To celebrate its 60th anniversary, Tibor de Nagy gallery—founded by the Hungarian-born ex-banker turned dealer—recently exhibited a trove of more than 50 works of art and as many pieces of ephemera. Together they constituted a noisy mix of the funny, frivolous and ponderous, drawn mostly from the peak period of the gallery: its first 20 years, when John Bernard Meyers was the director, and poets and painters freely collaborated under its auspices. Included among the oils, collages, photographs, films and drawings were works by Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Nell Blaine, Alfred Leslie, Joe Brainard and many others. In addition to pieces hung on the wall, the exhibition contained four imposing display cases jammed with chapbooks, catalogues, notebooks, and typewritten and collaged correspondence written by leading members of the New York School of poets.
From the smaller back gallery sound-tracks of two films by Rudy Burckhardt blasted any reverie the gallery-turned-library might have conjured, reminding viewers that the cross-pollination of art forms included film as well. Burckhardt cast artists and poets in his films; Jane Freilicher, Rivers and John Ashbery starred in Mounting Tension (1951), for example, a comic send-up of the art world and psychoanalysis. Sharing the screening room were Grace Hartigan and Frank O’Hara’s collaborative oil studies for Oranges: 12 Pastorals by Frank O’Hara, poems published by the gallery in 1953 with a famous cover by Hartigan. A collaboration between Rivers and Kenneth Koch, titled In Bed (1982), took up an entire wall with 52 numbered vignettes, scribbled notations, goofy cut-up illustrations and photos, and subtitles like Snow in Bed, Preludes in Bed, Stones In Bed, Y Sick in Bed. The exhibition offered an opportunity to examine small but arresting pieces whose titles express the general climate: I’m Not Really Flying, I’m Thinking (1964), for example, a 10-by-8-inch collage by Brainard and O’Hara.
Two seldom-seen works by the gallery’s original financial backer, Dwight Ripley, are Kandinsky-like pen and colored pencil drawings on stationery. A rejection by Betty Parsons Gallery fueled Ripley’s interest in supporting Tibor de Nagy, who, in turn (and much like Parsons), went on to represent, for the times, a much higher than average number of women. The gallery was relatively egalitarian: exhibiting and publishing, these friends of friends of friends were men and women, gay and straight; the artists were both figurative and abstract, and the poets groundbreaking.
The spirit of irreverence and camaraderie at the gallery was palpable, particularly in the person of O’Hara, who feels especially present throughout the show. In a 15-minute, 16mm film, USA: Poetry, Frank O’Hara (by Richard O’Moore, 1966), the poet whom the dance critic and poet Edward Denby called “everybody’s catalyst” describes Tibor de Nagy’s early years. O’Hara says that a poet in the early 1950s might confess, “I don’t like Yeats,” and be met with a painter’s response: “I know just how you feel, I hate Picasso.” The unhinging of “academic standards,” as O’Hara describes it, represented by the New York School, paved the way for a burgeoning creativity, a period when poetry and art occupied the same space, and when art and words seemed to matter equally.
Photo: View of a display case from the exhibition “Celebrating 60 Years: Painters & Poets,” 2011; at Tibor de Nagy.