Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning
to aspire to. I think it has an orange
bed in it, more than the ear can hold.
— Frank O’Hara, “Radio”
Today is the birthday of the great painter Willem de Kooning, who was born on April 24, 1904. I thought I would take this occasion to link to a piece of mine about the deep ties between Frank O’Hara and de Kooning, which appeared last year in the British journal Decals of Desire (and which I guess I forgot to post about at the time here).
In the piece, I write that although O’Hara revered both de Kooning and Jackson Pollock,
“he loved de Kooning. He never enjoyed a close personal relationship with Pollock, who was frequently cruel and abusive to those around him and prone to homophobic outbursts and slurs. In his biography of O’Hara, Brad Gooch notes of Pollock that “on at least one occasion he called O’Hara a ‘fag’ to his face and was enough of a menace that O’Hara fled the Cedar one night when he heard that Pollock was on a drunken rampage.” In contrast, de Kooning was unfailingly generous and supportive of O’Hara and his friends, who in turn idolized him and his work above all others. In a memoir, O’Hara recalled that “when Larry [Rivers] introduced me to de Kooning I nearly got sick.” He and his friends may have seen de Kooning as a god, but, to their delight and surprise, he was a deity who deigned to come down and chat and get drunk with mere mortals like themselves. The young poets adored de Kooning’s charismatic personality, his clever wit, and his tendency (as a native speaker of Dutch rather than English) to spout wonderful off-kilter phrases and oddly poetic insights, which they would sometimes stitch into their own work.
And the feeling was mutual: de Kooning developed a strong connection with O’Hara in particular that persisted until O’Hara’s tragic death at the age of 40 in 1966. The painter respected O’Hara deeply, despite the difference in their age. “I liked him immediately,” de Kooning would later recall. “He was so bright. Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze. It was his manner and his way. There was a good-omen feeling about him.” De Kooning was also not shy about showing his affection for O’Hara: as Gooch notes, “evidently free of Pollock’s homophobia, de Kooning often greeted O’Hara at the Cedar with a big juicy kiss.”
In addition to tracing their friendship, which was marked by affection and deep admiration for one another’s work, I also argue that “De Kooning was more than merely an artist O’Hara admired. The painter’s work – especially its fresh, intoxicating mix of abstraction and figuration – also kindled O’Hara’s imagination and influenced his poetry in tangible and abundant ways.” This can be seen in many places in his poetry, including the poem “Radio,” which I quoted above and his expansive “Ode to Willem de Kooning.”
I argue that this ode suggests “the special place the painter held in O’Hara’s own personal pantheon: not only as one of this painting-obsessed poet’s very favorite artists, but also as the epitome of the artistic ambition and fierce independence that he cherishes and wishes to emulate in his own work. Indeed, the ode’s rousing conclusion sounds precisely these notes, as it praises the painter’s ‘imperishable courage and the gentle will / which is the individual dawn of genius rising from its bed.’ For O’Hara, de Kooning represented the kind of quintessential artist figure he aspired to be himself – forging unforeseen paths, opening up new possibilities, and ‘hewing a clearing / in the crowded abyss of the West.'”
You can read the rest of the piece here.