John Ashbery, who died this past weekend at age 90, is best remembered as a poet, but during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, he was one of many writers who helped reshape art criticism. Like many poets from the era, among them Frank O’Hara and Wallace Stevens, Ashbery contributed regularly to ARTnews. First as a Paris correspondent and then as an executive editor, Ashbery reviewed a vast range of shows, from a Joseph Cornell retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum to a Robert Rauschenberg show at Castelli Gallery. On one occasion, Ashbery even translated a poem by Salvador Dalí for the magazine.
Often at stake for Ashbery was the relationship between art and life. “Poets when they write about other artists always tend to write about themselves,” Ashbery proclaimed in a 1971 review of a show about Gertrude Stein’s collection at the Museum of Modern Art. He may have been thinking of his own poetry when he wrote that. Below are excerpts from various articles by Ashbery in the ARTnews archives. —Alex Greenberger
“Five shows out of the ordinary: Robert Rauschenberg”
By John Ashbery
The junk that collects on New York City streets is used by Robert Rauschenberg to compose large canvases that sometimes look like walls in a house inhabited by very bad children. One painting in his latest show, at Castelli [March 3-22], The Bed, is a real bed whose quilt and pillow are caked with flung enamel, scribbled over with a pencil. Rebus is an enormous composition using a horizontal row of magazine photographs underlined by paint samples. It does not have the “Step along, please” feeling of a Schwitters collage; it is perfectly all right if you want to look and chuckle over the tabloid elements: that is entirely up to you. You also have the artist’s permission to get nothing out of looking at his paintings other than the marginal pleasure of being alive. But it is nevertheless impossible not to enjoy them and respond to them. Rauschenberg has what might be termed a “terrific talent”; he could be a sort of avant-garde Cocteau. Recent developments show that he is unwittingly or unwillingly forming a school of disciples. His latest paintings indicate that he is keeping well ahead of them in vast compositions which achieve a difficult serenity through the use of large square forms that are often just sheets of paper, smudged or almost pristine. It is this sense of plastic beauty that distinguishes him. In his small drawings he creates a mood of unbearable quiet with a pencil tracing of a smile or a glass of Coca-Cola, a piece of torn nylon, a stain. But he has not given up his early fireworks, as Interview and Satellite prove. The former is a shallow wooden closet lined with old photographs and such objects as a baseball, a paint-clotted fork, a brick suspended in front of someone else’s “genuine old painting” of palm trees; the latter is a scary mass of old bedding, doilies, funny papers and a stuffed pheasant clobbered with paint.
“An Expressionist in Paris”
By John Ashbery
Joan Mitchell calls herself a “visual” painter. She does not talk much about her work, perhaps not out of reticence, but because the paintings are meaning and therefore do not have a residue of meaning which can be talked about. The recent upsurge of “intellectual” art and the resultant downgrading of Abstract-Expressionism do not particularly surprise or alarm her. Working in Paris, she has always been fairly independent of her fellow artists, American or French, and intends to go on as before. “There’ll always be painters around,” she says. “It’ll take more than Pop or Op to discourage them—they’ve never been encouraged anyway. So we’re back where we started from. There have always been very few people who really like painting—like poetry.”
“I don’t think you can stop visual painters and all the rest is an intellectual problem. Did you see that article on Duchamp in Time? He’s thankful that intelligence has come back to art and he can’t see any grey matter in Abstract-Expressionism. That’s why I use a little color.”
She likes ideas when they’re visual, as in Jasper Johns for instance, but “that particular thing I want can’t be verbalized. . . . I would like to look out of a window or at photos or pictures or at that awful thing called nature. I’m trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life: To define a feeling.”
“Art news from Paris”
By John Ashbery
Martial Raysse’s Pop Art does not have the banality, the aggression nor the moralizing undertones of the American product. He is concerned exclusively with pleasure, and if his work is still a little frightening (like most Pop Art), this is because of the ruthless way he suppresses everything but supposedly agreeable images and because of our deep puritanical reservations about pleasure. One does in fact begin to wonder how long hedonism could last in a world where Ingres odalisques can come out a bilious green, or Vogue-magazine models are flattened against a conventional view of Nice in luminous paint. Still, Raysse apparently does see himself as the apologist for the satisfactoriness of these pleasures, commercial and hollow as they may seem. This becomes unequivocally clear in a large sculpture of a crimson heart transfixed by a neon arrow whose shaft is ornamented with a string of blinking colored lights. Like the film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it succeeds in establishing sentimentality as a legitimate source of art by first destroying it with satire and then rebuilding in on its own ruins.
“Brooms and Prisms”
By John Ashbery
Jasper Johns’s latest show at the Castelli Gallery consisted of four very large paintings on which he had been at work for some time, in one case (According to What) since the summer of ’64. Big in scope, radical in their compelling synthesis of styles, they are perhaps Johns’s finest works to date and among his most astonishing productions in this present phase of history, when astonishment has become obsolete and practically inconceivable.
Though these paintings develop from his previous work, they have a new freedom and breadth. Whatever was locked up in his former hieratic emblems—targets, flags, numbers, monochrome surfaces—has been let out, sweeping these elements out of the picture or rearranging their debris into what Wallace Stevens calls “a completely new set of objects.” The force of Johns’s early work was in its highly concentrated enigmatic, ambiguous quality: the flag’s stripes were turned in on each other; the viewer was firmly excluded and he had the feeling of watching a battery being charged. The new painting show to what uses Johns is able to put the energy accumulated. They transcend the limits of the gnomic and of unstated satire.
“Talking of Michelangelo”
By John Ashbery
Michelangelo Pistoletto is one of today’s most original young European artists. His sheets of polished steel silhouetted with cutout figures give back to the viewer a peculiarly subtle but urgent view of contemporary life, in a way that European Pop Art has never approached, but which has much in common with recent Italian cinema, especially Antonioni (as Martin Friedman points out in his preface to the Walker’s catalogue [for Pistoletto’s U.S. debut]), and also the brilliant, underrated Ermanno Olmi.
“Cornell: The Cube Root of Dreams”
By John Ashbery
The Guggenheim Museum’s large show of 89 constructions and collages by Joseph Cornell will be remembered as an historic event: the first satisfying measure of work by an artist who has become legendary in his lifetime. There have been Cornell exhibitions since 1932 when he first appeared in a group show at the Julien Levy Gallery; three especially copious and memorable ones were held at the Egan Gallery in 1949, 1950 and 1953. 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. Cornell’s extremely retiring nature, his exemplary reluctance to give out biographical data or make statements about his work, compounded the aura of uncertainty that seemed to hang over that work like an electrically-charged cloud. Not uncertainty as to its merits, for these, though seldom understood, have been almost universally recognized by artists and critics of every persuasion—a unique event amid the turmoil and squabbles of the New York art world. The uncertainty was rather an obscure wondering whether one could go on having this work, whether the artist would not suddenly cause it all to disappear as mysteriously as he gave it life. For Cornell’s boxes embody the substance of dreams so powerfully that it seems that these eminently palpable bits of wood, cloth, glass and metal must vanish the next moment, as when the atmosphere of a dream becomes so intensely realistic that you know you are about to wake up.
“In Memory of My Feelings”
By John Ashbery
The Museum of Modern Art has just published a volume of 30 poems by Frank O’Hara titled In Memory of My Feelings, with illustrations by 30 of the artists with whom O’Hara was closely associated. The Museum thus pays appropriate homage to the poet and critic who died at the age of 40 on July 25, 1966, after being hit by a jeep on Fire Island. Appropriate not only because O’Hara served the museum well—better than he should have, perhaps—during his 15 years there (he began in 1951 as a temporary clerk selling Christmas cards and at the time of his death had, as curator, just organized two major shows of Motherwell and Nakian, and was working on the Pollock retrospective). But fitting also because O’Hara’s personality was a subtle but pervasive force on the New York art scene. If the Museum and the artists who have illustrated this book are what they are today, it is at least partly because O’Hara was one of the first to think they were that. As a poet, he was able to impart existence to things merely by naming them. And he could breathe life into art, or at any rate call attention to the life that was already there, in a way which is hard to pin down but whose aura continues.
“Miro’s Bronze Age”
By John Ashbery
All the sculptures [in a Miro show at Pierre Matisse gallery] are cast from everyday objects that might be found lying around Miro’s country place in Majorca, and one remembers too that he likes to keep such things about him, and that he once brought some spears of grass from Spain back to his studio in Paris (in fact, one of the sculptures, Head and Bird, is surmounted by a three-pronged “bird” apparently cast from a stalk of wild grass). Usually these raw materials are only intermittently identifiable. One is pleased to recognize certain of them, like the fragment of a cardboard egg carton that forms the body of one of the Little Girls (providing an erotic field of concavities and breast-like projections); the honeycomb or wasp’s nest that another girl wears as a hat; or, again, the footprint that is the chief distinguishing mark of Personnage No. 17 and which is sported as proudly as a bemedalled chest. Others are more obscure. They could be old machine parts dredged up from the limbo of a rural Catalan garage, or objects become anonymous through rust and weathering, or nameless parts of the ground: sticks, pebbles, clumps of leaf-mold. And thus one has an agreeable sensation of being lost in a crowd of people who are somehow strange and familiar at the same time. The earth assumes the correct proportion of oddity and reassuring conformity—familiarity breeding contempt and vice versa—that it has on days when everything seems to be going properly.
By John Ashbery
Poets when they write about other artists always tend to write about themselves, and none more so than Gertrude Stein in the “Cubist” passage above from her Portrait of Picasso, which is reprinted along with her Portrait of Matisse in the catalogue to the Museum of Modern Art’s magnificent show of the Stein collection, “Four Americans in Paris.” And never before, perhaps, has Picasso seemed as moving as he does now, appearing under the watchful aegis of the eccentric American lady who was his earliest apologist and whose brilliant gifts do so much to explain his own. Again we are reminded that the 20th century, whatever else it may be, is the century of Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein, the title of a Gertrude Stein work whose alternate title, G.M.P., puts Gertrude’s initial before the other two, which perhaps is as it should be. For, at least during this exhibition, the others began to look like facets of her solid, charming, lovely, perplexing imagination.