John Ashbery died on 3 September at the age of 90. He will be remembered as an enigmatic wordsmith, an irreverent, thinking person’s poet who both dumbfounded and delighted, often in the same stroke, and who left behind a prodigious body of work that has been recognised with a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize (both for his 1975 collection Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror), a MacArthur Fellowship, and a National Humanities Medal. Ashbery was one of those unlikely poets, possibly even unique, who remained a doyen of the avant-garde and a perennial outsider, yet achieved great critical and commercial success.
Perhaps owing to that intimidating curriculum vitae, obituaries and journalistic assessments of his life and work have invariably stressed this familiar arc of his achievements. The New York Times wrote that ‘Ashbery was known primarily for one thing: writing poetry’. Such a truism is, of course, both accurate and false, an anomaly guaranteed by the complexity and versatility of Ashbery’s work. Because alongside his career as a poet, he led a separate (although often dovetailing) life as a brilliant art critic, collector, and artist.
Many of Ashbery’s poems take the fine arts for their theme, even if he rarely dallied in the more straightforwardly ekphrastic poetics of his heroes John Keats and W.H. Auden. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is an allusion to the Italian late Renaissance painter Parmigianino, on whom Ashbery also wrote a 1964 review; works by Goya, Picasso, and Joseph Cornell can be just about identified in some of his more difficult (and sometimes baffling) ‘middle period’ poems; and so many of his verses seem infused with the half-sights and juxtapositions of Dadaist collage (even if Auden sensed that his protégé’s poetry refused the madman logic inherent in Dada and its many afterlives).
Ashbery stressed the responsibilities and latent possibilities in seeing throughout his poetry. This meant seeing surfaces and their elusive contours, pigments and hues, the changes in things as he saw them. There is something in this when, in the Parmigianino essay, he tries to explain ‘the sense of the mystery behind physical appearances’. And art afforded him an abiding catalogue through which, and with which, to see.
It is hardly surprising this affinity with art remained constant in his practice from the very beginning, given how his formative years were spent during those fabled days in the New York of the late ’50s and early ’60s. There he collaborated and became close friends with many of the so-called second generation New York School artists, who were finding new places for figurative painting after the dominance of Abstract Expressionism – the likes of Nell Blaine, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers. The epithet was shared with the poets, too, and Ashbery once quipped that he would like to know more about this New York School with a view to study there.
He would soon leave behind this class of recalcitrant pupils and inattentive teachers and, from 1955, settled for a decade in Paris, where he worked as an ARTNews correspondent. Much of his criticism from the period deals with those American exiles who, like him, had appeared to make the eastward journey across the Atlantic at just the wrong time. Two pieces in particular – ‘An Expressionist in Paris’, on a Joan Mitchell exhibition at the Stable Gallery, and ‘American Sanctuary in Paris’ (both 1965), a long essay detailing responses from a questionnaire sent out to expatriate American artists – count among the best criticism on the precarious state of American painting abroad during the period. A 400-page anthology of his art writing, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957–1987, was published in 1989.
Mitchell’s gestural paintings, along with works by companions, acquaintances, and contemporaries, can be found in Ashbery’s personal collection. But he was little motivated by accumulating stock for any capital interest. Alongside bric-a-brac, toys, and pottery, there are many artworks gifted by friends – Jane Freilicher, Pierre Martory, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and countless others. These include portraits of the poet himself, with the most notable being a characteristically intimate painting by Fairfield Porter, in which the young Ashbery, slouched in a light blue shirt and slacks, broods at side-glance in the half-light at Porter’s Long Island home. In 2013, the portrait became the centrepiece of the Loretta Howard Gallery’s exhibition ‘John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things’, a show that encouraged its audience to experience the ‘living collage’ of Ashbery’s domestic life by recreating the poet’s late-19th century home in Hudson, New York. More recently, Yale’s Digital Humanities Lab has gone even further and published a virtual tour of ‘Ashbery’s nest’, guiding the viewer through his vast accumulation of tit-bits, works by French and American masters, and everything else in between.
But Ashbery’s perceptive eye for the vagaries of art-making went beyond collecting and beyond lending his thoughts on the works of others. He never made a total statement about art like his New York School compatriot and Harvard peer Frank O’Hara, who famously quipped ‘I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not.’ Like Ashbery, O’Hara wrote criticism for ARTNews, as they developed styles of lyrical art criticism which broke from the dense formalism in vogue with the big beasts of the day such as Clement Greenberg. Unlike O’Hara, however, Ashbery’s enthusiasm for art led him to produce a substantial body of collages that range from the very small (some are smaller than postcards) to works that double up as children’s games, such as Chutes and Ladders (for Joe Brainard) (2008).
These collages are characterised by their eclecticism, and their blending of high and low culture sources: Courbet’s The Desperate Man is obscured by a Dutch Boy Paint advertisement, and Beethoven is incorporated into a bingo game. In 2008, The Tibor de Nagy Gallery, with whom Ashbery had published alongside Freilicher way back in 1953, hosted a major exhibition of his collages. Reviewing it, John Yau directly linked Ashbery’s use of cut-up and juxtaposition techniques across media: ‘if […] you didn’t suspect that [Ashbery] might be a man with a pair of scissors […] then you probably haven’t read a single thing he has written.’
Indeed, Ashbery himself traces this cross-over aesthetic from the very start: ‘I started making collages when I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1940s. I forget exactly when or why I began, but it was no doubt a response to the collage novels of Max Ernst and the partly collaged Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque (and later to the collages of Schwitters and Joseph Cornell.) Around 1958 I also began using collage elements in my poems […]’
In his poetry, his criticism, and his art, Ashbery remained interested in the mysteries behind the physical appearances of the world around him. He may well be remembered best for one thing, but as we reappraise Ashbery’s life and work, the story of his gift for seeing remains only partly told.