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‘A surprise dragging the signs’[1]: The art criticism of John Ashbery

John Ashbery is a man amidst the critical furies. Often taken to task by literary critics who characterise his poetry as wilful obscurantism, the “literary hoaxter” teasingly holds off his reader, disallowing comprehensive engagement with his tangled, tautologous verse. Reviewers complain of a ‘state of continuous exasperation,’ in which his ‘unremitting experimentation’ and reductive ‘attempts’ to emulate painterly gesture merely produce an incoherent poetry of ‘…little substance.’[2] Even W. H. Auden, upon awarding Ashbery with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1955, was to remark, with some distaste and ‘fatigue’, of Ashbery’s ‘strange juxtapositions’ and ‘confusing authentic non-logical relations’[3]; as was perhaps his most fervent literary champion, Harold Bloom, to consider some of Ashbery’s earlier poetry to ‘collapse into a bog’[4] of abstract, figurative vacuity.

It is this ‘difficulty’, however, in his looping ‘arabesques of speech,’ in the ‘sting and jab’ of his metonymic inter-relativity, and in the ‘perpetual chatter’[5] of his vast social lexicon, that interrogates the nature of possible engagements with meaning. Ashbery’s is a playfulness in the parities and disparities of experience, language, and understanding. His verse and prose plays out in ‘…a hemisphere where no credit is expected’[6][i], and, indeed, is not to be expected. Ashbery’s is not an economy of value, of what can be gained, but rather an economy of withdrawal, of what can be indeterminate:

Was it Lévi-Strauss who said the world could be divided into ingenieurs et bricoleurs? According to this definition I’m definitely one of the bricoleurs, someone who patches things together any old way rather than starting out with a concept and developing it.[7]

Freighted with the – emphatically contemporary – knowledge that communication itself is often deeply unfair, unresolved, unaccountable, Ashbery does not seek to impart crystalline conclusions but to ‘make a music of the poignance of withdrawal.’[8] By no means a postmodern phenomenon, the vast inescapability of quip, pun, and quotation has often been considered an enlivening one; eighteenth-century satirist Alexander Pope expected to ‘win my way by yielding to the tyde’[1] of common cliché. The moral implications of moving through such a shifting terrain of aped cliché, mangled metaphor, and wry observation, forces the reader to consider to what extent they ascribe to Ashbery’s ‘mysteries of being’[9]. It is not ‘meaning’ that is left out of an Ashbery poem, but a solid ground of referent. No longer the ‘special intensity’ and unified ‘soul’ of Orphic lyric for which Ashbery’s poetic yearns, but the alignments and misalignments between image and thing, subject and object, language and sound that create his uniquely analytic lyricism: ‘…getting down on paper / Not thoughts, exactly, but ideas maybe: / Ideas about thoughts.’[10]

*

Kenneth Koch: Have you ever been physically attacked for your art criticism?

John Ashbery: No because I always say I like everything.

Kenneth Koch: Would you say that is the main function of criticism?

John Ashbery: If it isn’t then it should be.[11]

Ashbery has never taken his art criticism seriously. Only receiving a hint of the critical recognition it deserves, Ashbery’s breathy concision has been compiled in the collections Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987 (1989) and Selected Prose (2005). Pliable in its self-positioning, moveable in its scope, and yet approachable in its insight, he claimed in his interview with Paris Review in 1983, that he was “…never interested in doing art criticism at all.” Ranging from his earliest articles in 1957 for New-York based ARTnews magazine at the behest of friend and editor Thomas B. Hess, to the pieces written during his decade in Paris for the European edition of the International Herald Tribune, to his own co-editorial endeavours in the shape of his sporadically printed journals of the early 1960s, Art & Literature and Locus Solus, Ashbery’s art critical career took foot with several slips of financial happenstance:

Back in the fifties, Thomas Hess…had a lot of poets writing for the magazine. One reason was that they paid almost nothing and poets are always penurious. […] I needed some bread at the time – this was in 1957 when I was thirty – and my friends who were already writing for ARTnews suggested that I do it too.[12]

Then in 1960, upon his return to France, he says “…a friend of mine, leaving her job as art critic at the Paris Herald Tribune, asked me if I would like it. I had no job in Paris, and I said yes.” In spite of all this back-peddling derision, it is this permissiveness that forms his uniquely tentative body of art criticism, leading him to assess in an unpublished 1989 interview with Bill Berkson that ‘I basically feel disinterested – not uninterested – in art.’ Suspicious of the claims that were being made for poetry’s political power, on both the left and the right, Ashbery’s criticism itself, published in volumes as politically incongruous as The Nation, New York, The New Republic, ARTnews, The International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, denies any one affiliative bent. Perhaps most particularly, in his commemorative essay upon friend and fellow New York poet Frank O’Hara’s untimely death, Ashbery celebrated O’Hara’s virtue for detachment. ‘Too hip for the squares and too square for the hips,’ Ashbery presents O’Hara as admirably independent of the ‘opposing power blocs’ of the mainstream and the avant-garde, that had been provocatively addressed by Clement Greenberg in his epochal essays ‘Towards a Newer Laocoon’ (1940) and ‘The Decline of Cubism’ (1948). Ashbery lauds O’Hara as the productive apex of an artist laughingly unencumbered by the social, political and cultural binds[13] of mid-century America:

Frank O’Hara’s poetry has no program and therefore cannot be joined. It does not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society; it does not speak out against the war in Viet Nam or in favour of civil rights; it does not paint gothic vignettes of the post-Atomic age; in a word, it does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe.

The anaphoric clauses are unremitting in their intoned momentum – ‘It does not…; it does not…; it does not…’ – parodying the unremitting, high-voiced determinism of 1940’s scholarship. O’Hara’s hot-heeled stanzas reel from any one particular appropriation, in a blithe dance away from the schools of the Beats, the New Critics, the confessionals, even the New York School of Poets, to which both Ashbery and O’Hara were supposedly enrolled, along with Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie, and fellow Harvard graduates, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. As O’Hara cries, in his ‘intimate yell’[14], this co-opted coterie were, ‘…schooled to the world / of soup serenaders and poetic predicaments and scourge’[15]; all too aware of, and cautious of, the contemporary Greenbergian ‘desire to exploit the break with imitative realism for a more powerful expressiveness.

*

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.

Look at it talking to you. You look out a window

Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.

You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

These opening lines from the poem ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons,’ from Ashbery’s later 1981 collection Shadow Train, are perhaps the most overt poetic testament to Ashbery’s own ‘dreamed role-pattern’ of criticality. This ‘poignantly modest sixteen line quasi-sonnet’[16] severs the typically lyric sublimation of a poet’s voice and a sympathetic interpreter, in introducing the “it” of the poem, centring the poetic artefact itself. “It” esteems of itself as an object with an achieved form, “it,” as separate from the voice of the poet; whilst at the same time co-opting the reader into a personal involvement with the object itself; ‘You miss it, it misses you.’ The seeming solidity of this assertion, in its unshakeable parallelism, is nevertheless, in its loosely chiastic structure, a cancelling-out of clarity. As it evades you, so you evade it; established rules for interpreting words cannot exist and words will not interpret themselves. All that remains is “the object” itself.

Arnold sees the subordination of criticism to any other purpose than that of an attention to the object, to serve any number of ‘…ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas,’[17] as a derailment in the traction of aesthetic consideration. Much of Ashbery’s own art criticism in fact centres on this very matter, arising from the critical debates on the art object at the time: between Harold Rosenberg’s notion of ‘action painting,’ Clement Greenberg’s ‘situational field’ of painting, and Meyer Schapiro’s canvas as a ‘field of operation.’ Amidst the furore surrounding the “heroic” period of Abstract Expressionism, Ashbery was to champion an increasingly outmoded Surrealist art, such as that of Joseph Cornell, Yves Tanguy and Henri Michaux, and the lesser acknowledged “New Realist” painters, such as Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, and Nell Blaine. It was primarily their treatment of the ‘object’ that seemed to alight Ashbery’s intrigue, not intent on the evocative ‘signs of the artist’s active presence,’ the ‘great importance of the mark, the stroke, the brush, the drip, the quality of the substance of the paint,’ or the figured ‘consciousness of the personal and spontaneous’[18] seen to characterise what became known as ‘American-Type Painting.’ In his ARTnews review of the ‘Romantics and Realists: French Painting 1820-70’ exhibition at the Wildenstein Gallery in New York, Ashbery reckoned: ‘If there is one single common characteristic of current trends in the arts, it is probably impatience with existing forms of expression.’ He was shrewd enough to shy away from the fading avant-gardist adage, “Make it New,” however, and discount the avant-garde dismissal of ‘perceptual realism’ as backward-looking, far more interested in what he called the ‘tentative’ quality of the anomalous art object.

‘…Most good things are tentative, or should be if they aren’t’[19] Ashbery quips, delicately disavowing the expressive hedonism and “heroic” scale that had become ingrained in mid-century American art, in his frank review of friend and painter Jane Freilicher’s retrospective in 1986. Known for her unassuming and tempered still-life paintings and portraits, Kenneth Koch, who lived in the same New York building as Freilicher, recalled in his poem ‘A Time Zone’ when Ashbery and Freilicher met it was ‘…as if they’d both been thrown into a swimming pool / Afloat with ironies jokes sensitivities perceptions and sweet swift sophistications.’ Koch omits the stumbling blocks of punctuation, creating an effusive list of interactions to imply their uninhibited affection for one another, a relationship of wit and frivolity unbarred by social rigidity. And yet the baldness of the line, in spite of its smooth sibilance and spacing, calls attention to their abstracted presence.

This lack of staged causality broaches Ashbery’s concept of the ‘tentative,’ not merely insinuating caution, experiment or trial, but as found in Freilicher’s paintings, ‘…objects in the prospect,’[20] meaning objects, rather complicatedly, at the occasion of their being. Objects aware of their own existence and representation; an object becoming ‘as in itself it really is.’ In his review, Ashbery develops his discussion of Freilicher’s uniquely reflexive ‘realism’:

Her realism is for fun, the ‘magic’ kind that tries to conceal the effort behind its making and pretends to have sprung full-blown onto the canvas. Such miracles are after all minor. Both suave facture and heavily worked over passages clash profitably here, as they do in life,[…]That is what I meant by tentative. Nothing is ever taken for granted, the paintings do not look as if they took themselves for granted, and they remind us we shouldn’t take ourselves for granted either. Each is like a separate and valuable life coming into being.[21]

In so far as this echoes Meyer Schapiro’s statement over a decade earlier, in his ‘liberated’ conception of a ‘work of art as an ordered world of its own kind in which we are aware, at every point, of its becoming,’ Ashbery believes of Freilicher’s work to be a less aggressive assertion of its own existence. Each painting is a ‘life’ coming into being’ as opposed to an ‘ordered’ compound of ‘becoming’; paintings that do not take their existence ‘for granted,’ and subtly ironize those that superimpose their own existence on the world.

One of the best examples of Freilicher’s discursive assiduity is in the celebrated painting ‘The Painting Table,’ (1954) featured in 2011 retrospective, Painters & Poets, held at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery on the sixtieth anniversary of its inception. This enigmatic oil still-life, modest in scale, unpretentious in character, commanded the attention not only of Ashbery in his earlier writings on Freilicher, but also of the most recent reviewers of her work, Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker and Dan Chiasson for The New York Review of Books. In muted palette, Freilicher renders the numerous objects on her work surface with shifting degrees of realism, some sharper than others, some fuller than others, some brighter than others; ‘…one can’t be sure where reality leaves off and illusion begins.’[22] An awkward aggregate in its irrelation, it nevertheless betrays a fidelity to each object. She resists the ‘Expressionist urge to set things on edge,’[23] what Freilicher herself found hollow in contemporary art practice; a self-regarding ‘pomposity or heavy symbolism.’[24] Some objects seem complicit with one another, similarly scumbled, others resist such unifying contiguities, uncertain in their blurred perspectives. From the slick gold paint can, to the thick impasto walls, to the flooded tinctures of paint in the foreground, the result is what Ashbery astutely names ‘a little anthology of ways of seeing, feeling and painting, with no suggestion that any one way is better than another.’[25] These multiplying moments are the driving forces of art and life. In the ordinariness of their disunion the objects are democratised, defined as individuated entities, inveighing ‘disunion just to abolish confusion.’[26]

Not taking ‘themselves for granted,’ they remind us that ‘we shouldn’t take ourselves for granted either.’ They are at once aware of their own making as we are, at once implicated in their own representation as we are, and at once alighted with a notion of their own being as we are: this is what Ashbery is alluding to when he ends ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ with the epithet, ‘The poem is you.’ The articles arrange themselves according to the quality of attention brought to bear, and, in all their specificity, are brought into being through such qualities of attention. This is a painting less concerned with presenting a strong sense of place, than a looser sense of the elemental components of place. Chiasson, fascinated by ‘the one raised glob’ of white paint in the lower right quadrant of the painting, honours it as ‘one of the great daubs of white paint in American art,’ in its unassuming brilliance at bringing attention to its very quality as paint, as a ‘daub’ of paint itself, and as representing a ‘daub’ of paint. This leavened glob of gouache is present in its intrinsic ‘paint’-ness, and neither apprehension is considered the more important; the ‘…pigment that stands in for water is as much an object of delectation as the water itself.’[27]

*

To create a work of art that the critic cannot even talk

about ought to be the artist’s chief concern.’[28]

Crucially, Ashbery has credited his critical writing for altering the way he approaches his poetics. The weekly obligation to ‘grind out several pages,’ as he has put it, and to ‘produce an article, rain or shine, exhibition or no exhibition,’ broke down his resistance to austere, or more traditionally influenced, poetic composition, leading to the recognition that he could ‘…sit down the same way with a poem.’ In conversation with poet Mark Ford in 2003, Ashbery discloses; ‘I cultivated a quality of paying attention to the art I was supposed to write about so that I could remember when I got home what I had seen and could write about it, which might have been helpful in a more general way’ to his poetic practice. Intriguingly, many cases have been made for the painterly tone and abstracted sweep of his poetry[29], and yet little made for the same in his criticism, which, it seems to me, harbours similar blazes of imagination.

This ontological posturing, between paint and painted, may seem affected, as satirized on ‘a plain level’ in ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons.’ The implication of ‘language on a plain level,’ is a degree of simplicity in our ability to understand as well as an eradication of alienating pretension; an equivalence of face-value with honest matter. In the first edition of Ashbery’s aesthetic journal, Art and Literature, founded in 1964 with Ann Dunn, Rodrigo Moynihan and Sonia Orwell, there was included a conversation between Jane Freilicher and pictorial specifist Alex Katz on precisely this theorising ‘Puritanism of American artists’. Yet ‘This poem’ is entirely aware of the role it takes in this ‘play’ of straightforwardness. Attentive to its existence as a poem, it complicates its very existence as a poem, much like Frelicher’s painting. Indeed, as Ashbery presses of both the poem and the reader, with a sardonic tilt of the head, ‘What is a plain level?’ The poem does not ‘wear a mask of its own candour,’[30] but holds it several inches before the face; its self-awareness both peeling back the interpretive refuge of the poetic, while flaunting, in its flippancy, the availability of expression. The title itself already sends up the reader, we ‘exculpat[e] our own shiftiness through our attributing of shiftiness to texts,’[31] and thus lampoons the interpretive task of the critic or reader, a “cooling down” that Ashbery was to note most emphatically in the metonymic gridlocks of Jasper Johns.

In a review of Johns’s celebrated Leo Castelli Gallery show of 1966[32], Ashbery was to suggest that Johns’ enforced an impasse of interpretation, that was to rescue American art from a banality of expression: ‘Johns is one of the few young painters of today whose work seems to defy critical analysis, and this is precisely a sign of its power – it can’t be explained in any other terms than its own, and is therefore necessary.’[33] In this unique ‘present phase of history,’ Johns plays with the predictably provocative ‘astonishment’ of modern art, which has ‘…become obsolete and practically inconceivable’[34]; ‘astonishment’ for astonishment’s sake. His impasto conglomerations of innocuous objects, such as coat-hangers or chair legs in the painting ‘According to What’, ‘thoughtfully staged messiness’, and ‘redundant written indications,’ confound previous categories of ‘critical analysis,’ and in their aloofness refuse to ‘satisfy or disappoint our notion of what paintings ought to be.’[35] The ‘object as in itself it really is,’ can no longer be distinguished as an art ‘object,’ let alone conceived of as existing ‘in itself’ or as ‘it really is.’ Such distinctions presuppose a meaningful, critical point of departure, an expectation Johns renders archaic in his diffuse irony.

He advocates no one aesthetic motive; where a Freilicher painting is a fretwork of ‘objects in the prospect,’[36] so a Johns’ painting can be a floodplain of the prospects in the object, and Ashbery is placed to pronounce either. In this sense, the Ashbery’s poem is perhaps one of the most effective proponents of Ashbery’s ‘tentative’ aesthetic, both a manifestation and an instrumentation of his shifting critical demeanour[s]. Helen Vendler astutely notes that Ashbery’s title places ‘propositional impossibility (paradox) next to figurative impossibility (oxymoron)’ in order to ‘…propose the contradictions of life in the contradictions of rhetoric.’[37] This is central to what much of Ashbery’s writing is doing in his approximations of artwork. In all awareness of the impossibility, both ‘propositional’ and ‘figurative,’ of conveying a real sense of an artwork, Ashbery is enlivened by this ‘threat’: ‘I always begin at zero and discover my thought by writing’[38]   This is no longer merely a question of seeing ‘the object as in itself it really is’ – although that is still a valuable consideration as far as Ashbery is concerned[39], but now a question of seeing the many possible reiterations of ‘the object as in itself it really is’; building from the ground up. And it is from ground zero, in the point-blank of paradox, that Ashbery exposes the true absurdity of critical reality; his ‘mysteries of being.’[40]

This piece came runner-up in the Abstract Critical Writers’ Prize 2013

[1] ‘Fragment.’ The Double Dream of Spring. (1970) From hereafter, all quotations from poems will be taken from the Collected Poems 1956-1987, Ed. Mark Ford. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010, and abbreviated CP

[2] Mona van Duyn, Poetry; Howard Wamsley, Poetry; James Schevill, Saturday Review

[3] W. H. Auden. Unpublished letter to Frank O’Hara (3 June 1955) upon losing the Yale Younger Poets Prize to Ashbery. Qtd in Marjorie Perloff’s ‘Mysteries of Construction’: The Dream Songs of John Ashbery.” The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987: p.250

[4] Bloom: p.61

[5] ‘The Hod Carrier’. CP: p.214

[6] The Hod Carrier’. CP: p.215

[7] See some of Ashbery’s own bricolage: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/09/12/arts/0914-COTT_index.html

[8] Bloom: p.9

[9] ‘Re-establishing Raymond Roussel.’ ARTnews Annual 6 (Autumn 1962).

[10] ‘Ode to Bill.’ (8-10). Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. (1975). CP: p.461

[11] ‘John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch (A Conversation)’. John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch (A Conversation). Ed. Mark Ford. Tuscon, AZ: Interview Press, 1965. pp.5-20. Transcript.

[12] Stitt, Peter. ‘The Art of Poetry no.33; John Ashbery’. Paris Review. 90. Winter 1983. Print. pp. 1-30; p.3

[13] Thomas Hess, in ‘The New York Salon’, a mannered review for ARTnews in 1954, hinted toward this ‘absence of shock values’ and of the ‘impulses toward elegance and the civil liberation of possibilities.’

[14] James Schuyler qtd. in Ashbery’s ‘Introduction’ to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara ed. Donald Allen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. All quotations of O’Hara’s poetry are taken from this volume.

[15] ‘A Wreath for John Wheelwright’ II.

[16] Vendler, Helen. “John Ashbery and the Artist of the Past.” Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashbery. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005; p.60

[17] SP: p.17

[18] As outlined by Meyer Schapiro, in his 1957 lecture ‘The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art,’ as characteristic of the new gestural figuration in Abstract Expressionism.

[19] RS: p.239

[20] SP: p.278

[21] RS: p.241

[22] RS: p.240

[23] RS: p.241

[24] Freilicher in conversation with Klaus Kertess, qtd in ‘Jane Freilicher: Poet of Intimacy.’ Womanshow, Spaightwood Gallery. Upton, Massachusetts. 13 June 2007. Web. 22 April 2011.

[25] ibid.

[26] ‘Clepsydra.’ Rivers and Mountains. CP: p.141.

[27] SP: p.279

[28] ARTnews. (May 1972): p.71.

[29] See Fred Moramarco’s ‘John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara: Painterly Poets.’ Journal of Modern Literature. 5.3. (September 1976); Marjorie Perloff’s ‘‘Transparent Selves’: The Poetry of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara.’ The Yearbook Of English Studies. 8. (1978); and for an erudite overview, Charles Altieri’s ‘John Ashbery and the Challenge of Postmodernism in the Visual Arts.’ Critical Inquiry. 14.4. (Summer 1988); pp. 805-830.

[30] Wilkinson: p.47

[31] ibid.

[32] ‘Brooms and Prisms: Jasper Johns,’ review of ‘Jasper Johns’ Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. 8 January – 2 February. ARTnews 65.3 (March 1966).

[33] SP: p.69

[34] SP: p.70

[35] SP: pp.69-70

[36] SP: p.278

[37] Vendler: p.242

[38] Qtd. in Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1994; p.6

[39] In his Paris Review interview with Peter Stitt in 1983, Ashbery was asked the question, ‘So for you a poem is an object in and of itself rather than a clue to some abstraction, to something other than itself?’ to which Ashbery answered, ‘Yes, I would like it to be what Stevens calls a completely new set of objects. My intention is to present the reader with a pleasant surprise, not an unpleasant one, not a nonsurprise.’

[40] ‘Re-establishing Raymond Roussel.’ ARTnews Annual. 6. (Autumn 1962). Repr. in Raymond Roussel. How I Wrote Certain of My Books. Trans. Trevor Winkfield. New York: Sun, 1977. As ‘On Raymond Roussel.’

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