My Tiny Part in a Kenneth Koch and Larry Rivers Collaboration

A few weeks ago, I posted Arthur Danto’s essay “The Koch Collaboration,” which he wrote to accompany an exhibit of Koch’s collaborations with artists that appeared at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York in 1994.

One of the reasons I still remember that show and have fond memories of it, is that I played a tiny, if tangible, role in it.  In the fall of 1994, I was a young graduate student at Columbia University and I had just been asked to serve as Kenneth Koch’s teaching and research assistant.  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  When I showed up in Koch’s office in September, one of the first things he asked me to do was to go to Butler Library at Columbia and find a bunch of portraits of writers and artists and “stat” them.  (I had no idea what this meant, and it took me a few seconds to realize that “stat” was an outdated term for xeroxing stuff, short for “photostat” — I’d quickly learn that Koch would constantly be asking me to “stat” things for him).  These were basically pre-internet days, so if you wanted pictures of a famous person’s face, you actually had to go someplace, find actual images in a book, and xerox them.

Koch explained that he needed these images for an upcoming exhibit of his collaborations with artists — he and Larry Rivers were working on a cover for the exhibition catalog. Apparently, Rivers needed pictures of these faces to do his part of the collaboration.

According to a tiny beat-up spiral notebook I was using at the time, Koch rattled off a list of names to me while I sat in his office — half writers (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Poe, Dante, Shakespeare, Byron) and half painters (Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Gaugin) — and told me to gather any others whose images were well-known.  I dutifully rummaged around in the library stacks, made copies of portraits for the names he gave me, and added some of my own (though I don’t recall now which I added).

Presumably, Koch passed these photocopied faces on to Larry Rivers.  A couple months later, I saw them transformed into the collaborative collage Koch and Rivers had created for the cover of the catalog.  Here it is:

Kenneth Koch and Larry Rivers, Collaboration (1994)

Kenneth Koch and Larry Rivers, Collaboration (1994)

This was — and, in a way, still is — miraculous to me: I was a 24-year-old kid who made a trip to the library, copied some pictures of celebrated writers and artists, and out popped a Larry Rivers/Kenneth Koch collaboration.

As you can see, the piece ended up featuring portraits of Cezanne, Frank O’Hara, Whitman, Poe, Picasso, Matisse, and Dante, portrayed as images on playing cards.  Rivers colored and sketched over the copied faces (even adding cool blue shades to O’Hara’s eyes), and Koch chose a brief quotation by each figure.

I’ve always felt the resulting piece contains a quite lovely, unpublished Koch poem, a collage (or cento) about artistic creation and the collaborative process:

All of nature is derived from the cube, the cone, and the sphere
They do have meaning they’re strong as rocks
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you
In a kingdom by the sea
The important thing is not to search but to find
A pink brushstroke on a white canvas
Where the straight way is lost

Koch’s selected poems, On the Great Atlantic Rainway, appeared at the same moment as this exhibit, and in December 1994, I was invited to the joint book party/opening reception at the Tibor de Nagy gallery.  It happened to be my 25th birthday.  When Koch graciously signed my book, he wrote “with best wishes and thanks for the famous faces.”  Clearly I should have been the one thanking him.

Koch dedication On Great Atlantic
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