Daily Office: Vespers
Friday, 21 January 2011

Holland Cotter captures a moment in New York’s artly life that spun bravely at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in the early Fifties: a collaboration of painting and poetry in which the poetry was arguably the more remarkable partner. But the paintings still gleam, poised beautifully between the bellows of Abstract Expressionism and the banalities of Pop.

And a scene it was: amorous, rivalrous and incestuous; at once an avant-garde and — much like the New York art world at present — an avant-garde in reverse. Poetry was pushing into prickly new territory, while art was revisiting old ground, although with some new moves. What made the situation at Tibor de Nagy distinctive was that almost everyone was collaborating, artists and poets alike.

Remember the context. This was the high moment of Abstract Expressionism, with its image of the heroic artist battling his way alone toward some existential sublime. Set that image against another: O’Hara and Rivers, lovers at the time, sitting knee to knee as they worked on a series of jointly made lithographs, each adding drawings, jokes, notes to friends and poems like valentines.

Or consider the poetry books coming out under the Tibor de Nagy imprint, among them Mr. Ashbery’s first collection, with drawings by Ms. Freilicher, and O’Hara’s 1953 “Oranges,” with hand-painted covers by Hartigan. These weren’t weighty tomes. They were pretty pamphlets, so thin and fragile as to be all but invisible on a library shelf.