Waiting to meet my friend, the writer Woody Haut, for coffee the other week, I passed the time (though more than that) browsing through this neat little David Zwirner Books edition of the poet John Ashbery’s later writings about art, interleaved with a selection of his poems and some intriguing lists of the music he would have been listening to during the same period, roughly 1998 – 2004. Music that would mostly come under the broad term, modernism, I suppose – John Cage, Morton Feldman, Gavin Bryars – with some Brian Eno and Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Vertigo’ for good measure.]
Growing up, Ashbery had wanted to be a painter, only changing direction when he went to Harvard, though his early interest in surrealism and collage would underpin much of his poetry. That he started to write art criticism was, apparently, an economic decision. “I felt I was never really qualified to be an art critic.The only reason I did it is because I needed to earn some money … It was obviously pretty easy to write about abstract expressionist painting, since it was brand new and nobody knew anything about it, so what you had to say was as valid as what anyone else might. Also, it’s not unlike the poetic process in its being a record of its own coming into being.” That last sentence pretty interesting, I think, not to say crucial.
But be that as it may, art criticsim remained an intergral part of Ashbery’s life. Along with fellow poets, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, he wrote for ARTnews in New York; living in Paris between 1960 and 1965, he was art crtic for the New York Herald Tribune (just typing those words brings vividly to mind Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle), and, back in New York, he was an executive editor of ARTnews and a critic for New York magazine and Newsweek.
Perhaps it’s the sense that he wasn’t ‘really qualified’ to be an art critic that makes him such a good one – it helps him to eschew what might be termed ‘art speak’ and permits an openness of approach. Important also, I think, was the proximity he felt between his own practice and that of the artists whose work he wrote about (see 2 paras above) – artists who in many cases he knew personally and who were an integral part of the New York scene – Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard, Jane Freilicher.
I first became aware of Jane Freilicher through the poems of Frank O’Hara, in which she appears again and again as muse and companion – ‘Interior (with Jane)’; ‘A Sonnet for Jane Freilicher’; ‘Jane Awake’; ‘Chez Jane’; ‘To Jane; and in Imitation of Coleridge’ – after which she seems to have been usurped by Grace Hartigan and, to a lesser exent, Joan Mitchell.
Once I got to know Freilicher’s work a little, I began to marvel at her persistence of vision; her determination to continue following her chosen course – a personal version of realism that she adhered to as if the explosion of abstract expressionism wasn’t happening all around her. Her subject matter scarcely varied – the views from her studio windows in Greenwich Village and Water Mill, Long Island, and many many still lives, most often a simple portrait, decepetively simple – yet without a glimmer of trickery – of beautiful flowers in equally beautiful vases.
Why doesn’t this sameness result in a dulling over-familiararity? Boredom even? Not another bloody bunch of marigolds!
This, in part, is Ashbery’s answer …
“The same fields, bouquets, slants of light, views out over water or streets and buildings seem to recur, but it is the tremendous difference in them from picture to picture that entraps and enthralls the viewer. This is because she is able to half-forget the subject at hand and concentrate on the sheer pleasure of moving paint around.”
And as she said herself in an interview with James Schuyler …
“I’m interested in landscape, but there’s a paradox: it’s depressing to get that realistic look: ‘Why, that’s just the way it looks!’ or ‘I know that time of day’ … Of course a landscape goes on forever but a picture doesn’t. So very soon it has a composition or a form of its own.”
This is Ashbery writing about a small pastel, Flowers on a Table …
“The colours are low-keyed and matte, the surface dry and scumbled. The flowers look tangled with burrs like the coat of an old sheepdog.”
I was thinking of her use of colour, her use of light when I was preparing my novel, In a True Light, partly set in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s, Monk at the Five Spot and Frank O’Hara and company in the audience.
Through an intermediary – the poet William Corbett – I asked Jane Freilicher if I could use a statement she’d once made about her work as an epigraph to the novel … “I suppose I think more in terms of colour than of line.”
I was hoping, I think, that it might in some respects be appicable to the writing, the organisation of the book. Heavy on atmosphere, with a story line that shifted, sometimes surprisingly between place and time. A scumbled narrative, you might say.
You might. In the event, I think I lacked the courage of my convictions: added a less than necessary secondary crime plot to the basic story of a British painter in search of the daughter he had previously never known existed, the result of his brief and heady relationship with an American abstract expressionist painter decades earlier.
Even so, it’s a novel I’m fond of – fond in the way, perhaps, one might be fond of errant children. There are scenes, moments, I can still go back to with pleasure rather than embarasment or regret. And there are readers who, amongst my books, place it as one of their favourites. Readers with the abiity to see what I could never quite see myself.