Jean Dubuffet and Frank O’Hara: “You know how wonderful the 20th Century can be”

In this week’s New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl reviews an exhibit currently showing at the American Folk Art Museum in New York called “Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet.”  The show is devoted to Dubuffet‘s large collection of “outsider art” — works by “untutored prisoners, children, people hospitalized for mental illnesses, and eccentric loners.”

I was pleased to see that Schjeldahl led off his review with a passage from Frank O’Hara’s wonderful Dubuffet-inspired poem “Naphtha,” which he wrote in 1959, just at the moment an exhibition of the painter’s work was on display at MoMA, where O’Hara was a curator: “Ah Jean Dubuffet / when you think of him / doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower / as a meteorologist / in 1922 / you know how wonderful the 20th century / can be.” Schjeldahl notes that these “lines, befitting the charisma of the great French artist, come to mind regarding” this exhibit of Dubuffet’s collection of art brut.

Schjeldahl doesn’t mention it, but after O’Hara’s poem “Naphtha” appeared in the journal Big Table in 1960, the poet was shocked and delighted to receive a present from Dubuffet himself, whom he’d never met.  O’Hara wrote to John Ashbery with the news:

The most exciting thing that has happened to me recently is that Big Table forwarded me an envelop the other day and in it was a drawing from Dubuffet.  It is in India ink on his stationery, about the size of this page, the head of a man, and around it is written, so it fills out the rest of the space — “Salut Frank O’Hara … de Paris … le jour de Noël 1960 … à vous … un bon jour … d’un ami … j’ai lue le poème … dans Big Table … bonne année … Jean Dubuffet.”   [Hello Frank O’Hara … from Paris … Christmas day 1960 … to you … a hello … from a friend … I read the poem … in Big Table … happy New Year … Jean Dubuffet].

Jean Dubuffet, for Frank O'Hara

Jean Dubuffet, for Frank O’Hara

In his biography of O’Hara, Brad Gooch notes that “upon receiving the gift O’Hara had reported to [his boyfriend] Vincent Warren: ‘Renée said I should write one about Picasso immediately.”  O’Hara understandably cherished the Dubuffet drawing and proudly hung it in his apartment.

For more on this poem, see Marjorie Perloff’s recent retrospective on O’Hara’ Lunch Poems in Poetry magazine, which features an extended discussion of this poem and its connection to Dubuffet and art brut.

Here is the poem in its entirety:


Ah Jean Dubuffet
when you think of him
doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower
as a meteorologist
in 1922
you know how wonderful the 20th Century
can be
and the gaited Iroquois on the girders
fierce and unflinching-footed
nude as they should be
slightly empty
like a Sonia Delaunay
there is a parable of speed
somewhere behind the Indians’ eyes
they invented the century with their horses
and their fragile backs
which are dark

we owe a debt to the Iroquois
and to Duke Ellington
for playing in the buildings when they are built
we don’t do much ourselves
but fuck and think
of the haunting Métro
and the one who didn’t show up there
while we were waiting to become part of our century
just as you can’t make a hat out of steel
and still wear it
who wears hats anyway
it is our tribe’s custom
to beguile

how are you feeling in ancient September
I am feeling like a truck on a wet highway
how can you
you were made in the image of god
I was not
I was made in the image of a sissy truck-driver
and Jean Dubuffet painting his cows
“with a likeness burst in the memory”
apart from love (don’t say it)
I am ashamed of my century
for being so entertaining
but I have to smile

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