David Lehman

David Lehman: On "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art"

It is a paradox worth savoring that the painters closest in mood and temperament to the New York poets were not the makers of the abstract revolution but such "second generation" figures as Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, and Fairheld Porter, not one of them an abstract artist. To understand how the New York School of poets assimilated the influence of their painterly namesakes, we might linger for a moment over the differing ways in which a Rivers or a Porter responded to the avant-garde imperatives of the day. The example of Rivers was particularly crucial for O'Hara and Koch. Porter's example had a corresponding importance for Schuyler and Ashbery.

Born Yitzroch Grossberg in the Bronx, Rivers was an uninhibited, grass-smoking, sex-obsessed jazz saxophonist in his early twenties when he took up painting in 1945. His Bonnard-inspired early works made Clement Greenberg sit up and take notice. Though he would later modify his praise and then with- draw it altogether, Greenberg declared in 1949 that Rivers was already "a better composer of pictures than was Bonnard himself in many instances"—and this on the basis of Rivers's first one- man show. Rivers—who can, as I write this, still be heard playing the saxophone at the Knickerbocker Bar in New York City some Sunday nights—always retained the improvisatory ideal of jazz. The make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is evident in even his most monumental constructions—such as The History of the Russian Revotution (1965) in Washington's Hirshhorn Museum— which have a fresh air of spontaneity about them, as if they had just been assembled a few minutes ago.

Rivers relied on "charcoal drawing and rag wiping" for the deliberately unfinished look of his pictures. Also distinctive was his prankish sense of humor. In 1964 he painted a spoof of Jacques-Louis David's famous Napoleon in His Study (1812), the portrait of the emperor in the classic hand-in-jacket pose. Rivers's version, full of smudges and erasures, manages to be iconoclastic and idolatrous at once. The finishing touch is the painting's title: Rivers called it The Greatest Homosexual. A visitor to Rivers's Fourteenth Street studio in 1994, seeing a picture on the wall with the Napoleon motif in it, asked him why he had given the original painting its unusual title. "In those days I was carrying on with people in the gay bathhouse world," Rivers said. "Napoleon's pose was like, 'Get her!' Also, it was a kind of joke, since the art world at the time was primarily homosexual. And I had just read that Napoleon was a little peculiar. In St. Helena he used to be surrounded by an entourage of officers and he would take a bath in front of them, nude."

There is a strand of Rivers's work that can only be understood if you take into account the homosexual aestheticism that he found embodied in the poems and person of O'Hara. In the early 1950s, "queerdom was a country in which there was more fun," Rivers has said. "There was something about homosexuality that seemed too much, too gorgeous, too ripe. I later came to realize that there was something marvelous about it because it seemed to be pushing everything to its fullest point."

If one condition of avant-garde art is that it is ahead of its time, and another is that it proceeds from a maverick impulse and a contrary disposition, Rivers's vanguard status was assured from the moment when, in open apostasy, he audaciously made representational paintings. glorifying nostalgia and sentiment, while undercutting them with metropolitan irony. His paintings of brand labels, found objects, and pop icons—Camel cigarettes, Dutch Masters cigars, the menu at the Cedar Tavern in 1959,a French hundred-franc note—preceded Pop Art but eluded the limitations of that movement. And his pastiches of famous paintings of the past—such as his irreverent rendition of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953)—anticipated the breezy ironies of postmodernism without forfeiting the painterly touches of Abstract Expressionism. The painting, Rivers told O’Hara, "was just a way for me to stick my thumb out at other people. I suddenly carved a little corner for myself. Luckily for me I didn’t give a crap about what was going on at the time in New York painting. In fact, I was energetic and egomaniacal and, what is even more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something that no one in the New York art world could doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd. So, what could be dopier than a painting dedicated to a national cliché?"

Rivers denied that his Washington Crossing the Delaware was specifically a parody of Emmanuel Leutze’s painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He maintained that his true inspiration derived from the patriotic grade school plays he had acted in or watched as a boy. This explanation made the picture no less heretical in an art world that had given up on representation and was bound to consider a patriotic theme as either hopelessly corny or retrograde. But for Rivers’s poet friends, the painting- -which the Museum of Modern Art purchased in 1955—was an electric charge. Kenneth Koch wrote a play, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, in which the father of our country is glorified with ironic hyperbole. And Frank O'Hara. in his poem "On Seeing Larry Rivers.s Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art," used the opportunity to state a "revolutionary" credo:

To be more revolutionary than a nun  is our desire, to be secular and intimate  as, when sighting a redcoat, you smile  and pull the trigger.

It is conceivable that the "redcoat" O'Hara envisioned here coat of red paint. The gun in Rivers's hands, or in his own, the promise of freedom from dogma or domination:

Don't shoot until, the white of freedom glinting  on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.

 

from The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Copyright © 1998 by Doubleday, Inc.

David Lehman: On "They Dream Only of America"

… Shoptaw’s allegorical interpretation of "They Dream Only of America" is a bit like the symbol-hunting of the New Criticism at its most exasperating. It is not that the interpretation is wrong: it is that the poem gives rise to any number of competing narratives, which the reader may be prompted to provide. The poem can be read less tendentiously and less fancifully as an allegory about growing up; as in a particularly eerie kind of fairy tale, there is an emphasis on clues and signs, only here the horror of imprisonment is matched by that of the promised liberation. But I prefer to read the poem as precisely a truncated narrative lacking a key, a dream that haunts the waking person because it exists only in fragments whose relation to one another remains mysterious. The strangeness of the adverb in the line,

"please," he asked willingly,

is not easily explained and that is one of its virtues. And if one notices that

"This honey is delicious

Though it burns the throat"

is metaphorically a taste of brandy, and if one learns that this was something Martory said in all innocence at breakfast one morning, one still has not explained the effect of trembling significance these lines achieve.

From David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 157-158.

David Lehman on: "They Only Dream of America

… Shoptaw’s allegorical interpretation of "They Dream Only of America" is a bit like the symbol-hunting of the New Criticism at its most exasperating. It is not that the interpretation is wrong: it is that the poem gives rise to any number of competing narratives, which the reader may be prompted to provide. The poem can be read less tendentiously and less fancifully as an allegory about growing up; as in a particularly eerie kind of fairy tale, there is an emphasis on clues and signs, only here the horror of imprisonment is matched by that of the promised liberation. But I prefer to read the poem as precisely a truncated narrative lacking a key, a dream that haunts the waking person because it exists only in fragments whose relation to one another remains mysterious. The strangeness of the adverb in the line,

"please," he asked willingly,

is not easily explained and that is one of its virtues. And if one notices that

"This honey is delicious Though it burns the throat"

is metaphorically a taste of brandy, and if one learns that this was something Martory said in all innocence at breakfast one morning, one still has not explained the effect of trembling significance these lines achieve.

From David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 157-158.

David Lehman on "Why I Am Not a Painter"

"Why I Am Not a Painter" made poetry seem as natural as breathing, as casual as the American idiom, and so imbued with metropolitan irony and bohemian glamour as to be irresistible. As a freshman in college I hadn't yet developed the critical vocabulary to describe the effects of O'Hara's line breaks, but it was impossible to miss the surprises enacted in the space between lines: "how terrible orange is / and life. "

Only after many rereadings did I understand that the poem proposes, in its off-the-cuff way, a serious parable about the relations between poetry and painting. "Why I Am Not a Painter" begins by communicating the painter-envy to which poets in New York were susceptible during the reign of Abstract Expressionism: "I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not." In a turnaround characteristic of O'Hara's poetry, however, wry resignation is transformed into nervy self-celebration. The seemingly inconsequential anecdote in the poem is actually a restatement of another, more celebrated anecdote illustrating that the medium is the difference between the painter and the poet. A century ago in Paris, the painter Degas had lamented that his poems weren't any good though his ideas were wonderful, and the poet Mallarme responded, "But my dear Degas, poems are made of words, not ideas." The parable of Sardines and "Oranges" makes this point deftly but insistently. The rhetorical figure of the chiasmus—a crossing over, as in the shape of the X—is enacted in the inversions of the poet (who begins with a color and ends in "pages of words, not lines ") and the painter (who begins with a word and ends with an abstract painting in which random letters remain as a purely visual element without verbal signification). The original inspiration for the painting ultimately called Sardines is preserved only in the title of Mike Goldberg's work, because paintings are made of paint, not words, and the process of painting may erase any of the artist's preconceptions. And since poems are made of words, not ideas or colors, the orange that incited O'Hara exists only as the title of his work. The symmetry is complete. "It is even in prose, I am a real poet," O'Hara wrote in his patented tone of jubilant wonderment, and in the reader's mind the French tradition of the prose poem—from Baudelaire's Spleen de Paris and Rimbaud's Illuminations to Max Jacob's Le Cornet a des and Henri Michaux's Plume—established itself as a form invested in modernity. For Barbara Guest, "Why I Am Not a Painter" was also an exact statement of an Abstract Expressionist principle. "'Why I Am Not a Painter' is about the importance of not having a subject. The subject doesn't matter. That's straight out of Abstract Expressionism."

With its use of the present tense and its offhanded delivery, "Why I Am Not a Painter" seems, at first glance, to tell a "true" story. One thinks, reading it, that O'Hara wrote a prose poem called "Oranges" at the same time that Goldberg painted Sardines, and that the conjunction is an accident. It turns out, however, that "Oranges" was written in 1949, when O'Hara was still a Harvard undergraduate, many years before he met Goldberg. And this is another lesson that "Why I Am Not a Painter" teaches: What looks spontaneous may really be the product of a calculation, a fabrication, in the same way that Franz Kline's calligraphic black-and-white compositions, which seem like homages to an improvisatory ideal, were preceded by careful studies and sketches. Like a crime, true innovation in art requires premeditation, means, motive, and opportunity.

"Why I Am Not a Painter," so full of reversals and sly surprises, was, I came to see, a characteristic example of the New York School's aesthetic of irony. Irony was either "the citadel of intelligence," as Ezra Pound called it, or "the test of a first-rate mind," as Scott Fitzgerald maintained: the mind's ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time and continue to function. In any case, it was the supreme expression of modernity, the trope of ambivalence and hedged bets. It involved a reflexive uncertainty, as in the poignant conclusion of Ashbery's "Decoy":

There was never any excuse for this and perhaps there need      be none,  For kicking out into the morning, on the wide bed,  Waking far apart on the bed, the two of them:  Husband and wife  Man and wife

Deadpan wit was required. Irony could take a self-lacerating form, as when O'Hara announces that he is "waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern." Irony also meant arched eyebrows, an effect that the poets obtained by the strategic use of quotation marks. Thus Schuyler delights in "the tonic resonance of / pill when used as in / ‘she is a pill’" and O'Hara confides that "sometimes I think I'm ‘in love’ with painting." The quotation marks allow the speaker to use the language without necessarily subscribing to it. It was one way of redeeming the idioms of the day and achieving what Ashbery in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" calls "pure / Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything."