Standing Inside One of Ashbery’s Poems: Reviews of “John Ashbery Collects”

John Ashbery: Poet Among Things

A follow-up to my earlier post about John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things, the exhibition that is currently showing at the Loretta Howard Gallery in New York: there have been several interesting reviews of the show, including a sharp and insightful piece by the critic, poet, and editor Albert Mobilio that was posted on the Paris Review blog yesterday. Mobilio describes the exhibit: 

Thoughtfully curated by Loretta Howard Gallery and poets Adam Fitzgerald and Emily Skillings, the show offers a selection of Ashbery’s own paintings, prints, collages, bric-a-brac, and furniture; it’s all cozily arranged to conjure as much domestic atmosphere as might be had in a gallery space. Kitschy figurines, VHS tapes (Daffy Duck and Jack Benny among them), bawdy toys, and hand-painted plates line the shelves of cabinets and bookcases that could have been lifted whole from Ashbery’s parlor. Other items, like the French Provincial chairs and Oriental rugs, have been.

He notes that the show’s assemblage of disparate cultural materials is “equal parts wry and melancholic,” and as such, “ably recalls the mood and manner of Ashbery’s writing.” Mobilio points out the connection between the spirit of this show, and of Ashbery’s work itself, and one of Ashbery’s favorite artists, Joseph Cornell:

the curators include wall text featuring apt passages of his verse that treat the world, if not the mind, as a congeries of curios, a kind of Cornell box. Of course, the show includes a few of those; with poems populated by Popeye, Henry Darger, Chopin, Faust, Parmigianino, and a myriad of other, less identifiable references, it’s no surprise that Ashbery is a devotee of Cornell’s eclectic connoisseurship. Both share an affinity for the metaphysique d’ephemera , an aesthetic that elevates the trivial to the transcendent.

Mobilio further stresses the continuity between this exhibit of Ashbery’s things and his actual poetry: “this show could be the prop room for his verses, a place where totems of high and low, irony and utter seriousness await staging. To be sure, such connections constitute, for me, the great drama of the poems.”

Mobilio closes with a lovely image that only further adds to my anguish at not being able to actually see this show in person: “Among these things, amid their thingness, I realize that I’m standing inside one of Ashbery’s poems.”

Those of us who cannot make it to New York to see this show can at least be happy that someone has posted a brief glimpse of it — and of Ashbery himself, at the opening reception — on YouTube:

Another interesting review of the exhibit, by Chris Randle, appeared recently on the Random House blog Hazlitt.  Randle writes:

The objects I really fixated on in the gallery were the most ordinary ones. Felix the Cat toys. Postcards collaged together by Ashbery himself. The sturdy black typewriter he still composes all his verse on. A bookcase filled with admired antecedents (Henry Green, Ronald Firbank, The Spoils of Poynton), close friends (James Schuyler, who co-wrote Ashbery’s only novel A Nest of Ninnies, and Harry Mathews), and intriguing strangers (Marjorie Perloff’s The Futurist Moment). It’s a genial, allusive, and frivolous collection, like many of his literary ones. The exhibition, which was curated by two younger poets, doesn’t even tag any items, let alone attempt to explain them in theoretical language. I peered at a glass desk several times before realizing that it belonged to the gallerists, not their guest. Like Ashbery’s sharp turns on an enjambment, they’ve made the quotidian disorienting…

Curator Adam Fitzgerald suggests that [Ashbery’s] Hudson house might be “arguably Ashbery’s most fully realized artwork,” a charmingly perverse claim, because it’s also impossible to reproduce. The exhibition never tries, never flails at direct representation, like a Colonial Williamsburg version of the 1950s Cedar Tavern. Instead you walk through notional environments, bounded by Matthew Thurber’s camp wall illustrations of two-dimensional fireplaces and pianos. It’s a mental living space: “The room I entered was a dream of this room.”

Fortunately, the exhibit does not aim to present a Colonial Williamsburg version of the 1950s Cedar Tavern, but rather something much more suggestive and interesting (although that would be kind of fun to imagine).   John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things runs through November 2.

 

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