“My art embodies the qualities that differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose” Joan Mitchell, Art News, 1957
As the first cover ever to be printed by the Novel Hovel Press shows a painting by a contemporary lyrical abstract artist for our collection 52 Weeks, we thought we would look at the connection in the past between the New York School of poets and the artists who found common ground between art and poetry. We also thought it would be nice to see what the artist of our cover, Eelco Maan, thought on the matter of collaboration, fusion and the creative process. A quick appraisal of the NYS will followed soon by an interview that Eelco kindly agreed to give us this summer (2021).
A group of artists and poets living in New York City became collectively known as the New York School. They wove in and out of each others lives and work and created art and poetry that possessed a new freedom from form or expectation. Collaborations and interactions were numerous. Poetry in response to art and art reacting to poetry. Whilst Frank O’Hara, one of the seminal poets of the New York School, glibly described the interactions of the group as being a result of their preference for the same bars, they were creating a new and exciting vision.
This strong affinity between artists and poets can be seen where work has been jointly authored, where poems reference art and image and colour is fused with words. Artist, Norman Bluhm, described the fusing or hybridisation of works between poet and art as “a conversation” between disciplines.
Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Why I am not a Painter’ (1956) attempts to address the delicate balance, the love affair between disciplines. He begins with a statement of fact: ‘I am not a painter, I am a poet/Why? I think I would rather be/a painter, but I am not.’
The poem talks of how both art and poetry share a common process. He shows us how the artist Mike Goldberg’s painting began as sardines and ended as just letters because ‘it was too much’ and later in the poem how O’Hara starts writing a poem about the colour orange and ends with a poem -twelve poems, no mention of orange but he calls it Oranges: ‘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.’
Grace Hartington’s Oranges, based on Frank O’Hara’s poems (1953)
Another artist identified with the New York School, Abstract Expressionist painter, Joan Mitchell, has said her painting is more like a poem and often worked using poetry as inspiration. For example her painting ‘La Ligne de la rupture’ was inspired by the poem of the same name by poet Jacques Dupin. The painting is in a Private Collection. The painting to the right (below) is Le Chemin des Ecolliers (1960) and an example of Mitchell’s early work.
The first and second generation of New York School poets and their counterpart abstract expressionist and lyrical expressionist artists shared an anti-traditionalist approach and experimental styles. They explored a shared sense of abstraction with words, texture and sound being as important as the endeavour to create meaning.
Although first generation artists of the New York School such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko, have been seen as some of the key proponents of abstraction it is interesting to note that not only was de Kooning seen as an originator of Action Painting(5), a purely abstract form of expression, during the 1950s he “most often worked from observable reality” according to the Guggenheim Museum; primarily figures and the landscape. The Abstract Expressionist painters each had a unique approach to their work. In a talk ‘A Desperate View’ delivered in 1949, De Kooning made clear that he thought art should not have to be a certain way: “It is no use worrying about being related to something it is impossible not to be related to”.
For example in his Women series 1950-1955 he integrated form with the recognisable application of brushstrokes, aggressive paint application and vibrant colour associated with Abstract Expressionism. This was seen by some of his staunch abstract fellow artists as a betrayal or a regression. The work Composition (1955-58) once again provides us with greater abstraction but here landscape provides inspiration. Whilst there are no identifiable forms the energetic brushwork and vibrant colour provide us with the feel and pace of city life. The same can be seen in Gotham News (1955).
If we go back in time the issue of abstraction over form is not a new argument. Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) could be said to be among the first lyrical abstract artists . He helped transform traditional expectations in art from representational forms. He talked of a synesthetic understanding and manifestation of colour, sound and image, of souls and inner sounds, of spirituality and freedom.
An early encounter with a painting by Monet’s haystack helped him recognise the need for abstraction when he failed to recognise what he was seeing in the picture. Later, looking at one of his own paintings standing on its side in the twilight he, at first, could not again recognise the objects in the piece. This improved the work and he then declared that objects harmed his pictures. (2.) His synesthetic experience of colour as sound also helped him form his ideas of abstraction.
Kandinsky’s woodcut ‘The Singer’ is an early indicator of his ideas on synthesis of sound, colour and word. The limitation of colour and reduction to flat form in the woodcut process acted as an abstraction reducing lines and colour to only those which were necessary. In The Singer he uses ‘lyrical’ soft pinks and greys creating a few simple contrasts against a black background. For the artist the woodcut medium was in “direct parallel to a lyric poem’.(1)
Kandinsky saw in this work that: “Colour is the keyboard, “the eye is the hammer. The soul the piano, with its many strings” and that the artist “is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key”.
His prose-poems entitled ‘Sound’ (1908-1912) were published and in 1910 he exhibited with a group of artists that formed the New Artists’ Association of Munich. The works were derided by critics as “carnival clowning”and a “horde of dabblers”(3) However, this did not deter Kandinksy from his artistic quest.
Matters of the soul were integral to his work. In 1911 the essay ‘On the Spiritual in Art’ was published. Kandinsky believed that the inner voice of the artist overrode any necessity to faithfully reproduce painting from nature, and the “internal necessity” (4) should be the key to a painting.
Through the decades abstract art veered toward the geometric and minimal, the hard edged and dazzling colours to softer, sensuous, lyrical dream-like. The thread of the artist as the internal initiator running through lyrical abstraction has endured. To express something internal, subjective in a lyrical way, something at the edge of consciousness, brought down onto the canvas in a metaphysical non-representational array of colour.
De Kooning sometimes internalised external objects as a filter, regenerating life as we see it, sometimes into complete abstraction and other times, as in the Women series, as a partial glimpse, a fusion of abstract and form. Watch out for our future interview with a contemporary lyrical abstract artist about art, abstraction, inspiration, poetry, music and the need to create.
(1) Wassily Kandinsky – The journey to abstraction/Ulrike Becks-Malomy/Taschen/2007 page 20 (2) page 31 (3) p40 (4) p55
New York School Painters and Poets-Neon in Daylight/Jenni Quilter/Rizzoli New York
Poets.org – Why I am Not a Painter/Frank O’Hara
Literary Theory and Criticism/The New York School of Poetry/literariness.org/Nasrullah Mambrol
Paul,Stella, “Abstract Expressionism” In Heilbrunn Timeline of History: New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd apex.htm (October 2004)
William de Kooning Composition-Guggenheim Museum http://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/9992
Kandinsky painting ‘Improvisation’ 33 1913/wikimedia/ Txllxt Txllxt, CCBY-5A 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Grace Harrington Oranges/Series based on prose poems by Frank O’Hara (1953) newyorkschoolpoets.wordpress.com
Joan Mitchell/Le Chemin des Ecolliers (1960) wiki art