The Frances Dittmer Series on Contemporary Art
Collaboration between poets and their peers in poetry and painting is a crucial element of modernism and of avant-garde art in general, and it’s a prized feature of the New York School. John Ashbery wrote a novel, A Nest of Ninnies, alternating sentences with James Schuyler. Kenneth Koch got Ashbery to collaborate with him on zany poems with detailed and arbitrary requirements. A show consisting largely of Frank O’Hara’s collaborations with painters opened in Los Angeles in 1999 and traveled the next summer to New York. For these writers, collaborating was, in a way, their model of friendship.
The more than 60 paintings Jane Hammond has created since embarking on her “John Ashbery Collaboration”—works that seem to me inexhaustible as objects of vision and contemplation—attest to the extraordinary power that artistic friendship can have in the genesis of works of art. Back in June 1993, Jane asked John to come up with titles for paintings that she would then make. A week later he faxed her the list. It took him (he later wrote) about four minutes to make a list of 44 titles. That’s 11 titles every 60 seconds. And these titles are anything but pedestrian; Ashbery casually produced some of the wildest appellations this side of Wallace Stevens, titles like No One Can Win at the Hurricane Bar, Lobby Card, Bread and Butter Machine, The Hagiography of This Moment, Contra-Zed, A Parliament of Refrigerator Magnets, and Do Husbands Matter? I liked the last one (and the painting it inspired) so much that I wrote this poem:
Do Husbands Matter?
At the vital center the fool holds a candle
like a pious medieval donor
in one hand, a feather in the other
but look he has more than two hands
I count seven it’s as if this were
a Hindu tarot card a wishbone in one
a heart some gems a horseshoe a mask
and a globe in the belly how does one read that
for read it one must, not chaos but a rebus
of my life or yours stares you in the face
scratched on the walls of my cabin where
I left messages for others to write over
it’s a scratched itch and a door into a hallway
where stands a row of grandfather clocks
that don’t tell time in this dream of a cello
in the corner where function follows form
and girls with dolls assemble a still life
with fallen candles on the highway a black car
This interview had its genesis in a live exchange between Jane Hammond and David Lehman early this year, on the occasion of Hammond’s exhibition at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art.
David Lehman The late Fairfield Porter, one of Ashbery’s friends, a marvelous realist painter who thrived in an age of abstraction, wrote a poem in which he referred to John as both “lazy and quick.” (laughter) John is lazy, as he’ll be the first to admit. When he does something, he does it quickly. But first you have to get him to do it. And that’s my first question. How did you get him to give you the titles? I mean, John likes to be obliging, but he’s usually very reluctant and will say, “Do I have to?”
Jane Hammond He was kind of like that. I went to Harvard to see him give the Charles Eliot Norton Lecture on Raymond Roussel several years ago. I’m fascinated by Roussel, and John is a real Roussel aficionado. The use of hidden strategies, the creation of meaning through an examination of process, and of language itself—that is, building meaning from the outside in as well as the inside out—these are things that I seem to be drawn to and that link Ashbery and Roussel. In the back of my mind, ever since that Harvard lecture, I wanted to do something with John. I got up one morning and the idea of found titles struck me. My work is a fiction that’s woven of facts, because I do use found pieces of information as elements, but I’m not really an appropriationist. I use those things in order to create other things out of them. For ten years before this, I’d been working out of a complex conceptual system, making paintings that were all untitled followed by a set of numbers inside parentheses. John had already written an essay for a show of mine in Sweden in which he compared me to Robinson Crusoe, who also finds a limited number of things and has to make do with them. So somehow this idea of Robinson Crusoe, restrictions, and John Ashbery all came together. And yes, John can be standoffish and reluctant—he’s nobody’s idea of a team player. But I had been told by Trevor Winkfield that he liked my work, which is what emboldened me to ask him to write the Swedish essay. So I called him up and told him my idea. He was completely noncommittal and laconic. But a week later, he called: “Hi, Janie, it’s John. I have your titles.” And I said, “You do? You worked on it?” He said, “I’ve done nothing else.” (laughter) And out of the fax machine they came—I was looking at them upside down and thinking, Wow, there’s a lot of them. I didn’t ask for a particular number or a particular kind of title. I barely asked. Sometimes I think the fax machine invented the titles.
DL In his poems, Ashbery changes directions frequently, making a declaration of some kind then pulling the rug out from under you or adding a subordinate clause that seems to contradict what he has just said: “I aver there are no beginnings though there were perhaps some sometime.” He’s convinced that he will be misunderstood, but he also thinks that misunderstanding is a creative process, another word for metaphor. I asked Ashbery once whether he’d been influenced as much by the French Surrealists as people seem to think. And he said, “Not the actual Surrealists, but hybrid ones like Pierre Reverdy and Max Jacob.” This was during an interview, and when we got the transcript back it read, “What about Sir Realist—” (laughter) And Ashbery’s response read, “Not the actual Sir Realist, but hybrid ones like the Reverend D. and Max Jack Hoe.”
JH That’s Ashbery right there.
DL Both you and he include something from high art and something popular in the same work, something recondite, something familiar. An Ashbery poem may begin with “Orlando Furioso,” a Renaissance epic by Ariosto, and then have Happy Hooligan four lines down, or it might have Daffy Duck and Milton’s Satan in the same context. He’ll shift references. And this is true of your work as well, where images from different realms of discourse are juxtaposed. With titles, Ashbery reverses the usual procedure; he begins with the title and then writes the poem, as if the title were not a summing up but an opening. Once you got these titles, they must have helped determine how you were going to proceed. Each must have seemed a challenge, it being the way of the imagination to transform challenge into energy and inspiration. I remember how you took apart the phrase Contra-Zed, looking for an opening, a way to proceed, when you were getting started on that painting.
JH In eighth-grade chemistry, we grew crystals. You mix different chemicals together and heat them up. Then, as the compound cools, it coalesces into its unique crystalline structure. It does this only because you introduce a piece of string. These titles are this ephemeral, barely there kind of scaffold on which the painting is made. But it wouldn’t be made and it wouldn’t be the same painting without that string, that title. When the titles first came out of the fax, they didn’t knock me over; I didn’t think, I’ll be doing this for eight years and I’ll make 62 paintings. My thought was, Wow, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. (laughter) Or, Can I cherry-pick this and get ten good paintings and no one will ever know that he gave me 44 titles? But what seems good to you in July is not the same as what seems good to you in September. My favorite title in the beginning was Sore Models; it was the first title where I looked at the phrase and a picture came into my head. This is Sore Models #2.
DL In this picture, there are two feet, one on the left and the other on the right, with different colors. I wonder if one side is supposed to be the more scientific and the other the more artistic. Or is it the two sides of the bicameral brain, the left and the right?
JH When I made this painting I was thinking of tantric paintings based on the feet of the Buddha. Sore Models was my first two-part painting: it was my first shaped painting; it was my first pink painting, because I had had a palette restriction that was very severe; it was my first painting that used other media—I put copper leaf underneath it. I didn’t think of any of this. I was so preoccupied with, Could I make a painting that had an authentic relationship to the phrase “Sore Models”? I was trying to make the two pink feet a pair, to make two similar things into one painting. And then my friend, the artist Judy Pfaff, looked at the two pink feet and said, “What is that left brain, right brain book?” And somehow it clicked in my mind that a pair doesn’t have to be identical, there is another attitude toward pairness—hence #2, which is more about circuitry: an energy link through unlike things.
DL In Irregular Plural, everything on the left corresponds to something on the right, but irregularly, not as an absolute equivalent. So that’s how you translated that grammatical phrase. You deliberately misconstrued it. Which brings us back to the notion that art can sometimes result from a deliberate act of misunderstanding. That willful act of ignorance can be the mother of poetry, because then you have to imagine its elements; you have to come up with something commensurate in the imagination to the vast violent beautiful unknown.
JH That was one of the harder titles for me because I didn’t want to do something self-reflexive about grammar or language. I’m interested in how things are represented, say, a Chinese drawing of a rabbit versus a rabbit ashtray from Popular Mechanics. This title got me into juxtaposing versions of things: these nautical knots with those veterinarians’ sutures; this Mehndi hand with that magician’s glove. And in the process something is said about the nature of representation and how an image can be freighted with the feeling of the culture it comes from.
DL I love collaborating, because it makes me do things I wouldn’t ordinarily be doing. When you collaborate with another person, you are creating a third entity.
JH You are. You’re getting outside of yourself and you’re giving up a certain degree of control, but in a way, you are freer for it.
DL Although you paint with certain built-in restrictions. There are 276, if I have the number right, images that you combine and recombine. And at a certain point in your painting career, you limited your palette and would not use green in your paintings.
JH Or any brown, ocher, sienna, umber or purple. In the beginning it was red, orange, yellow, blue, black, and white. Period.
DL When did you restore green?
JH (laughter) Well, it wasn’t really restoration. It was more like entropy. At the beginning, I was looking for a surrogate for style. I was trying to figure out how to make a kind of work that was decentered and variable, wandering and unpredictable even to me. I thought, How can I find a way to make paintings that are feminist, or personal, or about beekeeping, or that reference ceramics, or the history of science—all the things that I am interested in, both internal and external? So I evolved this system as a way of getting around what I think is an overdefined, logolike sense of style in the art world, where you carve out this little niche and then fabricate these consistent objects over and over. And yet I wanted the project to have some cohesion. I had an instinct to limit the palette. So you’d walk into this room and see paintings that would be figurative, nonfigurative, flat space, deep space, words, no words, but subliminally they would have something in common, and initially that was color. The colors were not particularly mixed, and there were only a few of them. I used the color to sort out information, like a cartographer does. It’s not that I restored green, it’s that over time, entropy seeps in and the rules break down and things get more complex.
DL (beat) Do you want to hear about the paradox of constrictive form in poetry?
DL The stricter the form—the more cumbersome its rules and requirements—the more liberating it is for the imagination. The conscious mind is occupied with solving a puzzle, and this gives the unconscious a chance to shoot directly onto the page. This is why sonneteers liken that venerable form to a prison cell of infinite liberty. In these chains you shall be free. May I ask how you arrived at the 276 images that you draw on for your paintings?
JH I’m a collector of information, an information junkie. And I had saved a lot of these things for a long time not thinking that they had anything necessarily to do with my art. I keep notebooks of many things—for example, sentences that I have collected as lapidary objects. I made a living teaching for ten years in Baltimore although I resided in New York. I spent two nights a week in the college library. If I had lived only in New York for those ten years, I can’t say I would have gone to the public library twice a week. To this day I don’t know why I chose some things and not others. As to the number, at a certain point it seemed like enough. I was going to be doing something that was essentially recombinative in nature—think recombinative DNA. If I had 20 images it would have been too gamey and pat. If I had 5,000 you would never apprehend any structure. It would feel like chaos. On the one hand I wanted to stretch out the boundaries of heterogeneity and, on the other hand, have you feel this weaving together of things in this painting that you saw three years ago in that painting. It’s a bit like the experience of memory. I’m interested in the relationship between pictures and language; it’s the very essence of how we think, it’s at the very heart of culture itself. It was pictures first, then it became writing. The Internet is making it more pictorial again. My next group of paintings has to do particularly with writing and picture-making. And they are going to be quite different in appearance from these paintings.
DL Your paintings are “literary” in that they are full of language. They don’t substitute form for meaning. The viewer can read them, in a sense, as you would read an intellectually ambitious comic book or a rebus, an illustrated text in which the illustrations are the text. Do you feel comfortable with that description?
JH Some artists make a kind of painting that is too slippery for words. I make a kind of painting that a good writer can have a field day with. There are many analogies between the way I work and the way language operates. You invent very few words in your lifetime—when you fall in love, and when you talk to animals and babies. Other than that, you use the same English that I use, that John Ashbery uses, that the guy next door uses. Yet somehow we are able to inflect language with the particularity of our being. I’m interested in language in an abstract way: usage, context, the concept of connotation and denotation. I like to explore not only how the same image can have different meanings in different settings but also how an image accrues a life over various paintings, how it bears some vestiges of meanings it had in previous paintings.
DL Wonderful You is one of your self-portraits. There are a lot of characters and they all have your face. One character is a little girl on roller skates, another is Christ crucified, another is Joan of Arc, and all are examples of the self projected onto different historical or mythical characters. We can’t help imagining the relationships among the characters, and in that sense we participate in the work very differently from the way we interact with, say, an Abstract Expressionist canvas. Recurring images mean different things in different pictures.
JH They’re signs that draw you into a world of associations that you already have about who Santa Claus is, who Jesus was, what you know about Joan of Arc.
DL The paintings are full of meanings, although they don’t disclose them right away. But there is a surfeit of meaning rather than an absence. In a conversation we had last week, you said that you were interested in the moment when a mark becomes a sign. I thought that was a wonderful phrase.
JH I’m interested in how meaning is created. How is it that someone makes a few lines with a soft substance on a hard substance and instead of just seeing marks, it makes you think of a horse, which then makes you think of the smell of horses, the sight of horses, all the horses you’ve ridden? When does that moment occur? How few lines can you use and still cause the person in the horseless room to have a horse inside his head? I’m very interested in calling up the associative aspects of thinking itself so that this painting before you in the here and now is also tapping into your memory bank. Obviously, once I say that, I have to relinquish a certain degree of control. I certainly don’t have control over your memory bank; I barely have any control over my own. But I’m interested in the associational nature of thinking itself. The Surrealists called it “free association,” but the burgeoning study of the brain, thinking, consciousness and memory is showing us that it is really not so “free.” And, if anything, my work owes a greater debt to semiotics than to Surrealism.
DL In the course of making a painting, you’re discovering what the painting is going to look like.
JH I am constantly discovering, but I start with a picture in my head. It’s shockingly clear. It’s the easiest part of my job. These pictures just come to me. If I didn’t have this ability, I would be a pathologist or a lawyer, but instead I lie in bed and whole pictures come to me. I knew Keeping the Orphan was going to be shaped like Connecticut. I knew it was going to be like a map that would fade in and out, that it would have these other things that have to do with my grandmother’s life and our life together. I could sort of see it. Of course, as I get into making it, everything goes away and comes back again: my experiences with her, these moments of her reciting from Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. You know it enough to get started and you can see it in your mind, but you’re constantly discovering things in the act. John Cage said something like this: When you’re a young artist, you are overwhelmed with the history of art. You are in your studio, and van Gogh and Delacroix, all these artists from the past, are in the room shouting at you, Do it this way, do it that way. And you work and work for years and years, and one by one these people exit the room. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you’re left there all by yourself. And then, the story goes, if you’re really lucky, you leave. (laughter) And that’s the best part of painting—you get free of yourself and you go to some other place.
DL It’s similar in poetry. If you knew the poem in advance you’d have less incentive to write it. The process wouldn’t hold as much charm. Your impulse as an artist may begin with a recondite piece of knowledge, from chemistry, say, or ornithology. But then you have to figure out a way of translating this knowledge into your medium. This picture that looks like a plate, Bread and Butter Machine. Do you remember when you showed it to me in New York?
JH I left that title alone for quite a while; I didn’t like it too much. One day I thought about the poet Robert Creeley. He has a very unique way of speaking. He uses English unlike anyone else I’ve ever met. It is highly particular, but it does have a Beat smell to it. And somehow, one day, I heard him say in my head, “bread and butter machine.” Painting is my bread and butter. So the subject of Bread and Butter Machine is painting. At the time I was reading a book on the history of Japanese ceramics, so the ideas conflated, and I made a plate-shaped painting. This gave me an opportunity to do something that was already an appropriated self-conscious “decoration.” You’ve seen ceramic plates where there’s a forest scene in the center with lace around the edges, or fruit on the sides and a portrait in the middle. Without having to make any compositional distinctions at all, as you would have to on a flat canvas, you can have two or three different levels of activity and information. I liked that and used the rim of the plate to present a sample lexicon. These items don’t have anything particular to do with one another—they are like beads on a necklace. And in the center I made a still life out of the samples. But that was too simple, so I repainted the still life in the center, in black and white. It’s like before and after, how the things might combine for a moment before they dissolve and recombine in another painting.
DL Would you ever consider turning these titles around? Give them back to John Ashbery now that they’re paintings and see what he might do with them?
JH That’s a good question, but no, there are already endless variations. The Cincinnati Museum acquired a painting—it’s me with Esther Williams’s body with all these men in a swimming pool. Twenty students wrote an interpretation of the painting. One student said, “This is the artist and these are all her lovers. Their ankles are chained to the bottom of the pool and they are calling out how many years they have been there.” Each essay is quite distinct, 20 different interpretations. Although if you had by chance found these essays in a railroad station, you would have been able to infer that they were all describing the same picture. And yes, it would have been interesting to find the essays and then make the picture. I like the question, but I’m not going to do it because I’m on to something else. And John is too.
—David Lehman has written five collections of poetry, including The Evening Sun (Scribner, 2002), which contains 150 of the poems he wrote daily in 1999 and 2000. He has also written several volumes of criticism, including The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Anchor, 1999).