have appreciated Ashbery’s explanation of their art, which was very different from their own. But maybe Ashbery knew them better than they knew themselves. How could anything so flatly empirical, as Judd imagined his work to be, have so quickly become the major influence, in turn, on works as uncanny as those of Robert Smithson? As Ashbery said of Smithson’s earthworks, “the romantic artist’s traditional folie des grandeurs is carried to dizzying new heights.” In praise of Carl Andre’s sculpture, Ashbery cited “its implicit admission that all this may be a put-on, may not be worth your while. The poignancy of this situation heightens our response to a Newman, a Rothko, or an Andre.”

Of course, Ashbery’s poetry was likewise often suspected of being a put-on or not worthwhile. It’s somehow telling that “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” first published in 1974, is a kind of experiment within his oeuvre, an attempt to write the sort of essaylike poem that he would never have otherwise written and still have it be entirely his own, not an imitation of someone else’s style. It succeeded in convincing many of the skeptics that Ashbery wasn’t a put-on.

One of the poem’s points of origin lay in an assignment, a decade earlier, for the New York Herald Tribune (international edition): a review of a show of Parmigianino’s and Correggio’s drawings at the Cabinet des Dessins of the Louvre. But an ear for words and phrases, rather than an eye for subjects, tells us that the poem’s roots are spread further out in Ashbery’s art criticism. Consider Parmigianino’s hand, “thrust at the viewer” in the poem’s second line—it’s thrust by the painting, by the way, and not by the depicted painter, who’s simply resting it on some unseen surface, relaxed as can be. Then reread the 1967 essay in which Ashbery rightly cites Robert Rauschenberg as being among those whose art profitably derived from that of Cornell (and thereby, he says, passed the influence on to Judd, LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Ronald Bladen)—the lesson being “the same in each case: the object and its nimbus of sensations, wrapped in one package, thrust at the viewer, here, now, inescapable.” That thrust—Ashbery’s, Parmigianino’s, Rauschenberg’s—remains inescapable. It’s still what’s happening.

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