Elaine de Kooning, Frank O’Hara, and the New York School

Frank O’Hara and Elaine de Kooning with Reuben Nakian, 1966, photo George Cserna

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is currently hosting a large exhibition devoted to the work of Elaine de Kooning.  De Kooning, like her husband Willem, was a good friend and ally of many poets of the New York School.

The show, entitled “Elaine de Kooning: Portraits,” features de Kooning’s portaits of an interesting array of writers and artists, including familiar New York School names like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Edwin Denby, Harold Rosenberg, Merce Cunningham, Fairfield Porter, and Alex Katz, along with Allen Ginsberg, Donald Barthelme, Ornette Coleman, and nine commissioned portraits of President John F. Kennedy.

The exhibition has been reviewed in the Washington Post (under the headline “Elaine De Kooning, Often Eclipsed by Her Famous Husband, Gets Her Due”), and now the website Hyperallergic has posted an excellent and thorough two-part review of the show by Tim Keane.  In the first installment, Keane writes:

This massive exhibition —astutely organized by the museum’s chief curator, Brandon Brame Fortune … tracks Elaine de Kooning’s development as a first-rate, innovative portraitist through variously sized drawings, figure studies, trial sketches and small paintings across five decades, with each room dramatically highlighting the best of her large-scale oil paintings, some never exhibited publicly until now … the show offers uninitiated visitors a chance to discover an American artist who redirected techniques of twentieth-century vanguard painting into a form of portraiture that is as much about the rhythms and processes of human recognition as it is about the diverse characters who were her subjects.

Keane traces de Kooning’s “struggle to integrate abstraction into realistic portraiture,” which can be seen vividly in her famous portrait of Frank O’Hara:

Elaine de Kooning, “Frank O’Hara” (1962)

As de Kooning herself once explained about this painting:

When I painted Frank O’Hara, Frank was standing there. First I painted the whole structure of his face; then I wiped out the face, and when the face was gone, it was more Frank than when the face was there.

Of this portrait, Keane writes:

Like characterization in a novel, what she leaves out of the portraits becomes as important as what she puts in. The most famous example of this intentional game of hide-and-seek is, of course, her epochal “Frank O’Hara” (1962). During the late stages of its making, out of frustration, she erased the features of the poet’s face — believing, quite rightly, that once those facial details were replaced by just a fleshy pink smudge, O’Hara’s individuality would emerge more resoundingly from her depiction of the poet’s inimitable body language: the louche, lean frame; the pointy shoulders; the right hip pressing into his long, straight right arm; the fingers of his left hand barely hooked into the pocket of his beige chinos. Frenetic colors pass upwards and downwards around him, but rather than detract from the portrayal’s originality, the setting’s dynamism invites us to glide round and round the figure’s form, enriching our comprehension of the rendition.

Tim Keane was kind enough to pass on this wonderful, little-known photo of O’Hara posing for this portrait in Elaine de Kooning’s studio:

from Elaine de Kooning, The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism: Selected Writings (1994). Photo by Eddie Johnson.

from Elaine de Kooning, The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism: Selected Writings (1994). Photo by Eddie Johnson.

O’Hara, for his part, was nearly as fond of Elaine de Kooning as he was of her husband Willem, who was one of his most beloved heroes.  In an essay looking back on the art world of the early 1950s, O’Hara referred to Elaine as “the White Goddess: she knew everything, told little of it though she talked a lot, and we all adored (and adore) her.  She is graceful.”

In City Poet, his biography of O’Hara, Brad Gooch mentions that it was Elaine de Kooning who invited O’Hara to participate on a panel in 1952 on “The Image in Poetry and Painting” at the Club, the famous salon and meeting place for Abstract Expressionist painters. Gooch refers to Elaine as Frank’s “only peer in combining interests in writing and painting, talking and drinking, and in sharply appraising people.”  Gooch also mentions that de Kooning was “described at the time as a female O’Hara for her plunges — often rescue missions — into other people’s lives.”

Keane also discusses how de Kooning had already used a similar “face-effacing technique” in a “massive” portrait of Fairfield Porter from 1954:

The broad-shouldered maestro of landscape and still life painting sits upright in a gray suit and red-and-blue striped tie. His large, masculine frame dwarfs the thin wooden chair so conspicuously that you can virtually feel that weight and bulk. His long legs are spread-eagled, his knees are bent at slightly divergent right angles, and his large hands dangle idiosyncratically near his inner thighs. It is portraiture as intimate panorama, a lustrously colored, high-octane composition coalescing from its pieces into a robust, patrician physicality that must have been quintessential Fairfield Porter.

Elaine de Kooning, “Fairfield Porter” (1954)

In the second installment of his review, Keane gives some interesting background on de Kooning’s experience painting JFK’s portrait (“how to humanize an overexposed, photogenic leader who had already been widely valorized and even self-mythologized”?) and assesses her renderings of the President (“her vivacious portraits of Kennedy,” he says, “seem like they were made last week.”).

Keane moves from JFK to little JA, discussing several portraits de Kooning made of John Ashbery:

A triptych of tondo portraits from 1983 featuring John Ashbery, created for a limited edition of prints to accompany a republication of the poet’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975), replicate the shape of the circular mirror used by the Mannerist painter Parmigianino. Inspired by the optical distortions characterizing the Italian painter’s self-portrait, Ashbery’s masterpiece contemplates the compelling distortions and interactive nature of seeing and representation — what he calls, in the title poem, vision’s “recurring wave of arrival.” Elaine de Kooning’s renditions of Ashbery rely on lively semicircular lines and crosshatches that concentrically accentuate the poet’s wide eyes, prominent jawline and iconic mustache.

This exhibition, along with the recent attention bestowed on the work of Jane Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Grace Hartigan (the subject of a new biography by Cathy Curtis), suggests that the great women painters of the New York School — who meant so much to the poets they befriended and painted — are having a welcome and overdue moment in the spotlight.

Frank O’Hara, Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline (1957)

Posted in Abstract Expressionism, Alex Katz, Allen Ginsberg, Art Exhibit, Edwin Denby, Elaine de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, Frank O'Hara, Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, John Ashbery, Merce Cunningham, Visual Art, Willem de Kooning

Patti Smith on Lou Reed: “He recited the great poets — Rupert Brooke, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara”


Andy Warhol's Screen Tests

As someone who has been trying to make the case that there’s an important and under-recognized connection between the New York School of poets and Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, I know that for some skeptics, one nagging fact gets in the way: Reed rarely, if ever, specifically mentioned Frank O’Hara or other New York School poets when he talked about literature (and he talked about literature a lot).

So my ears perked up when I heard the moving speech Patti Smith gave last night to mark Lou Reed’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Smith (who I’ve also discussed in connection with New York School poetry) recalls a night when she had an hours-long conversation with Reed (while he sat in a bathtub dressed in black, of course) about a whole host of topics — including “the struggles of those who fall between genders,” political corruption, the glories of old amps.  “But most of all,” Smith said, “he talked about poetry. He recited the great poets — Rupert Brooke, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara.”

It may not be surprising, but there’s something wonderful about the idea that Reed once sat in a bathtub all dressed in black reciting O’Hara’s work.  And, more broadly, that he did indeed include O’Hara in his own pantheon of poets.

It’s also not surprising that Smith’s tribute connects Reed, first and foremost, to poetry in general: “He spoke of the poets’ loneliness and of the poets’ dedication to the highest muses … Lou was a poet, able to fold his poetry within his music in the most poignant and plainspoken manner… True poets must often stand alone. As a poet, he must be counted as a solitary artist. So, Lou, thank you for brutally and benevolently injecting your poetry into music.”

Here’s a video of Smith’s speech, which you can read more about here and here:

You can also read the touching and beautiful speech given last night by Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson, here.

In other Lou Reed news, a few days ago Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, published a very interesting piece about her brother, in which she tries to set the record straight about Reed’s troubled childhood and psychological struggles, their parents, and the electroshock therapy he was notoriously subjected to as a teenager.

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Lou Reed, Music, Patti Smith, Velvet Underground

Mad Men’s Love Affair with Frank O’Hara: “A Magical Occurrence”

I suppose my days of posting about Mad Men and Frank O’Hara are probably numbered, as the show’s final season begins this Sunday.  But the media hype about the show’s final run is reaching a fever pitch, and the New York Times does not disappoint: a new article gives us another chance to think about the fortuitous intersection of the lauded program and O’Hara’s poetry.

The Times has just published an expansive and flashy piece called “‘Mad Men’ and Its Love Affair with ’60s Pop Culture,” which it describes as “a look at some of the pop culture touchstones featured in ‘Mad Men,’ and how The New York Times originally covered them.”

Among other cultural touchstones, such as “The Twilight Zone,” “The Twist,” and The Beatles at Shea Stadium, the feature includes a section on Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, which played a much-discussed role in Mad Men‘s second season, along with some interesting commentary by Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, on how he ended up using O’Hara’s work.

Here’s how the Times sets it up:

As Don sits in a bar eating lunch, he glances over and sees someone reading Frank O’ Hara’s book of poems. “Is it good?” Don asks. “I don’t think you’d like it,” replies the man, seeing Don as nothing but the prototypical man in the gray flannel suit. At episode’s end, we see Don reading from the poem “Mayakovsky” and hear, in voiceover, a particularly resonant phrase: “Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.”

Weiner has mentioned O’Hara as an influence on the show before, but here he expands (for what I believe may be the first time) on how he became aware of O’Hara and decided to use “Mayakovsky” in an episode of the show:

That was a magical occurrence. I had studied poetry in college, and I read a lot of poetry, but I did not know Frank O’Hara. My wife took me to an exhibit between the first two seasons at the Museum of the City of New York and they had individually printed pieces of paper where you could read some Frank O’Hara poems. So I had one of these folded up in my pocket and it led me to think that Don, who was experiencing boredom after recommitting himself to his family, runs into this guy who just says he’s a suit, he’s a button-down guy.

In my mind, Don bought the book ‘Lunch Poems.’ But that had not come out yet, so we had to use Meditations in an Emergency. I read a little bit of it and said, we’ll use this. It has a great cover, it’s very period, it was definitely a popular book.

We put it into the episode and then at the end, Kater Gordon, who was the writer’s assistant at the time, said, ‘Don’t you think he should read some of it? Don’t you think we should hear it?’ And I had not read the whole book. So I sat down and read that last poem, “Mayakovsky,” and I said ‘What? This is the story of the season!’ It was exactly related to how Don felt in that episode. I wish I could act like it was planned that way, but it wasn’t.

So there you have it — if you’ve ever wondered why Mad Men had that hipster introducing Don to Frank O’Hara’s poetry, rather than to a much more predictable choice, like Allen Ginsberg’s, now you know that it was mostly the result of a “magical occurrence” — a mix of chance and good creative instincts on the part of Weiner and his staff.

To show how the Times originally covered this touchstone, the article also links to a largely forgotten review the paper ran in 1967 of Meditations in an Emergency, which Grove Press had reissued in the wake of O’Hara’s death in 1966. The review, by Michael Goldman, is mostly laudatory, though it does chide O’Hara for “a tendency to treat his material sentimentally”: “This poetry is unmistakably alive. It gives a remarkable sensation of speed, surprise, and lightness of movement … what makes his poetry attractive (and important) is its immediacy … his poetry tries to be as immediate as stubbing your toe or taking the first bite of a sandwich.”

Although the 1967 review worries that gifted writers like O’Hara who die young are “likely to pass quickly into oblivion as public and publisher move on to new sensations,” I don’t think we need to worry about that happening in O’Hara’s case, as his famed cameo on Mad Men makes abundantly clear.

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Mad Men, Television

The Curious Case of George Plimpton and Kenneth Koch

The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch

In honor of April Fool’s Day yesterday, Jordan Davis published a short piece about Kenneth Koch in a rather unlikely venue — Vice Sports.  Davis uncovers some intriguing similarities between a famous April Fool’s prank perpetrated by George Plimpton in 1985 — his celebrated Sports Illustrated story called “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” which purported to report on an eccentric, reclusive pitcher with a superhuman arm and a taste for mysticism– and Kenneth Koch’s long comic poem Ko, or A Season on Earth.  

Davis writes:

This is true: on April 1, 1985, Sports Illustrated published an article by Paris Review editor George Plimpton called “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.” It was an account of a Buddhist pitcher with a 168 mph fastball and his spring training tryout with the New York Mets. The story was not true, but the April Fool’s joke was an instant sensation and remains one of Plimpton’s best-known works. SI reprinted the piece on its website last October as one of 60 of the best stories ever to appear in the magazine. It is widely regarded as a great piece of sportswriting.

What is less well-known is that it borrows, without acknowledgment, much of its premise from Ko, or a Season On Earth, a long avant-garde poem by Kenneth Koch, a poet Plimpton published in The Paris Review and a classmate of Plimpton’s at Harvard.

Davis presents some of the parallels between Koch’s 1959 poem — which tells the story of a young Japanese pitcher with a blazing fastball who ends up playing for the Dodgers –and Plimpton’s 1985 article.  Although Davis doesn’t quite claim that Plimpton deliberately lifted his tale from the mock-epic Koch wrote decades earlier, he does suggest that the echoes seem to be more than a mere coincidence:

There are only so many ways to talk about a pitcher’s delivery, and stories about out-of-nowhere rookies are archetypal. But the specific gifts of Finch and Ko are similar—both throw menacing fastballs, both wrestle with spiritual difficulties around pursuing their gifts, both called into creation by members of the Harvard Class of 1948—that at the very least one has to ask whether the tie should go to the runner.

Posted in Jordan Davis, Kenneth Koch

“Rejoice Docently”: A New John Ashbery Poem, Plus His Own Commentary

John Ashbery

As part of its Poem-a-Day feature, the Academy of American Poets posted a new poem titled “Honestly” by John Ashbery today.  Here’s the last stanza of the short poem, which sets up a typically Ashberyean contrast between an unknowable, elusive past and a mystifying present:

Once we were passionate about the police,
yawned in the teeth of pixels,
but a far rumor blanked us out.
We bathed in moonshine.
Now, experts disagree.
Were we unhappy or sublime?
We’ll have to wait until the next time
an angel comes rapping at the door
to rejoice docently.

(I know there’s a way to do this.)

It’s an intriguing and rather lovely poem, with some striking lines and a tantalizing but perhaps inadvertent echo of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” — a song that features a “vagabond,” instead of an angel, “who’s rapping at your door.”

But it’s also notable and welcome because Ashbery offered a few remarks about his poem, something he very rarely does:

“It’s difficult for me to comment on the writing of a poem. It seems to be a process of discovering something and then forgetting it. ‘Experts disagree’ reminds me of Laura Riding’s book title Experts are Puzzled. Both of us, I think, are suspicious of experts, but in my case it’s a question of finding out whether we were formerly unhappy or sublime. The last line crystallizes for me the desperate hope of every poet when writing. Let’s hope ‘there’s a way to do this.’”

Another John Ashbery poem, another reason for experts to be puzzled and to disagree. But surely Ashbery will go on rejoicing docently and liking it that way.

Posted in John Ashbery, Poems

Today is Frank O’Hara’s (Real) Birthday — But Not the Day He Thought Was His Birthday [again]

[NOTE: I posted this piece a year ago today, but since there is another flurry of activity out there today on Twitter and the web toasting O’Hara on his birthday, I thought I’d repost it again today].

It’s been great to see lots of people around the web noting that today is the birthday of Frank O’Hara, who was born on March 27, 1926.

But there’s a strange story about this which complicates things a bit: today is not the day O’Hara thought was his birthday.

As Brad Gooch details his biography of O’Hara, City Poet, O’Hara believed that he was born on June 27, 1926.  That’s what his parents told him, and presumably that was the date he always celebrated as his birthday.  He even wrote some funny lines about his supposed birthday in “Ode to Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and other Births)”:

I hardly ever think of June 27, 1926,
when I came moaning into my mother’s world
and tried to make it mine immediately
by screaming, sucking, urinating
and carrying on generally
it was quite a day

O’Hara also deliberately began one of his amazing long poems, “In Memory of My Feelings,” on the day he thought was his 30th birthday — June 27, 1956.

But he was wrong.  As Gooch explains, O’Hara’s “birth certificate — found twenty-five years after his death — recorded his real birth as three months earlier, on March 27, 1926, at Maryland General Hospital.  The presiding physician: Maurice Shamer, M.D.”

Gooch offers a compelling explanation for this error:

“The discrepancy is a mystery.  But not a difficult one to solve.  His parents had been married in Grafton, Massachusetts, on September 14, 1925 — six months before the birth of their first son.  As both were offspring of morally conservative Irish-Catholic families, the shift of their baby’s birthday three months later implied conception after marriage rather than before.  The cover-up also solves the mystery of his parents’ eighteen-month stay in Baltimore.  They fled their thickly rooted families in New England to hide the progress of the pregnancy, then soon returned.”

So there you have it: today, March 27, is actually Frank O’Hara’s real birthday — but that would’ve come as a big surprise to him.

As Gooch notes, this means that O’Hara (who called himself “an ardent horoscope reader”) wasn’t even aware of his correct astrological sign.  Ironically, in October 1959, he wrote a poem about being a Cancer, when he was actually an Aries:

Now it is the 27th
of this month
which would have been my birthday
if I’d been born in it
but I wasn’t
would have made me a
which symbolizes silver, money, riches

… instead of
which symbolizes instability, suggestibility, sensibility
all the ilities like a clavichord

In any event, happy birthday to Frank O’Hara!

Posted in Frank O'Hara

A Conversation about “New York School Painters and Poets: Neon in Daylight”

(l to r): Anne Waldman, Ron Padgett, Carter Ratcliff, Bill Berkson, Larry Fagin, Jenni Quilter, Allison Power

Last week, the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog posted an item about a recent event held at the Joan Mitchell Foundation to mark Mitchell’s birthday and to celebrate the publication of New York School Painters and Poets: Neon in Daylight, a remarkable new book I’ve mentioned several times before.

Joan Mitchell, of course, was a central Abstract Expressionist painter and close friend to the poets of the New York School (whose work, not coincidentally, serves as the backdrop for this humble blog), so the Joan Mitchell Foundation is an auspicious place to hold such an event.

The Foundation has now posted a video of an event it hosted on February 12, which featured a lively conversation with a group of second-generation New York School poets, including Bill Berkson and Larry Fagin (who served as Advisory Editors for the book), Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, the poet and art critic Carter Ratcliff (who wrote a foreword for the book), along with Allison Power (who edited the book) and Quilter, the book’s author.

The video, which runs for over an hour, features the poets reading from their own work (for example, Anne Waldman reads from her collaboration with Ted Berrigan, “Memorial Day”); discussing the nature and importance of collaboration; talking about the dialogue between painting and poetry in their milieu; reading poems related to Joan Mitchell (Bill Berkson reads O’Hara’s great poem “Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul” at around 1 hour 11 minutes); and generally reminiscing about their own formative years and discussing the genesis of the recently published book.

You can see the entire video here.

Posted in Anne Waldman, Bill Berkson, Carter Ratcliff, collaboration, Frank O'Hara, Larry Fagin, Ron Padgett, Video, Visual Art