Words with Friends: Artist-Poet Pairings

Picasso, Ashbery, Rivers, Johns, Motherwell, Alberti and more in "The Artist and the Poet" at the Art Institute of Chicago

Plate two of Ellsworth Kelly’s 1992 portfolio “The Mallarmé Suite.”


“I have abandoned sculpture engraving and painting to dedicate myself entirely to song,” a 55-year-old Pablo Picasso told his friend, the poet Jaime Sabartés, in 1936. While the artist never followed through on his claim, he did spend part of the ’30s producing short poems influenced by the likes of André Breton, Max Jacob, and Guillaume Apollinaire.

Across the Atlantic, 14 years later, a young John Ashbery (who would later become executive editor of this magazine) threw a cocktail party at which Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara met for the first time. “I thought he was crazy and he thought I was even crazier,” O’Hara infamously said of Rivers. Their meeting would lead to a rich output of lithographs, poems, and plays.

Famed pairings such as these and the resulting images and poems serve as a jumping-off point for the exhibition “The Artist and the Poet,” through June 2 at the Art Institute of Chicago, centering on 20th-century collaborations between the two realms. Inspired by Picasso’s relationships with poets, the show is part of the museum-wide celebration “Picasso and Chicago” on the 100th anniversary of the artist’s first show in the United States, which took place at the institute.

Curators Emily Ziemba and Mark Pascale chose many works that had received little attention previously: Ellsworth Kelly’s 1992 portfolio “The Mallarmé Suite” has not been shown since the artist gave it to the museum. Tatyana Grosman’s New York workshop Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) thrived in postwar America, producing collaborations such as Rivers and O’Hara’s poem-lithograph Stones (1957–59) and Skin with O’Hara Poem (1963–65), a print by Jasper Johns. That collection also includes works by Robert Rauschenberg and Lee Bontecou, and much of it has not been shown in more than two decades.

Picasso’s impact on verse runs so deep that Ziemba discovered many angles for the exhibition without really looking for them. Robert Motherwell, for instance, found inspiration for his portfolio “A la pintura” in the poems of Spanish poet-artist Rafael Alberti, who was friends with Picasso. In one of the works in the series, Motherwell interprets the translated verses of Alberti’s “Red”: “I descend to the rose of the rose of Picasso.”

Along with its historical significance to Picasso’s career, Chicago also holds special providence for poets. Only a year before Picasso’s debut, Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine there. (The exhibition also includes Chicago contemporary artist Tony Fitzpatrick, by whom the institute recently received a large gift of prints from the Cartin Collection.) And while poetry has some obvious links to Chicago, Ziemba notes that other findings came about by accident. “I can’t claim to have known this when I decided to use Hockney’s The Blue Guitar, but Wallace Stevens’s first mature poems were published in Poetry in 1914,” Ziemba says. “It’s funny that you don’t set out to make these kinds of connections but it all comes together anyway.”

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