Sunday, September 17th, 2017

“One Thing Follows Another”: John Ashbery, Art Critic

Larry RIvers, Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery, 1977
Larry RIvers, Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery, 1977

Everyone knows that the death this month of John Ashbery deprived us of a great poet. Fewer realize that we also lost an outstanding art critic. It’s understandable. Ashbery often made light of his violon d’Ingres, perhaps in order to ward off the cliché—true enough, as most clichés are—that the New York school into which he was (uncomfortably) pigeonholed consisted of poets involved with the art world. Or maybe he just recognized poetry as the higher calling. David Bergman, the editor of Ashbery’s 1989 volume of selected art writing, Reported Sightings, of course followed suit:

In 1960, when John Ashbery accepted a friend’s offer to replace her as art critic for the Paris Herald Tribune, he was merely seeking employment in a city where Americans found it both difficult and necessary to earn money in order to live. Little did he know that the job would lead “as one thing follows another” into a career in which for the next twenty-five years almost without interruption he worked as a “sort of art critic” for such different journals as ArtNews, Newsweek, and New York. (p.xi)

But Ashbery was well aware that such accidental happenings, one thing following another, as they always do, is as much as we have of what used to be called destiny. His art criticism was important in itself and for his poetry, however much he might have minimized it—“as though to protect what it advertises,” to quote his most famous poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”

The commonality between the two parts of Ashbery’s work is evident, first of all, in an inimitable tone, which one discerns as clearly in his critical prose as anywhere else in his oeuvre. This tone is the essence of his poetry, but also of his idea of art. Admittedly, it occurs more fitfully in the criticism than in the poetry, of which it is practically the whole substance. As a jobbing reviewer working to deadline, he could turn out considerable quantities of merely intelligent observations about whatever the subject of his assignment was, allowing (or forcing?) the poet to show his hand in just a stray sentence or two. But there are other pieces that clearly meant more to him, ones in which he was working out the aesthetic principles that would both carry through his poetry and inform his appreciation of painting, drawing, and sculpture.

It’s easy to see that Ashbery’s idea of art was indebted to Surrealism, and Bergman rightly began his selection (thematic rather than chronological) with a section on “Surrealism and Dada.” But Ashbery’s sense of Surrealism was his own, and not André Breton’s; maybe I’d better refer to it as small-s surrealism, not a proper name but a potential broadly distributed throughout the aesthetic field. For Ashbery, surrealism is basically the realization that art is at its best when it is “the product of the conscious and the unconscious working hand in hand.” (p.6) His writing accordingly cultivates a tone of unruffled common sense—and often the substance, rather than just the tone—as a way of staying open to the “irrational, oneiric basis” of it. (p.7)

It is this interpenetration of the banal and the enigmatic that accounts for Ashbery’s singular tone. An example: Of Joseph Cornell he writes, “But the galleries which showed him had a disconcerting way of closing or moving elsewhere, so that one could never be sure when there would be another Cornell show.” (p.14) The statement is ordinary and factual enough; and yet Ashbery sets off unexpected overtones. The simple fact that galleries are typically rather transient businesses somehow becomes an unexpected portal to the more significant mysteries of the ungraspable form that the representation of reality takes on when interpreted by way of an artist like Cornell (or a writer like Ashbery), so that “these eminently palpable bits of wood, cloth, glass and metal must vanish the next moment.” That vanishing points to the great metaphysical question: Does anything exist? Ashbery is sensitive to the way great art often seems to point to nonexistence as the hidden truth of existence.

But that idea, like all those that assert the most potent fascination over certain minds, loses its power when spelled out, as I’ve just so ham-fistedly done. Its force is in its intimation. Ashbery quotes de Chirico quoting Schopenhauer: “To have original, extraordinary, and perhaps even immortal ideas, one has but to isolate oneself from the world for a few moments so completely that the most commonplace happenings appear to be new and unfamiliar, and in this way reveal their true essence.” (p.126) Such isolation has nothing necessarily to do with social estrangement or any sort of definitive withdrawal from contact with others—though Ashbery does manifest sympathy with the lost and lonely ones of art (John F. Peto, Patrick Henry Bruce…)—but simply, as Schopenhauer says, a vital moment of distance from everyday life but within it.

John Ashbery, A Dream Of Heroes, 2015. Mixed Media Collage, 15-3/4 X 20-1/2 inches.
John Ashbery, A Dream Of Heroes, 2015. Mixed Media Collage, 15-3/4 X 20-1/2 inches.

This understanding of the essentially commonplace nature of the artistic effects that de Chirico called “metaphysical” allows Ashbery a rare vision of the essential unity of modern art—a unity that cuts across even the most heavily defended stylistic boundaries, including those between art and adjacent cultural fields: “Surrealism has become part of our daily lives,” he explains, and “its effects can be seen everywhere, in the work of artists and writers who have no connection with the movement, in movies, interior decoration and popular speech.” (p.4) No wonder that he finds it to be “the connecting link among any number of current styles thought to be mutually exclusive, such as Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and ‘color-field’ painting. The art world is so divided into factions that the irrational, oneiric basis shared by these arts is, though obvious, scarcely perceived…. It’s still what’s happening.” (pp.7-8)

Still today, blinkered art historians would enjoin us not to perceive this overlooked essence, depriving us of the “original, extraordinary, and perhaps even immortal” perceptions that seem to have come so easily to Ashbery. Sure, everyone acknowledges the roots of Abstract Expressionism in capital S-Surrealist ideas of automatic writing, and it only takes a little nudge to begin seeing the dreamlike qualities of the chromatic fluidity in the work of a color field painter such as Jules Olitski, but his assertion of a Surrealist basis for Minimalism is likely to raise some eyebrows. Surprisingly, Ashbery insists on an art history that is not cyclical or dialectical but linear—much more so than, say, Clement Greenberg’s. “The pendulum has not swung” from an ostensibly irrationalist Romanticism to a more objective and hard-headed art of the real, he insisted, and in fact “the history of art proceeds in orderly fashion, in a straight line.” (p.10) It’s a line that in Ashbery’s eyes passed through something as mundane (and as tangential to any mundane consensus about the mainstream of art history) as a still life by Jane Freilicher, yet Ashbery’s words also resonate with Donald Judd’s praise of Frank Stella’s paintings, in which “The order is not rationalistic and underlying but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another.” One thing following another is Ashbery’s sense of Surrealism and of history.

This sense of continuity is why Ashbery can discern a “metaphysical similarity” (p.17) between Joseph Cornell and Sol LeWitt. He could have quoted LeWitt’s statement that the conceptual artist is a mystic, not a rationalist, leaping to conclusions that logic can’t reach, but he didn’t need to, drawing instead on the experience of the art itself: “Cornell’s art assumes a romantic universe in which inexplicable events can and must occur. Minimal art, notwithstanding the cartesian disclaimers of some of the artists, draws its being from this charged, romantic atmosphere, which permits an anonymous slab or cube to force us to believe in it as something inevitable.” (pp.17-18)

It might be argued that—like Milton’s Satan who carried hell with him, saying, “myself am hell”—the charged atmosphere necessary to see Minimalism in this way is something that Ashbery brought with him, and that the inevitability of the Minimalist object was entirely historical and discursive. But I don’t think so. How could anything so flatly empirical have so quickly given rise, for instance, to Robert Smithson’s earthworks, “wherein the romantic artist’s traditional folie des grandeurs is carried to dizzying new heights.” (p.352) The folie is more affecting for the fact that it may indeed be nothing but folly. In praise of Carl Andre’s sculpture Ashbery cited “its implicit admission that all this may be a put-on, may not be worth your while. The poignancy of this situation heightens our response to a Newman, a Rothko, or an Andre.” (p.230)

Of course, Ashbery’s poetry was often suspected of being a put-on, or not worthwhile. It’s somehow telling that “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” first published in 1974, is a kind of experiment within his oeuvre, an attempt to write the sort of essaylike poem he would never otherwise write, and have it yet be entirely his own and not an imitation of someone else’s style. It succeeded in convincing some of the skeptics that Ashbery wasn’t a put-on. It’s interesting to realize that the poem had its origins in an assignment a decade earlier for the New York Herald Tribune (International Edition), a review of a show of Parmigianino’s and Correggio’s drawings at the Cabinet des Dessins of the Louvre. But an ear for words and phrases, rather than subjects, tells us that the poem’s roots are spread further out into his art criticism. Consider Parmigianino’s hand, “thrust at the viewer” in the poem’s second line, and then re-read the 1967 essay in which he rightly cites Robert Rauschenberg as among those whose art profitably derived from that of Joseph Cornell (and thereby, he says, passed the influence on to Judd, LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Ronald Bladen)—the lesson being “the same in each case: the object and its nimbus of sensations, wrapped in one package, thrust at the viewer, here, now, inescapable.” (p.17) That thrust—Ashbery’s, Parmigianino’s, Rauschenberg’s—remains inescapable. It’s still what’s happening.