“I was never interested in doing art criticism at all—I'm not sure that I am even now,” the poet John Ashbery said in a 1983 Paris Review interview. He had written his first exhibition review, for ARTnews, in 1957for $5. It was a step that would later lead to his own tenure as executive editor of that magazine, a book of 30 years of art criticism, and an art collection of his own. The work of artists such as Jane Freilicher and Joan Mitchell, who were among his close friends, began to not only illustrate his volumes of poetry but also to steadily fill the walls, shelves, and tabletops of the Hudson, New York, home he purchased in the 1970s. They now make up a wide, unruly array of art that also includes the work of Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers. Selections appear in the new exhibition “John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things” at Loretta Howard Gallery, on view through November 2.
The exhibition opens with an archway through which we see Fairfield Porter’s 1957 portrait of a pensive Ashbery, just a year after the publication of his groundbreaking Some Trees. Just beyond the floral “wallpaper” is an except from “Pyrography” a poem he would publish 20 years later in Houseboat Days:
The climate was still floral and all the wallpaper
In a million homes all over the land conspired to hide it.
One day we thought of painted furniture, of how
It just slightly changes everything in the room…
It’s a prescient introduction to an exhibition not only devoted to Ashbery’s collection, but the subtle ways his art—and the way it has been lived with—reveal the consciousness that created these poems.
The Hudson House, as curator Adam Fitzgerald describes in the exhibition essay, “has blossomed into a immersive, living collage, one capable at such a scale of synthesizing the poet’s inimitable handiwork as antiquarian, collagist, art critic and lifelong poet.” Co-curated by Fitzgerald and Emily Skillings, both poets, the show presents paintings, drawings, and collages hung in imitation of the environment at Ashbery’s own home, complete with katchkes, coffee tables, lamps, velveteen chairs, wall decorations suggesting abstracted ledges, and fireplaces—even a two-dimensional piano drawn onto the wall, stacked with real sheet music.
The collection itself runs the gamut from small, whimsical collages by Joseph Cornell to charged, charcoal “Woman” drawings by Willem de Kooning, to 19th century Japanese woodblock prints of charming geishas. More domestic, intimate objects punctuate the show, as well as excerpts from Ashbery’s poems. In the back gallery, a glass-top table has been underlain with kitschy birthday cards, Japanese postcards, a flier of Sylvester the Cat speaking French; in another room, a strutting Daffy Duck plays on VHS. Next to a reprinting of an excerpt from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is, in fact, an antique convex mirror. It would seem literal, but for that one can read the poem while watching themself be warped by the mirror, as object inspires poem, and vice versa. The disparate elements of each room somehow overwhelm us into understanding the whole; in turn, one rediscovers the poems, small and deftly crafted environments themselves.
“I had no idea this was anything that would ever be shown as an exhibition, so I was a little doubtful as to the result,” Ashbery said of his collection at the opening of the exhibition. He was seeing the show for the first time. “I didn’t know that it would be very pleasant. It is.”
One tableau stands out: below a pair of Freilicher paintings, an embroidered blanket depicting a canoeing trip has been draped on a rust-colored velveteen chair. Stitched on the blanket it reads, “This is the life.”