John Ashbery, whose inventive, freewheeling poetry changed the way readers and writers thought about language, and whose thoughtful art criticism appeared in the pages of ARTnews during the 1960s and ’70s, as well as numerous other publications over the course of well more than half a century, has died at age 90. Ashbery died of natural causes in his home in Hudson, New York, where he lived with his husband, David Kermani, according to the New York Times.
From the publication of Ashbery’s first book of poetry, Some Trees, in 1956, his writing eluded even some of the most well-read writers. The poet W. H. Auden, who awarded Ashbery the Yale Younger Poets Prize for Some Trees, admitted to having not understood any of Ashbery’s debut. Nevertheless, while not always being understood in a traditional sense, the poet was widely admired, even by some of his fiercest critics, and he won nearly ever major writing prize, including the National Book Award, in 1975, and the Pulitzer Prize, in 1976. In 1985, he won a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”
The Pulitzer and National Book Award were for Ashbery’s 1975 book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, whose title piece is an expressionistic meditation on a circa 1524 Parmigianino painting of the same name. Like much of Ashbery’s work, it is is oblique, and it references art history in ways that are deeply felt and quite personal.
Ashbery’s poems often rely on pile-ups of images, phrases, and ideas, usually in ways that are difficult to parse for meaning. Rich with wordplay, his verses can appear to mimic themselves, their words gently at war with one another, and they are formally experimental—the sound of the words in his work is often what matters most. Some have compared Ashbery’s poetry to Abstract Expressionism, which had come into vogue in America in the years before Some Trees was published, as well as Surrealism, a movement that similarly relied on feeling over analysis.
Before most of his most notable poetry books were published, Ashbery wrote about art for ARTnews, regularly writing reviews and essays about such artists as Joan Mitchell and Joseph Cornell. He was a Paris correspondent for this magazine between 1963 and 1966 and regularly reported on going-ons in the French art world. He served as executive editor of the magazine from 1966 to 1972. His art criticism was compiled by the poet David Bergman into a book called Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles 1957–1987.
Ashbery was also an artist. In 2016, his collages appeared at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, in a survey that preceded a book of his work that is currently scheduled to be released by Rizzoli in 2018. His collages, like his poems, are playful and dreamy, with images borrowed from art history—a Gustave Courbet self-portrait, for instance—placed alongside cutouts from fashion advertisements. In 2014, he collaborated with Kenneth Goldsmith on the creation of a rug with the gallery BravinLee.
John Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York. Although Ashbery wanted to be a painter from a young age, it was clear that the world had other plans for him. While he was still a student at Deerfield Academy, a private boarding school in Massachusetts, Ashbery began reading modern poetry, and once he began as a student at Harvard University, it became obvious that that was what he would do for a living.
Ashbery wrote over 25 books over the course of his life, his most recent being the 2015 poetry collection Breezeway. He also translated French poetry by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, all of whom were similarly interested in word games, the possibilities of language, and stream-of-consciousness expressivity.