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Why is There a Gallery Devoted to a Poet in the New MoMA?

Larry Rivers, Double Portrait of Frank O'Hara (1955)

 

By DEAN RADER, April 2020

In 2020, it would be impossible for someone to have a career like Frank O’Hara’s. But, in 1951, the 27-year old O’Hara—with English degrees from Harvard and Michigan but with no real training in art or art history—landed a job as a clerk at the front desk of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (primarily to get free access to the museum). For the next two years, O’Hara answered questions from visitors, sold postcards, looked at countless works of art, and on his lunch breaks, wrote poems. By 1953 he was contributing timely pieces about Abstract Expressionism to ARTnewsand he had also ensconced himself into the art and poetry scenes of New York, befriending important figures like Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, John Ashbery, Larry Rivers, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, Alex Katz and many others. Almost overnight, he became the central personality in an already central group—Phillp Guston described him as “our Apollinaire.” Over the next few years, O’Hara not only wrote some of the most beloved poems of the 20th century but also worked his way up to becoming an assistant curator at MoMA and was suddenly, with no traditional museum pedigree and relatively little training in art history, organizing, planning, and designing major exhibits, including the ultra-influential The New American Painting, which brought American Abstract Expressionism to the art-centric cities of Europe. O’Hara’s astonishing career—both in terms of his credentials and his contributions—are the focus of a surprising and utterly delightful room in the newly expanded MoMA called “Frank O’Hara: Lunchtime Poet.” Sandwiched between galleries that highlight Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, the O’Hara gallery functions as a love letter to O’Hara’s love of curation but also to the man himself. 

The gallery is rather difficult to describe much less evaluate. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Part homage to his poetry, part homage to his ideas of curating, part homage to the homages of O’Hara, the aggregate of documents, artworks, and artifacts try hard to make a coherent argument for O’Hara’s place in the MoMA’s history. I’ve italicized that word because the O’Hara gallery feels more like a room in a home than any other place in the museum. Indeed, one of the first things you notice upon walking into the space—whatever direction you enter—are two den chairs and a coffee table. Is this because O’Hara was a writer? Visitors feel invited to pull up a chair and thumb through the books on the table, which include some exhibition catalogues and a copy of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems

On the wall behind the chairs hangs one of my favorite O’Hara-based works of art, Larry Rivers’ 1955 Double Portrait of Frank O’Hara. A kind of diptych, this piece shows a somewhat abstracted O’Hara from two different perspectives. In the left Larry Rivers, Double Portrait of Frank O'Hara (1955) section, O’Hara’s head is tilted down, and he appears stern, as if  he might be scowling at a cat making a mess on the kitchen floor. The right side of the poet’s face is rendered in warm orange tones as if glowing. A shimmer of gray-green aura emanates, ever so slightly, from his head. Is he an angry angel? A bedeviled saint? In the right panel, O’Hara looks at us directly. His blue eyes like tiny marbles. His head slightly tilted. The two O’Hara’s smartly set the stage for the two O’Haras of the  exhibit—poet and curator—but they also serve as a focal point for how important O’Hara was, both as friend and subject, for other artists.

Installation view. Two lithographs from Stones by Rivers and O’Hara (1955). In the display case is a painting from Grace Hartigan’s Oranges series, inspired by O’Hara’s poems. Photo by Heidi Bohenkamp, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

A fine example of O’Hara’s collaborative nature hangs on a wall next to the chairs—two lithographs from the 1957 Stones series he worked on with Rivers. Within the same stone, Rivers and O’Hara would co-create image and text, going back and forth like a call and response. The result is a joyous coauthorship that made me think of how poets and painters arrive at the notion of line in new ways. Across the room on the opposite wall is a display case of some of O’Hara’s curatorial notes drawn from MoMA’s archives and rarely, if indeed ever, shown. In one— my favorite individual artifact in the entire exhibit—is O’Hara’s sketch of how we wanted some Pollock drawings to be photographed for a special exhibit at the 1957 Sao Paolo Biennial. To illustrate his vision, O’hara re-draws, in pencil, four different works by Pollock, who had died the previous year and whose work was given a special room at the Biennial that O’Hara got to curate. Looking at O’Hara’s drawings of Pollock’s drawings raises fascinating questions about writing, drawing, painting, authenticity, and reproduction. I was mesmerized. In what way was O’Hara’s act of drawing Pollock’s drawings similar to the act of writing a poem? Are both modes of creation? In what way is composing the layout of an exhibition similar to composing a poem? How much pleasure did O’Hara experience as he turned materials more comfortably used for his poems to reproducing Pollock? For me, that document’s bridging of writing, drawing, and creating serves as a microcosm for the entire gallery.

Installation view. Preparatory Drawings for In Memory of My Feelings, (1966) (left). Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 54 (1957-61) (right). Photo by Heide Bohenkamp, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The same display case also features O’Hara’s edited manuscript copy of his notes on Robert Motherwell, whose work O’Hara appreciated more than most of the other artists or critics in his circle did. Like O’Hara, I deeply admire Motherwell’s Elegies for the Spanish Republic and was heartened the curators devoted an entire wall to one of O’Hara’s favorites—Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 54 (1957-61). Its stark imbalanced balancing of dark verticality and floating ovals against what could be a page or a window of white is arresting. It commands the wall, though it hangs near what is positioned to be the highlight of the exhibit. Taking up an entire wall are twenty-one preparatory drawings for the memorial book, In Memory of My Feelings, which MoMA published after O’Hara’s untimely death in 1966 at the age of 40.

In Memory of My Feelings is a collection of 30 O’Hara poems alongside commissioned pieces by artists such as Motherwell, de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Jane Freilicher, Barnett Newman, Lee Krasner, Matsumi Kanemitsu, Helen Frankenthaler, and many others. The totality of these pieces—often more colorful and interesting than the final versions in the book itself—evoke an almost religious tribute to O’Hara, forming a fragmented stained glass or an altar. Indeed, they serve as a fitting collaborative tribute to a man whose life work was making connections. 

Installation view. Film of O’Hara reading his poems and in conversation with Alfred Leslie (1966) (left). Display case of O’Hara’s exhibition notes, his notes on Robert Motherwell, and other memorabilia from exhibits he curated. Photo by Heidi Bohenkamp. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

For the majority of visitors, the most enjoyable feature in the room will likely be the short black and white film that shows O’Hara answering questions about his poetry, talking with Alfred Leslie, smoking, and best of all reading his poems, including “The Day Lady Died,” one of the great poems of the 20th century. As enjoyable as the film is—and let me be clear that watching O’Hara read “The Day Lady Died” is something I’ll always remember—it has virtually nothing to do with MoMA or O’Hara’s interest in art, so it is a curious if marvelous inclusion. In fact, the gallery itself raises fascinating questions about what makes something (or someone) museum-worthy. What or who deserves wall space in an institution like the MoMA? And of all the non-painter personalities who could have their own room, why O’Hara? Is there something about his poetry that that makes his curating special? Is there something about his curating that makes his poetry particularly artful?

So, why is there a gallery to a poet in a museum? There are a couple of different ways to think about this. On one hand, the room is a sly performance of the museum high-fiving itself. Not only is it institutionalizing its own narrative but also shaping how that narrative is told: a gallery in MoMA about MoMA’s MoMAness. A more generous reading is that MoMA wants to humanize its impressive collection by spotlighting one of its more beloved and most unlikely curators—an untrained, gay poet. Look how edgy we were! Either way, I appreciated how the gallery enables viewers/readers to see the great aesthetic overlaps in the Venn diagrams of poetry and painting, especially given the delta between the relative commercial value of, say, a Pollock painting and an O’Hara poem. Whether it is an explicit intention or an implicit subtext, the gallery raises questions about poetry and painting’s intrinsic and extrinsic value. 

Even though the O’Hara room is a welcome step for a major art museum, MoMA misses a chance to make larger arguments about curating. One easy move would have been to co-locate Rivers’ Portrait of Washington Crossing the Delaware with O’Hara’s “On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art” to show the literal correspondence between poem and painting. I cannot explain why that pairing did not happen. But there are other concerns beyond such obvious instances of influence. In both his acquaintances and his personality, O’Hara was a bridge figure between the earnest self-importance of the Abstract Expressionists (and its critics) and the lighter post-Abstract Expressionist and Pop figures (and their critics). O’Hara’s art criticism is fun but learned and high minded, while his poetry is breezy and refuses, Warhol like, to take itself too seriously. Even though the room is smartly placed between art from the two movements, it tends to focus on his Abstract Expressionist connections, in part because the majority of his curatorial work was in that area. Still, I would have liked to see more creative pairings with other pieces in MoMA’s collection; conversations that move in the realm of intertext rather than influence. As literary critic Michael Riffaterre suggests, it is immaterial that one text is the source of another; what is important is how one text completes the incompleteness of the other. This is a poetic theorization of literary production, but it applies equally to literary and visual texts. What if curation happens through interdisciplinary intertext rather than direct influence? What if artistic correspondence is best demonstrated through parallel aesthetic endeavors or formal or tonal concerns, like a sassy O’Hara poem and a sassy Lichtenstein print? Or O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You” next to Warhol’s Coca Cola?

Or, what if influence went the other way? Johns titled at least one piece after an O’Hara poem; Grace Hartigan a whole series. Plus, there are countless portraits of O’Hara. He was painted a number of times by Rivers but also by Katz, both de Koonings, Freilicher, Hartigan, Jim Dine, and Alice Neel. Even Fairfield Porter did a portrait of O’Hara. Contemporary artists have also made work that looks back at O’Hara, suggesting a different direction of inspiration. Additionally, the gallery could have been a statement on the macro process of curation. In his poetry, O’Hara curates the world. He pulls objects, food, roads, people, magazines, cigarettes, movie titles, newspaper headlines, and arranges them in marvelous ways. The unfortunate title of the room does not do justice either to O’Hara’s poetry or to his curatorial legacy. It suggests he was a poet only while eating a BLT and that his real work was at MoMA. I would suggest that his real work, whether it is his poems, his criticism, his introduction of poets and artists to each other, or his work with MoMA is aesthetic organization. He had an uncanny ability to show how things belonged together.

Even with these minor shortcomings, the O’Hara gallery tells an important story about how one’s man’s vision of and for a movement can make not just one but two or three or four movements. Over the course of his time at MoMA, O’Hara curated or co-curated 19 shows. Between that work, his writing, and his friendship with the artists of the era, O’Hara helped create a discourse of and about contemporary American art that is unlike any other. I have always believed that O’Hara’s position as a poet, as an artist outside the world of painting, and as a genuine lover of art, credentialed him with the artists in ways unavailable to a traditional gallerist or museum staff. He had nothing to gain, monetarily, by being in their circle or curating their work. He was also writing a refreshing new kind of poetry that was, at least in the canon-making New York scene, destabilizing the world of poetry. In some ways, O’Hara was doing to poetry what Pollock and de Kooning and Johns and Warhol were doing to art. Perhaps this gallery will go some distance toward breaking down meaningless borders between two increasingly interrelated modes of expression. WM

 

Dean Rader

Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited eleven books, including Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in Poetry and the Northern California Book Award. At present he is working on a book of poems about the work of Cy Twombly. His art writing has appeared in BOMB, Los Angeles Review, The Kenyon Review and elsewhere. He is a professor at the University of San Francisco and the recipient of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry. 

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