Late Art Writings, Poems and Reading Lists – The Brooklyn Rail

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John Ashbery
Something Close to Music: Writings, Poems and Playlists on Late Art
(David Zwirner, 2022)

something close to musicpart of David Zwirner Ecphrasis series, brings together a selection of later writings by the poet John Ashbery (1927-2017). It presents Ashbery’s poetry through the lens of other art forms – through later poems, music and minor writing projects, chronologically arranged from 1988 to 2007. Actual playlists, compiled from The Poet’s Music Library by publisher Jeffrey Lependorf, are presented as bookends to each section. Mónica de la Torre, who wrote an introduction to the book, describes the mission well: “Read it as a discontinuous account of Ashbery’s love affairs…and as a secondary entry into his poetics. In fact, the curation of these texts allows reading with as much freedom as listening to a playlist, in sequence or in random reading.

Ashbery is best known for poems such as The tennis court oath and Self-portrait with convex mirror– but in this selection of lesser known and later works, the lyrical, sometimes fragmented expression of his more abstract poems proves skillful and moving. Poems such as “Life as a Book That Has Been Put Down” (1989) and “Flow Chart: Part II” (1991) invite us through a gloomy landscape that oscillates between moments of optimism and disappointment (the mention of “projects like half-assembled watches” in “Flow Chart: Part II” sounds like sheer desperation).

Although the first of these poems was written nearly three decades ago, the attempt to self-direct and situate one’s perspective in relation to harrowing circumstances seems particularly relevant today and perhaps always. “You can see into the future / Like in a dimple / and there’s nothing to say keep going, keep planning,Ashbery writes in “Flow Chart: Part II.” Temporarily prescient and nostalgic, often looking to the past, as well as to the front, a poetic simultaneity and cadence contribute to evoking a paradox to which we are all indebted: an awareness of our age through the recognition of past time and fact that we are never as young as we are in the present.

In “Vetiver” (1987), Ashbery constructs sinuous passages that transport us in an undulation of words and sentences with a melancholy temperament: “the passing seasons”, “the ashes of roses”, “the snakes which lose their skin”. – Ashbery’s poetry, effortlessly metaphorical and sensory, creates decadent lines that inspire the connection between the aural, the visual and the textual. And despite or because of these sensual phrases, the thematic undercurrents of the poem’s moody conclusion are even more moving: tears have flowed / Passed before us into a pool called infinity.

In the first essay in the collection, Ashbery professes his childhood desire to become a painter, and the best later prose essays are those which are rich in affection for painting as they are also stories of a sympathetic and anecdotal type . Shared with the seductive and formal precision of his poems, Ashbery’s artistic writing is more open, free-form, yet still evocative. In an essay on Trevor Winkfield, Ashbery writes “all art aspires to the condition of music” and of Winkfield’s painting, “every element of painting has its precise pitch, its duration”. In an article on the painter Jane Freiliecher, he describes the remarkable light of her still lifes as a visual sensation: “the gray-pink twilight that sometimes descends on New York, or the exhausted coppery-yellow light at the end of the summer .” The genre, by its very definition, is predictable because everything that exists within its boundaries must share some resemblance in form – but as verse and prose blend here in the same thin volume, it is clear that the poet as well as the art writer, John Ashbery, are one in the same.

The real charm of Ashbery’s artistic writing is found less in his criticism than in his characterization of the artists he knew intimately – the eternal naughtiness of Larry Rivers who “specialized in being hopeless and making it work for him”, the relentless kindness of Joe Brainard, who was “as kind as a person as an artist”, and the adorable piquancy of Joan Mitchell whom Ashbery compared to “kissing a rosebush” – the candor of these portraits explains also the origins of each individual’s artistic persistence and so far brilliance.

Larry Rivers, a painter with whom Ashbery shared a close friendship for many years, is described by the poet in a character portrait as perpetually “out of step” with the times, possessing a remarkable ability to resist what may seem popular or profitable. Ashbery writes that despite Rivers being “a trial and a heartache for his friends…what would we have without him?” Years later, Ashbery revisits the subject of his friend’s stubbornness and what emerged from a lifetime of talent and perseverance. he considers the artist Silver Infantaa Velazquez riff, as “more beautiful than all of Picasso’s forays into the same territory” and the masterful completion of his last painting as “clear and direct…one of his finest works”. Ashbery’s approach to describing his artist friends is shaped by his amazement at their art and their supportive admiration. In a lament acknowledging the near end of River’s long life, Ashbery bids good luck to the art critics who will eventually sift through his friend’s life’s work and come across a “glittering bargain” of paint.

It is impossible to identify exactly all the shapes and contours of Something close to music, since there are many overlapping and meandering paths – but perhaps that is the point – the narrative logic need not be more exact than a life beautifully assembled and described through fragments of experience and writing. It is always possible to form a meaning and a story from the chronology and the construction of the life of an artist is not only done through the primary work carried out but also from the things and people observed, loved and encountered. Read this book as a reading list or as a work of art taken from life; discover the biography revealed at its edges and interpret it as a portrait, diary or letter of John Ashbery, because it’s just like his poem improvement (1991) proposes“We never live long enough in our lives / to know what today is like.”

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