John Ashbery

3’x4.5’ mixed media drawing, with one lifesaver.                 


Ambulances scoop up the quick and hie them to hospitals. “It’s all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing standing alone. What happened to creative education?” sighed Aglavaine. Then to her sibysitte: “if this achievement is only to end up less boring than the others what’s keeping us here? Why not leave at once? I have to stay here while they sit in there; Laugh, drink, have fun time. In my day one lay under the tough green leaves, pretending not to notice how they bled into the sky’s aqua, the watered-away no-color of regions supposed not to concern us. And we go to.....


In the mid 1970s, John Ashbery invited me to his New York apartment on a Sunday evening.
James Merrill had given me an introduction. We cleared space at the dining room table littered with the remains of a large dinner party, a platter of chicken bones, empty and half full glasses, plates, he had enough room to choose a piece of paper to write out his poem...oddly enough, a poem about a party, from Daffy Duck in Hollywood.

He wrote down the centre of the sheet, covered the whole paper, leaving little room for me to draw. I lived with his words for several months; until I realized I could add more paper, create “flanges” to the sheet he wrote on. As his fragment seemed like a collage, a collection of disparate elements, clips of conversation, observations, I drew random things, whatever came to mind in the moment. I even included a candy lifesaver. To the left of his words, I water-coloured a hexagram from the I-Ching. I let my pen squirrel around creating a huge tangle of lines. His words, and my drawing, felt like a stream of consciousness.

In Ashbery’s poetry, I feel a strong intension at work, even if I don’t know what it is. I had not appreciated his deep commitment to painting until reading his art reviews written early in his life. They reveal a deep understanding of principles and process. I wouldn’t turn to his poetry to read at an occasion, as many people did 100 years ago when deaths, births, celebrations were remarked by reading poems. But if art is a combination of a hand, a head and a heart (the head equals the intellect, the hand equals technical dexterity, and the heart stands for the spiritual, feeling element) then Ashbery is a master balancing all three. Rembrandt’s last paintings, especially the Man in the Golden Helmut is a perfect example of the three elements balanced together. Ashbery’s poems exist in the same sphere.


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