John Ashbery: Recent Collages at Tibor de Nagy Gallery

John Ashbery, Promontory (2010), collage and digitalized print, 13″ x 7-3/4″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

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What I know about poetry I know from my poet friends, and what they say about the poet John Ashbery is never less than fond and often more than querulous. Ashbery, a self-described “harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of surrealism,” seems to share this equivocal response.

What I do know is that Ashbery defies the rules and logic of art criticism. Whether working as a critic for Newsweek or a more specialized forum like Partisan Review, Ashbery proved peculiarly simpatico to the travails and successes—the “inside business,” as it were—of the visual artist. Palling around with the painters Fairfield Porter and Leland Bell probably accounts for Ashbery’s sensitivity; so do four years of art lessons.

How much of a commendation can it be, then, to tout Ashbery’s collages, on display at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, as a dilettante’s gift? There’s no doubting Ashbery’s sophistication; his whimsical works on paper channel Max Ernst’s collage novels, Anne Ryan’s intimate accumulations of paper, string and fabric and Joseph Cornell’s unseemly lyricism.

John Ashbery, Egyptian Landscape (2009-2010), collage and digitalized print, 12-1/2″ x 9″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

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But his collages don’t have a serious (or ambitious) bone in their collective bits and pieces. Coasting on the goodwill of artistic precedent, Ashbery is constitutionally unassuming; the work is airy, all but disposable. Don’t count on anything as epochal as Ernst’s The Hundred Headless Women or as tender as Ryan’s plainspoken grit. And forget Cornell—nobody’s that good. What Ashbery offers is the pleasure taken in making pictures because, well, that’s what a body can do.

Reconfiguring vintage postcards, comic strips and magazines, Ashbery creates dioramas in which Icarus descends into Yellowstone Park, Bosch’s Tower of Babel is a boy’s pillow and Popeye the Sailor Man serves as leader of a cadre of pissing totems. Ashbery isn’t always so winning; the conglomerations of game boards and Life magazine covers are more akin to scrapbooking than an admirer would like to admit. But mostly the poet indulges his light touch for cheery distraction, for moments so ephemeral, silly and mild that we can’t help but be grateful for the wry respite they proffer.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 29, 2011 edition of City Arts.

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