featuresPoetry For Art
Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Ron Padgett and Bertrand Dorny: What Happened to the Renaissance

POETRY FOR ART presents newly published poetry, or poetry posted to the web for the first time, that relates to visual art. Under the guidance of artcritical’s Poetry Editor Michael Heller, the series can take different forms.  It can include poetry that responds, like criticism, to work on view at the time of posting. Or, as is the case here, it can present in facsimile a limited edition “livre d’artiste”. Published in Paris in 2012,  What Happened to the Renaissance is a collaboration between artist Bertrand Dorny and poet Ron Padgett.  Scroll down to read Ron Padgett’s note, Working with Betrand Dorny.

title page to What Happened to the Renaissance.

Ron Padgett has collaborated wih Jim Dine, George Schneeman, Joe Brainard, Bertrand Dorny and Trevor Winkfield. With Dorny he has made 40 books. His How Long (Coffee House Press) was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Poetry, and his Collected Poems (Coffee House Press) received the 2014 L.A. Times Best Book of Poetry prize and the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Poetry Society of America. 2015 will see the publication of Padgett’s new collection, Alone and Not Alone (Coffee House Press), and his translation of Zone: Selected Poems of Guillaume Apollinaire (New York Review Books).

Bertrand Dorny was born in Paris in 1931. His curiosity as a painter led him to printmaking, which laid the groundwork for his future work. He was particularly attracted to humble materials: driftwood, cardboard, discarded pieces of paper, etc., with which he created collages, folded paper works, and large wooden assemblages. Dorny has created a great many handmade books with contemporary writers and poets, copies of which can be found in special collections in Europe and the U.S., such as the Bibliothèque national de France and the Beinecke Library at Yale. His recent solo exhibitions have taken place at the Centre Pompidou, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the Bibliotheca Wittockiana in Brussels.

Working with Bertrand Dorny
by Ron Padgett

My collaborations with Bertrand Dorny began in 1988 when we were brought together by Gervais Jassaud, the director of an artist’s book series called Collectif Génération. I had never heard of Dorny, and I was hesitant to work with an artist I didn’t know. The process turned out not to be very collaborative: I supplied a poem (“Aristotle’s Coffee Shop”) and Bertrand created some color bands around the words. He liked the poem and I liked the color bands. Not long afterward, when he visisted New York, we arranged to meet for lunch at the acual Aristotle’s Coffee Shop, then on Park Avenue South. We hit it off immediately, and Bertrand proposed that we do more books together.

Since then we have done around 40 of them, all hand-made by Bertrand in limited editions (two to nine copies) in his atelier in Paris. In most cases he does the art part first—collage, string, glitter, spray paint, cutouts—leaving spaces for my writing. He mails one copy to me in New York or Vermont, where I ponder and ponder. Bertrand’s work is so attractive that I often hesitate to sully it with words. In our earlier works I would mail him a text, written on a temporary overlay to use as a guide for hand-setting the type, using a rubber stamp kit he calls his “petite imprimerie.” In more recent years he has asked me to add the words myself, by hand.

When I’m in Paris, the process is different. He and I go upstairs from his apartment to his atelier in the building’s attic. The whole place is redolent with history: Bertrand was born (in 1931) in the apartment he lives in, the poet Théodore de Banville (1823?1891) died in the building, the French Revolution was hatched around the corner at the Café Procope, and from one window in the atelier you can see the Eiffel Tower and from another the spires of Notre Dame. The atelier itself is compact but efficient. In it Bertrand stores his many prints—until not long ago it housed his engraving press as well—and the hand-made books he has made with a number of writers, among them some of the greatest living French poets, such as Michel Butor, Michel Deguy, and Bernard Noël, as well as a few anglophones such as Kenneth Koch and me. The focus of the atelier is Bertrand’s work table, across which are strewn cutout bits of colorful paper, strips of stick-ons, advertizing postcards, pens, pencils, erasers, a box cutter, string, thread, scissors, a hole cutter, a metal ruler, and, somewhere among them, a telephone. It is at this table that he cuts down a sheet of heavy paper (such as Arches or Rives BFK) and folds it into the accordion that forms the basis of the book we are about to make. He hands it to me and asks, “Ça va?” Then he cuts some additional ones and we’re off. He adds art to his copy, I add words to mine. Then we switch copies and keep working. Sometimes one of us will pause and ask, “Is it OK if I do this?” It almost always is. This back-and-forth continues until we feel we’ve finished. The process is highly spontaneous, for even if I begin with an idea I’ve come up with previously, it always swerves into something else, affected either by Bertrand’s art or by the open energy of working with him. Sometimes when he has glued down a particularly fortuitous piece of paper or added a fetching loop of string, I hear him say quietly to himself, “Ah, que c’est joli!” And when I pause to take a look at the atelier itself, with the light coming in from both sides, I think to myself, “Ah, que c’est joli!” There is no denying the charm of working with my friend, a real French artist in his garret atelier in the middle of Paris.