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.”