In John Ashbery’s art criticism the revelations arrive casually, offhandedly, as if unannounced. Reading these prose pieces, which Ashbery has written with more or less frequency for some fifty years, we are in the presence of a man who is avid but easygoing, a man for whom an interest in painting and sculpture is part of the natural order of things, as pleasingly necessary as friendship, travel, good food and drink. Like lively conversation, Ashbery’s prose has a way of shifting gears as it moves forward, embracing poetic flights, theoretical speculations, personal anecdotes, and straightforward reportage. The writing is no more one thing than the experience of art is one thing, so that the changeable rhythms of the sentences and the paragraphs begin to suggest an aesthetic viewpoint, a literary analogy to one of Ashbery’s off-the-cuff definitions of art, which is, so he says, “hybrid, transitional, impure, and magically alive.”
Writing about art for all sorts of venues—newspapers, art magazines, general circulation magazines, exhibition catalogs—Ashbery comes across as a man who is effortlessly urbane, who is completely at home in the cultural maelstrom. When I read his criticism I know that he is absolutely alive to art’s immediate pleasures. I can also see that he is immersed in all the second thoughts, paradoxes, ironies, and assorted complications that quite naturally occur to a person who has read everything, seen everything, heard every view expressed. In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the famous poem precipitated by a painting by Parmigianino, Ashbery refers to New York as “a logarithm / Of other cities,” and his art criticism might be said to be, if not a logarithm of other art criticisms, then a sketch for a logarithm of other art criticisms, absorbing elements of social commentary, aesthetic reflection, biographical portraiture, and lyric effusion from any number of writers, not only writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but of far earlier times as well. It was of course Horace, in the Ars Poetica, who made what remains the most famous of all statements about the relationship between poets and painters. “Ut pictura poesis,” he wrote, which means “as is painting so is poetry,” although over time the remark has come to refer to the relationship between the two arts in general rather than to any particular causal relationship, and in fact Renaissance and baroque thinkers tended to translate the phrase “as is poetry so is painting,” a very different thing. Ut pictura poesis,” he wrote, which means “as is painting so is poetry,” although over time the remark has come to refer to the relationship between the two arts in general rather than to any particular causal relationship, and in fact Renaissance and baroque thinkers tended to translate the phrase “as is poetry so is painting,” a very different thing.
Ashbery has always hesitated to present a coherent artistic credo, and his hesitations might be said to be a part of his credo, perhaps its very essence. In the poem “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name,” he discusses the variegated ingredients that might go into what he calls a “poem painting,” and they include flowers, “particularly delphinium,” “names of boys you once knew and their sleds,” “skyrockets,” but also “a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed, / Dull-sounding ones.” What you find in Ashbery’s writing is a very personal view of “ut pictura poesis,” a view that while never denying the particular powers of the literary and visual arts tends to see those powers as fluid, as changeable, as infinitely paradoxical. Ashbery’s view of these matters has much to do with the great variety of art in which he took an interest in the 1950s and 1960s, a variety that included the surrealism and Dadaism of a previous generation, the abstract expressionism of the older artists whom he knew, and the painterly realism to which some of his closest painter friends were drawn. While Ashbery believes in the traditional powers of words and images, he does not believe in the immutability of their functions. A phrase or a sentence in a poem can convey narrative information, or it can be experienced less literally, for its quotidian charm or its musical sound. By the same token, a shape in a painting can represent an object in the known world, but it doesn’t have to. What Ashbery is saying—to echo Horace’s equation—is that “Just as in a painting, line, shape, and color can function in many different ways, so the same is true of words, phrases, and sentences, whether in poetry or in prose.”
For much of his life, Ashbery has written art criticism to make a living, and even the most casual reader can see that he has often written to the formats and lengths dictated by particular publications. Read end to end, the work that was collected in 1989 in Reported Sightings can make a bit of a crazy-quilt impression, because the pieces are so varied as to their forms, their approaches, their ambitions. But in a strange way the overwhelming variety of the writing gathered in Reported Sightings, as well as the pieces in a more recent collection, the 2004 Selected Prose, becomes yet another confirmation of Ashbery’s underlying aesthetic.
For the Paris Herald Tribune, where he worked in the early 1960s, Ashbery could be self-consciously newsy, reporting not only on the exhibition but on its social or cultural significance. Introducing a Toulouse-Lautrec show, he remarks, “The crowd waiting in the rain outside the Petit Palais museum in Paris rivaled the one queueing up for the latest Alain Delon movie on the Champs-Élysées.” Now the remarkable thing about a sentence such as this, and there are many in Ashbery’s criticism, is that even as it presents a traditional journalistic trope, the juxtaposition of two distinct but simultaneous phenomena, the writing has a speed, a wit, and an echoing power that are entirely Ashbery’s own. The Petit Palais, the movie theater on the Champs-Élysées, the long lines of people, the dark-haired movie star, and the dwarfish fin de siècle painter somehow come together to create a little portrait of Paris in 1964—and the portrait has a staying power. Nor is this the end of the surprises in this brief review, because almost immediately Ashbery is explaining that “I suppose I should be disqualified from writing about [Toulouse-Lautrec], since I am one of a very small minority who do not fully appreciate Lautrec’s work.” To put it plainly, this is not standard newspaper reportage, and yet Ashbery manages to pack in all the necessary details of the artist’s life, with the initial negative giving a personal impact to what is to some degree boilerplate stuff.
Over and over in Ashbery’s criticism, you find him inhabiting a conventional journalistic form and making it his own. It is not enough to say that this is the measure of his independence as a writer, when we consider how frequently it is the true artists who have the hardest time writing to somebody else’s specifications. A prose style can lose its charm when it is squeezed into a preordained format. I don’t know that it is possible to provide an entirely convincing explanation for Ashbery’s success, but it may be that this poet who so enjoys slang expressions and conversational turns of phrase embraced the brief newspaper or magazine article as a popular form that he could make his own, much as a poet might make the sonnet form his own. That Ashbery could bring a personal inflection, and even some of the power of a short story, to the profiles of artists that he wrote for ARTnews is not especially surprising, as the very style of those stories was to some extent shaped by writers who were either themselves poets or who were very much attuned to the work of their poet friends (Ashbery was for a time an editor at ARTnews). But even James Schuyler, who wrote some striking profiles for ARTnews, rarely achieved the headlong ease that you find in Ashbery’s work, such as an account of a visit to the studio of the painter Jean Hélion in Paris. Here the arrival at the penthouse apartment becomes like the unwrapping of a surprise, with the “somewhat rusty elevator,” the “blue wooden steps,” and “a mechanism that pops the door open in front of you,” all leading to our first look at the artist, “invariably at work behind the enormous studio window,” and the superb view, a “welter of curving metal roofs, skylights, and walls of that sandy-colored stone used in France in places where it is not supposed to be seen.”
Even in his later work as a professional critic, when Ashbery was writing to the more rigorously structured formats of New York and Newsweek, he knew how to use compressed, wisecracking language to pack the brief articles with meaning. With Ashbery you feel the individual personality filling out the form, giving it an elasticity, a poetry that is his alone. At New York magazine, he begins one column by declaring, “Ceramists are a strange lot.” He begins another by remarking, “Two trendier-than-thou exhibitions have just opened.” These lines are at once brief topic sentences in a traditional journalistic sense and conversational gambits animated by Ashbery’s off-kilter humor. Ashbery is one of those rare talents who can make journalistic prose permanently engaging, no matter what the subject happens to be, no matter how long ago the piece was written.
In recent years a good deal has been said about the connections between poets and painters in mid-twentieth-century New York, but however interesting the particulars of those friendships and alliances and crisscrossing inspirations may indeed be, it is also good to remember that ever since the Renaissance, poets and painters have been taking an interest in one another’s work. The poets and painters of the 1950s and 1960s did not have some particularly privileged grasp of the relationship between poetry and painting, and indeed it might be argued that the relationship had been far more fertile in Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Perhaps, more than anything else, it is a testament to Ashbery’s essentially traditional orientation as an artist that he has taken such a strong, consistent interest in the visual arts—the strongest, the most consistent of any poet of his generation. There is something almost old-fashioned about a poet’s writing art criticism, collaborating on luxurious illustrated volumes with artists whom he knows, and finding that he is so provoked by certain pictures that they become the subjects of two major poems, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and Girls on the Run, the book-length salute to the outsider artist Henry Darger.
What does seem worth noting in Ashbery’s view of the relationship between the visual and verbal arts is that this relationship is less one of borrowings and echoings than of a constant breaking down and reconstructing of the possibilities of both painting and poetry. The result is a sense of freedom within tradition that is shared by the arts, as if the very idea of freedom within tradition were to be passed back and forth, with developments in one medium reinforcing developments in the other. In 1961 a number of portfolios were published in New York that brought together work by some of the most promising younger poets and painters, and Ashbery collaborated with Joan Mitchell on what was called The Poems. Fairfield Porter, a painter who was a good friend of Ashbery’s and who wrote fine criticism and also some skillful poems, reviewed these collaborations in ARTnews in such a way as to draw together Ashbery’s and Mitchell’s work. “Ashbery’s language is opaque,” Porter writes, “you cannot see through it any more than you can look through a fresco. And as the most interesting thing about abstract painting is its subject matter, so one is held by the sibylline clarity of Ashbery’s simple sentences, in which words have more objective reality than reality of meaning. One is back in first grade, about to learn to read.” The meanings in Porter’s criticism are not always easy to parse, but what I think he is suggesting here is that there is a strong connection between the “sibylline clarity” and “objective reality” of Ashbery’s poetry and the power that Joan Mitchell packs into her strokes of paint, and indeed the work of both poet and painter has an effect that is so primary it pushes us back to the beginning of learning, before we accept the fixed meanings of words or images.
A few years later, when Ashbery wrote about Mitchell in ARTnews, he touched on some of the same issues. He observed, “The relation of her painting and that of other abstract expressionists to nature has never really been clarified. On the one hand there are painters who threaten you if you dare to let their abstract landscapes suggest a landscape. On the other hand there are painters like Joan Mitchell who are indifferent to these deductions when they are not actively encouraging them.” After considering various aspects of this relationship, he notes, “The answer seems to be that one’s feelings about nature are at different removes from it. There will be elements of things seen even in the most abstracted impression; otherwise the feeling is likely to disappear and leave an object in its place. At other times feelings remain close to the subject, which is nothing against them; in fact, feelings that leave the subject intact may be freer to develop.” What Ashbery is saying, so I believe, is that a group of brushstrokes can provoke a color sensation, or they can suggest the movements of nature, or they can suggest flowers, a field, a river—and the brushstrokes can suggest all of this, simultaneously or sequentially. I think it is possible to argue that even as Ashbery is writing about Mitchell’s work he is writing about his own work, for the way in which phrases or even lines function in Ashbery’s poetry is not entirely different. Sometimes the phrases and lines mainly hold us with their freestanding power, as fractured elements of things seen or heard, as abstracted impressions. At other times, however, Ashbery’s words and phrases and lines assemble into what might be called a more naturalistic order, something approaching a narrative, what might be thought of as a more intact subject.
It is difficult to think of another writer on art who has so few preconceptions as to how artists make meaning, make emotion. Ashbery has a gift for teasing out the implications of forms, as when he writes about some lithographs that de Kooning made after visiting Japan. The prints, Ashbery writes, “suggest a parody of the parody of nature that sumi drawings, in a sense, already are.” This is a terrific way of describing the wit, even the irony, that sometimes animates de Kooning’s painterly calligraphy. Ashbery is making a metaphoric leap, on the basis of a close look at the work and a bit of biographical information, namely the fact that while visiting Japan, de Kooning had looked very closely at Japanese art. Writing about Brice Marden’s painting in 1972, near the beginning of the artist’s career, Ashbery again finds a way to expand the implications of the work. He observes of Marden that “rather than reducing the complexities of art to zero, he is performing the infinitely more valuable and interesting operation of showing the complexities hidden in what was thought to be elemental.” Marden’s art, Ashbery argues, “is not negative minimal but positive phenomenal.” There is something ceaselessly, delicately dialectical in Ashbery’s approach to art, a testing of what is immediately apparent in relation to what one might think about what is there, with the actuality and the possibility leading to a synthesis that is not an impressionistic or theoretical riff so much as it is a lively response to the world that the artist has created.
If Ashbery looks for the literature in abstraction, you might say that he operates in the reverse direction when confronted with art that many people would describe as literary. Writing about R. B. Kitaj, the American painter whose themes range from the life of Walter Benjamin to the baseball games of Kitaj’s youth, Ashbery insists on the underlying importance of the abstract expressionist “all-over picture in which no element matters more than another.” The heritage of abstract art helps Kitaj “to come to certain conclusions about the surface of a picture,” “to develop a surface that is different every time,” so that the flood of Kitaj’s literary allusions turns out to be powered by the antinaturalistic character, indeed the abstract character, of his space. Ashbery finds a related complexity in a series of paintings by Jess, the works known as “Translations,” in which found subjects, perhaps an old photograph or engraving fraught with elaborate or arcane literary allusions, are radically transformed through Jess’s use of high-keyed colors and curiously impastoed surfaces. Writing about Jess, Ashbery observes, “Against Verlaine’s artificial distinction between musique and littérature one may place Jess’s synthesizing approach which sees no reason to give up either.” Jess and Kitaj are artists who might be said to wear all the conflicts and excitements of “ut pictura poesis” on their sleeves; this is, in some sense, the very subject of their work. But as Ashbery points out in writing about Jess, viewers are not invited to draw any conclusion they like. This is an extremely important point. A work by Jess, Ashbery writes, “is not whatever the viewer wishes to make of it, but what he has to make of it once he has consented to play the game. Jess, unlike so many contemporary artists who would elicit the spectator’s participation, compels it.” Our responses, although free and sometimes quite unexpected, perhaps even by the artist, are shaped by what the artist has made. And here we discover, so I believe, the classical discipline behind Ashbery’s romantic abandon.
The more I read of Ashbery’s criticism, the more I can see that what he responds to in a work of art is a certain flexibility of meaning and implication, as if classical order and romantic abandon were always playing hide-and-seek. When he writes about Louisa Matthiasdottir, a painter who was born in Iceland, lived most of her adult life in the United States, but continued to paint the cityscape and landscape of her youth, Ashbery discovers a considerable range of possibilities in the magnificently impassive surfaces of her work. He begins by observing that something in her landscapes and cityscapes—the color, the light, the character of the architecture—reminds him of Edvard Munch, another Scandinavian artist. Then, turning to Matthiasdottir’s Rejkjavik Bus Stop, with two figures standing on an empty street, he says that “everything prepares one for an epiphany such as the Munch painting [Girls on the Bridge] seems to convey, but on further examination it turns out that the subject is only two ladies waiting for a bus; in fact it is hardly even that but is closer to pure painting—one has a strong sense of the joy of covering a canvas with long sweeps of paint and simultaneously capturing the vagaries of particular light and space with generalized accuracy.” This apparently casual, meandering sentence sends us off in several different yet intertwined directions. We see the possibility of a metaphoric meaning, some idea of loneliness or isolation. But that thought gives way to the realization that this is simply, or not so simply, a scene of everyday life. Then Ashbery points out that what we have here is in fact an example of pure painting. But what is pure painting? Now perhaps this is the essential question, and immediately the purity is psychologized, because a sense of joy is conveyed by the process of covering the canvas with long sweeps of paint. And, finally, another element is introduced, the pure painting turns out to have a naturalistic dimension, because Matthiasdottir wants to catch a particular quality of light and space.
Ashbery always insists that we respond to art in many different ways, that art is pictura and poesis and philosophy as well, that we can discover the literary within the pictorial, the pictorial within the literary, and discover all of this to all sorts of varying degrees, in one part of a work of art, in a particular work of art at a particular time. The result is not anarchic, not in any way, but rather suggests that art is the disciplined exercise of a range of possibilities, with the work provoking branchings of thought and experience and feeling, all sorts of openings, analogies, echoings, doublings. Ashbery shows us that seeing, which provokes thinking, makes us see other things, which in turn enables us to think other things. This is an aesthetic that rejects fixed aesthetic distinctions, that is hybrid, impure, always evolving, for the artwork, as long as we are looking at it or thinking about it, is never fixed, is always becoming.