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115 Years: A Place for Poets

Kenneth Koch, left, and John Ashbery.

After World War II, ARTnews began asking poets to contribute reviews, essays, and, in a few cases, poetry. Ron Padgett, the late Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery, who died in September at age 90, would go on to write extended pieces of criticism for the magazine. Below are selections from these works, along with the complete version of “Death paints a picture,” a poem by Ashbery and Kenneth Koch that first appeared in the September 1958 issue of ARTnews and is loosely based on this magazine’s “Paints a Picture” articles.

Like it or not, Florine Stettheimer had originality, which in the pictorial art of our country is rare and important. This often entails some solitariness and oddity; it did in her case. 
—“Stettheimer: A Reply,” by Glenway Wescott, January 1947


It is no use to tell you to read [André Malraux’s] The Voices of Silence: if you care for art, know how to read and live for a few years, you will read it. And if you don’t care for art but know about it instead, and have spent your life stopping up holes in your dressing-gown with the canvases of the universe—even then you will read it, so as to be able to call Malraux a phrase-making amateur standing on the shoulders of better art-historians.
— “Malraux’s thunder of silence,” by Randall Jarrell, December 1953


[Constantin Brancusi’s studio] seems to have lost nothing—or at least nothing less than a lifetime—and it seems inexpressibly luxurious. An enchanted place where all things bathe, while a touch of gold, a milky glow rouses and multiplies, especially early in the morning, their natural affinities.
— “Brancusi revisited and the Arensberg Brancusis,” by Georges Duthuit, October 1954


How not to begin an article on American [outsider artists] in painting: You don’t begin speaking about Giotto and Fra Angelico or even Bosch, but of a cat with a bird in his mouth—a cat with a terrifying enormous head, enough to frighten birds or of a six-foot Indian in a yellow breech clout . . . Washington apart from its official aspect is a quiet, old-fashioned city, fit home, the only fit home for a collection of [outsiders] such as this that smacks so of the American past.
— “Painting in the American grain,” by William Carlos Williams, Summer 1954


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.
—“Five shows out of the ordinary: Robert Rauschenberg,” by John Ashbery, March 1958


When you can appropriately put a frame around something, you have a picture: the object and its special space.
— “What is a picture?,” by Paul Goodman, April 1959


For twenty-five years [David] Smith has been at the forefront of the sculptural avant-garde, in quality if not that long in reputation. . . . Because of the far-reaching effects of [his] explorations, Smith has sometimes been mistaken for an eclectic artist, but this is not at all the case. His has not been a taming of the impulses discovered in the germinal works of the first half of the century, but a roughening, a broadening, a sharpening of usage, depending on his needs at the time.
— “David Smith: The color of steel,” by Frank O’Hara, December 1961


I never expected to be beaten up by Man Ray on the street, but also, until seeing a large number of his works at once, I hadn’t suspected how kind he is: suddenly one sees him, through the years, minding his own business, and, believe it or not, thinking of us.
— “Artist Accompanies Himself with His Rays,” by Ron Padgett, November 1966


“Death paints a picture”
By John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch
September 1958

The statue of Balenciaga was dripping onto other statues:
Among those it dripped on was the statue of Popeye
And the statue of President Hoover, who was himself a statue,
And the statue of Swee’Pea, which lay at the foot of Popeye.
Miles away from these, the statue of Robert Fulton
And the statue of Penrod were being repainted
Between a statue of a bee and a green statue of Karl Shapiro
Where the wicker statue of Olive Oyl cast its friendly shadow
At the statue of the Sea Hag. Air was, it seemed, blowing
for miles
Over the scorching prairie where the Agatha Christie statue
was buried.
A small car driven by the statute of Fernandel
Ran smack into the Babe Ruth statue which was blocking
the road.
A house began to fill up with statues of Dick Tracy
And statues of Helen of Troy. The collector was a man.
“I am the statue of a pin!” shouted the dust.
The millionaire held the statue of a grapefruit in his hand.
The kind statue of the Three Stooges whispered to the air.
The statute of Elephant Boy stood beside the mailbox.
When shall all these statues, statues of air, breath, Tolstoi,
and King Arthur,
Be permitted to dream? Already the statue of Lum and Abner
Is invading the head of the statue of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.,
And the statue of Wild Bill Hickock is in another
statue’s bedroom.
The Statue of Liberty weeps rubbery tears
On the statue of Fred MacMurray, which begins to play tennis
With the statue of Madeleine Carroll. O silent, solvent statues,
The dripping of the Balenciaga statue on the Popeye statue is
interrupted by the statue of T. S.Eliot.
The statue of Pergolesi is dripping gold blood on the dog statues.
The cat statues are divided by streams of purple milk which are rushing down from the Ernest Hemingway statue,
And the statue of George Washington Carver falls on the
statue of Sitting Bull.
It is the dance of the statues! And the rosy-red Betsy Ross statue creeps into the doeskin tent to sleep
As blue milk gushes from the statue of Bela Bartok in the night
of the statues.
These are the statues. From the Ma Perkins statue springs a wild
fountain of green milk,
And the statue of Turgenev nods its head with relief.
Toppling from its place, the big statue of Arthur Murray hits the
Pluto the Pup statue on the head.
The taller of the two Vivien Leigh statues weeps among
laughing insects.
Speech? they have no speech—but here, by the steps, the Santa
Claus statue is starting to sing
Near where the statue of Alley Oop is vomiting on the S. N.
Behrman statue . . .
And the wind topples the Benedict Arnold statue,
Scattering its purple dandruff over the heads and shoulders of
the statues of the Smith Brothers.
In the Albany planetarium the statue of a flea grows larger.
The statue of the mayor of Albany grows larger at the
same time the statue of the flea does.
In the Albany public gardens the statue of a young girl stands
motionless in the falling snow.
The statue of Porky Pig oinks at her across the vast waste of white.
He is reading a comic book showing colored pictures of the
statues of men and women.


A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 66.

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