"How can I explain my love and respect for the poets who have enriched my life? Poetry is the most pure of the arts. It is non-utilitarian. The expression does not give the creator power, prestige or money. It tells us what life is about, what it is to feel, to think, to question." —Grace Hartigan
In recent weeks I have been repeatedly reminded by a number of readers about how much they appreciate the links they see between poetry and painting. Indeed, in the nearly ten years of Valparaiso Poetry Review’s existence, among the various encouraging responses from readers regarding the poetry and prose published in the journal, many have expressed interest not only in a variety of ekphrastic poems appearing in VPR’s pages but also in the commentary offered by Gregg Hertzlieb on each issue’s cover art. Additionally, a number of readers have written with kind words concerning the assortment of articles about poets and painters that have been part of the repertoire in posts to “One Poet’s Notes.”
I have not been surprised by readers’ reactions to the essays on individual artworks written by Gregg Hertzlieb. After all, in addition to serving as Director of the Brauer Museum of Art, Gregg is accomplished as both a painter and a poet. I am always confident readers will find in his writing careful observations about art communicated in exact and eloquent language, whether he is examining paintings by David Hockney, Helen Frankenthaler, Stuart Davis, Frederic Edwin Church, or any other artist’s work. My own interest in including links between poetry and painting can be traced back to my time as an apprentice poet studying under John Ashbery and Mark Strand, both of whom throughout their careers have contributed art commentary in addition to their poetry. Also, each often emphasized to students the connections between poetry and painting in classroom discussions or during individual conferences on composition.
Indeed, Ashbery’s well-known background as an art reviewer or editor and Strand’s beginnings as an artist studying at Yale under Josef Albers certainly influenced their own poetic vision, as well as formed each poet’s skills as a mentor for young poets. Consequently, I always recommend my creative writing students investigate in their journals or poems those experiences they have when visiting an art museum or local gallery. Even Ernest Hemingway once remarked that at times a writer could obtain information about perception and scenery by observing an oil on canvas in ways one might not gain when reading another author’s prose: “I learn as much from painters how to write as from writers.”
An excellent example of the mutual influence existing between a poet and a painter can be witnessed when examining the close-knit relationship once exhibited by Frank O’Hara and Grace Hartigan. In November upon hearing about Grace Hartigan’s death at the age of 86, I wrote an article recognizing her art, including celebration of it as among the notable contributions by Abstract Expressionists in the early 1950s, and the influence of her links with figures from the New York School of poets, particularly Frank O’Hara, with whom she had a great friendship: “Grace Hartigan and Frank O’Hara.” At the time I mentioned: “Hartigan’s closest connection to the New York School of poets materialized in her personal relationship with Frank O’Hara throughout the ‘50s and the collaborative poem-posters they created, particularly a series of one dozen Hartigan artworks concerning text by O’Hara and with the words incorporated into the paintings. The series was titled Oranges.”
At the head of my “One Poet’s Notes” post, I included an artwork Hartigan had produced shortly after O’Hara’s tragic death in 1966. The piece, titled The Day Lady Died after the famous poem by O’Hara written about his hearing of Billie Holiday’s death, had been Hartigan’s contribution to a memorial volume, In Memory of My Feelings, a collection (edited by Bill Berkson and published by the Museum of Modern Art) filled with memories about O’Hara by his many friends in the art and literary worlds of New York City.
Much has been written about the close association between Hartigan and O’Hara. The two friends inspired one another and created collaborative works during the early days when the art scene and literary circle eventually to be known as the New York School were still in their formative stages. Looking through black-and-white photographs capturing the creative atmosphere and social setting in the early 1950s, one frequently will notice Hartigan surrounded solely by males—Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, and others. Although Hartigan was accepted by O’Hara and the various members of their group—as was Jane Freilicher, another female artist regularly included in the clique—occasionally she apparently felt uncomfortable or worried about being unappreciated as a woman artist among the many men. Indeed, in the beginning of her career Grace Hartigan displayed some of her art under the name “George Hartigan” as an attempt to assure her works were treated equally by viewers. However, Hartigan and other women of her generation eventually opened paths for later female artists to follow. In fact, by the late 1950s Hartigan was highlighted with a few contemporary female art figures in a photographic profile by Life magazine labeled “Women Artists in Ascendance.” The magazine referred to her as “the most celebrated of the young American women painters.”
Despite the fact Grace Hartigan produced a variety of paintings that focused upon her fellow artists and literary friends as models, often in individual portraits and sometimes as groups—as in the well-known Masquerade, painted in 1954 and featuring O’Hara, Ashbery, Freilicher, Hartigan, and others appearing in costumes—perhaps the most interesting pieces from the time involving her ties to a friend can be seen in the series of paintings titled Oranges, which Hartigan created in collaboration with O’Hara. In an excellent and extensive 1993 article in Art Journal, “Questions of Identity in Oranges by Frank O’Hara and Grace Hartigan,” Terrence Diggory describes the pieces: “Oranges, a series of twelve paintings based on texts by Frank O’Hara, marks the beginning of Hartigan’s work with poets and a decisive moment in determining the identities that both the artist and the writer assumed in their later work.”
Recently, I received correspondence from a couple, the Herzbach-Wied’s, who had viewed and appreciated my previous post on Grace Hartigan and kindly forwarded to me images of Oranges No. 3 (“What Fire Murmurs Its Seditions . . .”), one of the paintings in the Hartigan series. According to one email message from Mike and Julie, this individual piece might be the most famous of the works in the series due to attention it received from art critic Irving Sandler. The artwork currently is held in the couple’s collection, and they generously offered me permission to use an image of the painting (seen above).
Marjorie Perloff also speaks of Grace Hartigan and this art piece in her wonderful book, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (University of Chicago Press, 1998): “ . . . painters and painting provided O’Hara with one of his central subjects. Consider the role that Grace Hartigan, whose life was closely bound up with Frank’s from the early fifties to 1960, plays in the poems. By her account, painter and poet would often use the same image as starting point. Thus, when Grace Hartigan painted Oranges, the series that corresponds to O’Hara’s twelve pastorals by that name written some years earlier, she used the poet’s words in the most ingenious ways, sometimes crowding a whole poem onto a corner of the canvas, sometimes spreading just a few words of text across the surface so as to create patterns of great tension and excitement. Words are played off against semiabstract, suggestive shapes of dazzling bright color, as in What Fire Murmurs Its Seditions, in which the entire text of the third prose poem, partly in script and partly in large and small block print, is scattered across and around the reclining nude figure of the poet.”
Adding to the significance of the poetry series and Frank O’Hara’s collaboration with Grace Hartigan, one of O’Hara’s most famous poems, “Why I Am Not a Painter,” explains the origins of his concentration on oranges for a sequence of poetry:
WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that's left is just
letters, “It was too much”" Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.
Now comes welcome news about the publication of Grace Hartigan’s personal journals written during those most interesting years of the early 1950s: The Journals of Grace Hartigan 1951-1955, edited by William T. La Moy and Joseph P. McCaffrey, with an introduction by Terrence Diggory (Syracuse University Press: 2009). The official publication date for the book is listed as April, but Syracuse University Press has made the collection of journals available in March, nicely coinciding with Hartigan’s birthdate later this month (March 28, 1922). The publisher’s description of this volume, which also includes nearly 50 color or black-and-white illustrations, invites readers interested in the artists and poets of the time period in New York:
Grace Hartigan emerged during the 1950s as a leading representative of the “second generation” of the New York School of abstract expressionist painters, a movement that achieved international standing for American art. In 1958, Hartigan was the only woman and one of only two artists under forty chosen by the Museum of Modern Art for a show on that school. Entitled “The New American Painting,” the show traveled to eight European countries and included such artists as Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Published for the first time, Hartigan’s journals offer readers an intimate chronicle of the vibrant artistic and literary milieu of the times. Hartigan's interactions with many of its leading artists, and her close association with such New York School poets as John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara, make for fascinating reading.
Commenting in Bookforum, Linda Nochlin describes in her review, “Rules of Abstraction,” Hartigan’s journals as a “combination of exaltation and depression; constant worry about money, prices, and payments or the lack thereof; complaints about fellow artists; snide or admiring comments about friends (often poets or literary figures); frequent, penetrating accounts of what she is reading (Rilke, Frank O’Hara, Woolf, Jacques Barzun on Berlioz) and what she is looking at (Goya, Picasso, Matisse, de Kooning); discussions of fraught relationships; worries about art-world politics; and harsh words about unfriendly critics like Clement Greenberg.” Nochlin goes on to explain how Hartigan sometimes in the pages of her writings revealingly confides her experiences and her concerns about being treated differently as a woman in an art world dominated by men, where she occasionally feels so alone.
Today, as my spring break draws to a close, I already am looking forward to the end of the semester when, like many others, I can start going through the reading list I have begun compiling for summer vacation. For those of us interested in poetry and painting, as well as various connections between the two, particularly during the legendary early days of the New York School, I believe this book containing the journals of Grace Hartigan will serve as a perfect item to be placed near the top of anybody’s list.
Readers are invited to view other articles at “One Poet’s Notes” with commentary, audio, and video concerning Grace Hartigan or Frank O’Hara: “Grace Hartigan and Frank O’Hara,” “Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara,” “Frank O’Hara: Having a Coke with You,” and “Frank O’Hara and Jackson Pollock.”