New York School Painters & Poets – Neon in Daylight

Reviewed by Lorraine Lupo
In a way it should never have been called the New York School – maybe New York Hangout/Party/Get-Together? Which isn’t to say they weren’t serious. Which isn’t to say that fun wasn’t crucial.
New York School Painters & Poets – Neon in Daylight (deftly assembled by editors Jenni Quilter, Bill Berkson and Larry Fagin, and with excellent essays by Quilter) tells the history of the brushing up against, and full collaboration between, visual artists and poets of what we call, for better or worse, the first and second generations of the New York School. The members are artists and writers you may know (Willem de Kooning, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery) and some you may not but should (Edwin Denby, Jane Freilicher, George Schneeman). These are but a few. The book is so packed that when it hits your coffee table you might feel fear, impatience, elation, intimidation, nostalgia, envy, distrust, or some combination of the above.
“Gosh,” you might think, “This book is so amazing/dense,
I don’t know if
I will ever/want to
get through it all!”
“I know/don’t know all this.
How could they/ how will I
get it all down?”
Relax. Here is my scattershot, lopsided, perhaps unprofessional but wholly enthusiastic tour. There is no saying which are the most noteworthy sights, there are so many. I’m just pointing out a few. It’s not meant to replace a reading of the book. Read the book.
You’ll probably start by thumbing through. Don’t just look at the pictures. But don’t forget to look at the pictures. Willem de Kooning’s Summer Couch (p.61) might be where your first flip lands you. This is a good page, his puckered orange mattress blob with delicate ladder thing-y can’t be beat. An excerpt from Frank O’Hara’s poem “Radio” adds angularity, a different dimension:
Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning
to aspire to. I think it has an orange
bed in it, more than the ear can hold.

Every page, as with every collaboration it details, contains such a mixture of the small and big delights of color and shape, words and thoughts rubbing together. Collaboration is social and Neon in Daylight is a sociable book. Letters mingle with paintings, poems, images, reminiscences, snapshots, criticism, analysis.
There are anecdotes…
(On p.45 read Edwin Denby’s account of seeing Andre Breton attacked by a butterfly at the corner of 53rd and Seventh streets.)
(“13. Youth wants to burn the museums. We are in them– now what? Better destroy the odors of the zoo. How can we paint the elephants and hippopotamuses? Embrace the Bourgeoisie. One hundred years of grinding our teeth have made us tired. How are we to fill the large empty canvas at the end of the large empty loft? You do have a loft, don’t you, man?”
–from “How To Proceed In The Arts,” Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers, 1952/61, p. 120)
and a test…
(Q: “23. Have you ever had the idea that people of the far-distant future will find in your art an important key to the civilization of our time?”
A: “YES. I have used real objects that were useful in their own rite. Just in case all the hammers get lost somewhere.”
–from “Test in Art,” prepared by Kenneth Koch, taken by Jim Dine, 1966, p. 192)
(An exchange during O’Hara’s reading at the Living Theater, 1959:
“Jack Kerouac [from the audience]:‘You’re ruining American poetry, O’Hara.’
Me: That’s more than you ever did for it.’”
–Letter from Frank O’Hara to John Ashbery and Pierre Martory, March 16, 1959, p. 129)
–From I Love You de Kooning, Joe Brainard and Bill Berkson, ca. 1969, p. 228)
On page 65, Grace Hartigan frets over painting Masquerade. She is full of worry, dejection and self-admonishment. Her account feels as present as if she were a friend speaking to us over the telephone.
…and of course collaborations.
For those readers who like their mystery “explained,” there is great satisfaction in accounts of collaborations— who did what, how one thing triggered another. Read the excerpt from Larry Rivers’ “Life Among the Stones” (p. 142) to find out how he and Frank O’Hara, who were lovers, collaborated to make the piece Stones and how each of their choices was made. Then again, there is no explanation (nor is one needed) for why Rivers’ drawing of their armless embrace— with, is it shackles, a crown? – is so tender and alive.
But for pure insight and eloquence, go to John Ashbery. You should read his essays to begin the book and then again when you’re through. His piece on Jane Freilicher (p. 82) has all the delicate precision of one of her paintings. And in “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” Ashbery’s prose is so pithy it approaches aphorism. On artistic experimentation: “It is a gamble against terrific odds. Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.” The central problem Ashbery addresses in this essay—what to do when the avant-garde becomes the tradition?— belongs so particularly to a moment in history it is almost quaint. It inspires nostalgia for such basic divisions as experiment versus tradition, acceptance versus derision. I dictated the phrase “avant-garde” into my computer and what popped up was “iPhone card”; it’s not hard to feel longing for a time when Aram Saroyan’s poetry was read aloud on television, even as an object of fun.
Artists and writers face different obstacles now (gentrification in cities, dwindling public interest, the MFA-Industrial Complex). The space and time New York School artists enjoyed is not available to us. We are too fragmented, harried, overworked, and digitized to belong to anything as old-fashioned as a School. But we can still make interesting things and the New York Schoolers are worth learning from. Listen poets, if you don’t already, get out of your stuffy hermetic word house sometimes and go look at lovely things. Artists, when you want some words in your pieces, try asking the poets.
Jenni Quilter with Bill Berkson and Larry Fagin. New York School Painters & Poets – Neon in Daylight. Rizzoli, 2014
Photo Caption: Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Daisy Aldan, Grace Hartigan and Kenneth Koch at a reading to celebrate Daisy Aldan’s magazine Folder, 1953