Inspiring


New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight,
edited by Jenni Quilter, with Bill Berkson, Larry Fagin and Allison Power
(320pp,
Rizzoli, New York)


A good deal has been written about the New York School in recent years probably more about the poets than the painters, as the poets have emerged from relative obscurity to international recognition. The importance of the the interaction between poets and painters as friends, admirers and collaborators has always been an essential part of the story, but on occasion it's mentioned only in passing, if at all, as if once mentioned nothing much more need be said.

Also, what's been difficult to see a lot of the time has been some of the work itself. I don't mean the obvious, well-known works, such as the major paintings by the likes of Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers et al, or the poems of Ashbery, O'Hara, Koch and  Schuyler from the "first generation" of poets. Instead, what's been less easy to find and consequently largely overlooked are the works that came about through collaboration between poets and painters. We know these guys used to hang out at the San Remo and the Cedar Tavern, drinking and talking and sometimes squabbling; we know O'Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art and was for a lot of the time something like the "social secretary" around whom so much activity revolved; we know painters painted poets and poets collaborated with painters, and that the poets have written art criticism; and we know (more or less) their various sleeping arrangements. But a detailed history of this social grouping and the collaborative works that came out of those intense and intimate relationships has not been so easy to see. Back in the 1950s and 60s and into the 1970s a lot of the art that came out of the social milieu that was "the New York School" enjoyed only a very limited audience indeed, some of that stuff was the result of friends making things (poems, plays, visual art) with and for friends, with little or no concern for a wider audience. I'm thinking of the little magazines, but in particular the painter and poet collaborations; the little magazines were often produced with an excitement and a sense of being part of a tight-knit social group, an excitement that seems to have pretty much disappeared from Poetry World these days, in addition to which much of what was made whether a poet/painter collaboration or a play was largely experimental and often executed as much in the spirit of fun and play than high seriousness.

But with
New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight this vital social and collaborative aspect of the New York School is before us in an account supported by a huge range of primary materials. In short, the work is allowed to speak for itself, and not only through the more well-known and sometimes over-anthologized items. Here, in a lavish, even sumptuous big book that I, for one, have drooled over it measures 9½ inches x 12½ inches (I don't know what that is in centimeters), with thick glossy pages, and weighs the proverbial ton we have photographs of parties, readings, gatherings, and of poets and painters at work and play; there are first-hand accounts from the major players by way of essays and letters; there are marvellous reproductions of the key paintings and collaborative artworks; there are also samples of the covers of most of the important publications from the period, magazines and chapbooks, many of which I'm pretty sure are seeing the light of day for the first time in many years: poetry collections with covers by the artists, and little magazines where poets and painters rubbed shoulders. The focus is fixed absolutely on the collaborations and interactions between people, and it's fascinating. While some of the material here has been relatively easy to find before now, much of it has not, and it's great to see.

So primarily what you get for your money (and this book is not cheap -
40 on Amazon, I think) is a splendid collection of works, beautifully presented. It looks like the proverbial coffee table book, but it's much more than that. There are numerous full-page reproductions of paintings and artworks, and the volume is generous in its use of size and space: for example, John Ashbery, in the course of an essay on Jane Freilicher, discusses her "The Painting Table", and over the page the painting is reproduced on a double-page spread; Frank O'Hara's much-anthologized "Why I Am Not a Painter" sits alone on one page, with Mike Goldberg's "Sardines" taking up the opposite page; Grace Hartigan's "Oranges" are spread across four pages; the O'Hara and Rivers "Stones" series is reproduced in its entirety; and there are artist-designed covers of now legendary little magazines such as Folder, C and Big Sky.

The list goes on and on, and it's a veritable feast for the eyes as well as for the intellect, taking us from the post-war friendship and collaborations of poet and dance critic Edwin Denby and photographer Rudy Burckhardt, key figures both, through to the late 1970s so it deals with the first and second generation "New York School", the date parameters, as Jenni Quilter explains, being set by the reasoning that "the New York School was largely a social circle, it makes sense to trace the creation and dissipation of that historically specific circle in particular." The period covered means substantial space is spent looking at the work of artists some people may not be so familiar with, such as George Schneeman and Trevor Winkfield, and to poets like Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan and Ann Waldman, central figures in the artistic community centred around the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, founded in 1966. The work of Joe Brainard is a particular delight, and it's refreshing to have a book about the New York School that sees beyond the more famous poetry quartet of Ashbery, O'Hara, Koch and Schuyler:

Jenni Quilter's accompanying text is a mixture of solid factual information and thoughtful commentary, and it makes this much more than a mere collection of glossy reproductions. It's an account of a particular approach to the making of art, and of the exhilaration to be found in the creative process, an approach and a sensibility that is never less than inspiring. (Of course, some people think these poets and painters are rubbish,
but they're wrong.) If one were to point to a fault, it might be that the book is largely uncritical. The closest Quilter comes to acknowledging any weakness in the works is the admission that sometimes the playfulness resulted in art that was slight and a little silly. But since what is really happening here is that we are being given the work, and the work and its makers are being allowed to speak for themselves, that seems like a pretty minor quibble. And, of course, the understanding that the slight and the silly have a place in our lives and also in our art, and are too important to lose, is an aspect of the New York School sensibility that, if lost, the entire edifice may well collapse around our ears. But anyway, this book is more of a narrative and an exhibition than a critical treatise, and it's a good read.

Given that the emphasis is on the collaborative, it's not surprising this is a startlingly social book, and the social is very much the theme behind the show.  People are almost always with other people, enjoying each other's company and throwing ideas around and, more often than not, producing impromptu art because it's good to do. In Quilter's words, in the 1950s "These artists and poets were making their way in the New York art world, and somehow, making something a sociability, sensibility, whatever it was together." As Koch later recalled, "We inspired each other, we envied each other, we emulated each other.... we were almost entirely dependent on each other for support. Each had to be better than the others but if one flopped we all did." Their collective approach to making art is more than once described as reckless. Ashbery, in his essay "The Invisible  Avant-garde", says "Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful....."  The shared sensibility feeding the collaborative processes and the creative acts here rejects what we are usually told art is: the biggest artistic sin for these people was/is to be dull.
 
I don't think it's an overstatement to say that the art and poetry on show here pulsates with energy. One can sense the excitement as well as the understanding that not every bit of art that was made "worked", but that was fine, too. Somewhere in all this, Kenneth Koch says "all kinds of things can and must exist side by side at any given moment, and that is what life and creating are all about." Jenni Quilter points to "a shared sensibility that is resolutely ephemeral .... these objects were considered more creative by-product than principal event, a consequence of fun with friends." Taking chances with ideas to see what happens was part of the point, a point that informs the major works as well as the minor, and this volume sheds an exciting light on the more famous works. It also reminds us just how dull so much other poetry and art is. Did I already say it's inspiring? Oh yeah, I already said that.

      Martin Stannard, 2015