John Ashbery has been making collages on the side, as it were, since he was in college, and in recent years, he has begun exhibiting them. Currently, there is an exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York showcasing collages by Ashbery and the experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin. As the gallery notes
Maddin and Ashbery were mutual fans from a distance until they were introduced a few years ago. Soon they were collaborating. Ashbery wrote his own adaptation of the long-lost Dwain Esper exploitation film How to Take a Bath, which Maddin then filmed. The finished film, a short, is now included in Maddin’s latest feature The Forbidden Room, which has been described as “a film treatment in collage”.
When talking about their shared love of collage-making, Maddin remarked “…I suppose this gluey and scissory medium is where the sensibilities of each other’s chosen fields come closest…where we unroll for the public the secret blueprints for the little visual collisions…”
It’s not hard to find parallels between Ashbery’s poetry — with its love of fragments, its startling juxtapositions of tone and image and language, its delight in pop culture and eccentric ephemera, its magpie sensibility — and his playful, wry, evocative collages. (This 2008 piece by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter does a good job of tracing some of the points of contact).
In a number of the works in the show, Ashbery seems to be playfully hinting at connections between his poetry and his collages. For example, one collage, titled “To Greet You,” seems to allude to the last line of one of Ashbery’s own poems from the 1960s, “The Chateau Hardware” (“And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you”), and possibly the oft-quoted lines from the climax of his most famous poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: “Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,/ Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,/ The shield of a greeting.”
With “The Painter,” Ashbery seems to deliberately evoke the title of a well-known sestina that appeared in Ashbery’s first book. The collage juxtaposes the famous self-portrait of a despairing Gustave Courbet with a very cheerful logo for Dutch Boy paint:
Also included in the exhibit is the beautiful collage that adorns the cover Ashbery’s new book, Breezeway:
Another is titled “Bingo Beethoven”:
It’s a pleasure to see that Ashbery’s collages, like Maddin’s equally enticing works, are suffused with the same charm, wit, beauty, and strangeness of his poems. The exhibition continues through July 31.