Poetry by Other Means: The Collages of John Ashbery
To complement Barry Schwabsky’s tribute to John Ashbery as an art critic, artcritical has mined its archives for this review from 2008 of an exhibition of Ashbery’s collages. The review, which contrasts the great poet ‘s collages with collages by art journalist Mario Naves, was originally published in The New York Sun, and is coupled with a review from the same newspaper of Ashbery’s longtime collaborator, the painter Trevor Winkfield
JOHN ASHBERY; COLLAGES
Tibor de Nagy Gallery
September 4- until October 4, 2008
724 Fifth Avenue, between 56th and 57th streets New York, NY 212 262 5050
Collage is inextricably linked in historic consciousness with poetry in no small part because of the intimacy of its artistic inventors with poets. Pablo Picasso and George Braque, the inventors of the medium, were championed and inspired by poets like Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Reverdy, and Guillaume Apollinaire, the last of whose verbal experiments invariably entailed play with typography—arrangement of words on the page could be as much a visual as a verbal gambit. Among the Dadaists and Surrealists, there were no union demarcation lines between painter and poet preventing wordsmiths from picking up their scissors: The poets of those supremely literary movements made collages and “found” objects, just as many of the visual artists wrote — in the 1930s, during his close association with Surrealism, Picasso devoted much energy to verse.
Is there something intrinsic to the appeal of collage to writers — to moving bits of paper around in startling, revelatory juxtapositions? The coincidence of two shows of collages by writers of markedly different ilk – a sometime poet laureate and a member of the third estate – begs the question. John Ashbery is the subject of a display of collages made from his undergraduate days at Harvard in the late 1940s to a series from 2008 that use chutes and ladders boards as their support. Mario Naves, who is perhaps better known as art critic for the New York Observer, has his fourth solo exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery since 2001.
The coincidence, and the connection with writing, intensifies around the identification of both men with the postcard. Mr. Ashbery is a consummate collector of postcards, and receiver and sender of them, too. Many of the collages in this show use a postcard as the support; they are framed to allow sight of the recto text, appropriately for objects as likely to be collected for their literary as artistic interest — and with Mr. Ashbery, as we are dealing with images and impulses, the distinction between the two is refreshingly fuzzy. Friendship plays a profound role in his collage activities: the 2008 chutes and ladders collages use source materials gifted to him by the late Joe Brainard and are unquestionably an homage to that poetry world artist.
Mr. Naves, who in this show returns to a welcome intimacy of scale, calls his collages “Postcards from Florida,” as they date from his brief tenure as Professor of Drawing at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota.
The types of collage Messrs. Ashbery and Naves favor occupy different ends of the spectrum in relation to the key issue with this medium: the legibility and relevance of the source material. In Mr. Ashbery’s images, the sources are virtually pristine. There are figures and objects cut from historic engravings or old magazine advertisements and then placed in equally intact though incongruous, dreamlike scenes and settings. In “Diffusion of Knowledge” (1972), for instance, a pair of comic strip action heros flex their muscles on a postcard of the Smithsonian Institution. There is a strange misregistering of the buildings in the background, as the familiar tower seems shadowed by a stenciled doppelganger in bright orange. But there is no confusion about the sources, only the encounter.
In Mr. Naves, by contrast, the imagery is entirely abstract, and the source material, which consists of painted tears of crumpled papers, is fabricated for collage purposes by the artist himself. Where Mr. Ashbery comes from the collage tradition of Max Ernst and Braque, Mr. Naves looks more to Henri Matisse’s late great cutouts and Jean Arp. The emphasis is on shapes created rather than figures isolated; it is more an aesthetic of unity than incongruity, and is less subversive.
Paradoxically, it could be argued, each writer tends to the opposite extreme in their visual and verbal work. Complicating this idea is the fact that besides his poetry, Mr. Ashbery writes clear, precise, accessible prose commentary on art and literature, but the work for which he is best known and admired is deeply, notoriously difficult. His collages, on the other hand, are formally bright and transparent, tending towards immediately accessible story lines and inherently attractive source materials.
Mr. Naves, by contrast, a journalist whose opinions are as bright and punchy as any editor could wish for, makes jolie-laid abstract art that is rough at the edges, scruffy, almost nonchalant in its casual disregard for any sense of a central organizing principle. The historic collagist he most closely resembles is the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters (whose example also enthused the Harvard undergrad according to Mr. Ashbery) in drawing upon detritus whose desuetude survives the alchemy of its artistic transmogrification.
True, Mr. Naves’s “crap” consists of studio stuff, as opposed to bus tickets and candy wrappings from metropolitan streets, and it was originated by the artist for intended transformation. But the result constantly stresses distress and arbitrariness — papers are crumpled as if underfoot; there is never “pure” color but instead the contingency of splodges and brushstrokes are always manifest. The initial impression of the scarred, battered surfaces of Mr. Naves’s collages is of a segment of billboard where layers of old posters have been stripped and scraped away — a form already made into art by the Italian pop artist Mimmo Rotella.
So, two highly accomplished visual artists who just happen also to be writers? That seems too easy a conclusion. Mr. Naves – in contrast to public perception of him – is an artist who also writes, whereas with Mr. Ashbery, self and public perception coincide around the fact that he is a poet who makes collages, in the Clausewitzian sense as poetry pursued by other means. Mr. Ashbery’s collages, in contrast to his verse, is eminently likeable and legible. Even his coy hints at pederasty are sweetly whimsical. Mr. Naves, by contrast, makes tough, itchy, irksome collages which are strictly for aficionados of abstraction.
It could be said that these are “difficult” writers in very different senses. Mr. Naves is a maverick dissenter as reviled by the art world establishment as Mr. Ashbery is beloved of the poetry world’s. The one is difficult in the sense of being a nuisance, the other in the sense of being brilliantly obscure and impenetrable. Collage presents a means of intensifying his efforts to the one, and of providing gentle relief from them for the other.
Tevor Winkfield, whose solo exhibition in the main space at Tibor de Nagy complements the project room display of Mr. Ashbery’s collages, makes paintings that betray a collage mentality while totally eschewing its touch. His paintings are seamless, sealed-in, and automobile-like in their glossy finesse. But his vocabulary is intimately informed by the aesthetic of collage, bringing together both commonplace and esoteric objects in startling and suggestive juxtapositions. He could be called a conceptual collagist, cutting and pasting within the mind’s eye.
Mr. Winkfield is a natural double act with Mr. Ashbery as, since 1988, works by this expatriate Yorkshireman have habitually graced the covers of the poet’s new publications and reissues. His style is unmistakable: high contrast, high chroma arrangement of forms that are radically contrastive in scale and source executed with the clean precision of a graphic designer. He has associated closely with the poetry world, and twice instigated small but influential journals for poetry: Juilliard, in the late 1960s, and Sienese Shredder, since 2007.
Mr. Winkfield’s aesthetic is essentially heraldic: objects are flattened to the extent that they are not allowed to threaten the two-dimensional picture surface, even as they busily overlay one another. “At the Gates,” (2004) is a triptych that sees areas of pink, yellow, rust, and grays and blue occupy distinct but interconnected zones, with objects as diverse as a metronome, a fan surmounting fluted columns, and a shattered vase holding court in each.
While flatness of overall design is strictly policed, the shadows of individual forms are almost scientifically rendered. Also undermining heraldry is the non-hierarchical nature of his compositions, the all-overness of his spreads recalling abstract, color field painting as much as any historic source.
His artistic origins are actually firmly rooted in a European pop sensibility, and are thus at once formal and literary. He trained at London’s Royal College of Art where students a few years ahead of him included Peter Phillips and Patrick Caulfield, whose precisionist advertising style set the scene for British pop art. Eduardo Paolozzi, Valerio Adami, and the American Richard Lindner are also points of reference.
In a way, Mr. Winkfield suffers from the fact that his work reproduces too well. He draws on graphic design, and provides graphic design solutions for book covers. But the experience of his paintings in the flesh underlines the richness of his saturated color and the vitality of his paint application, neat for sure but by no means mechanical.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, September 4, 2008 under the headings “Gallery Going: Bits and Pieces Brought Together” and “Art in Brief: Trevor Winkfield”