IN MEMORY OF MY FEELINGS: Frank O'Hara and American Art

In Memory of My FeelingsEdited by Russell Ferguson
University of California Press ($39.95)

by Chris Fischbach

In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O'Hara and American Art is the book which accompanies the exhibit of the same name which ran at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles July 11th through November 14th, 1999, and which will also be shown at The Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio and The Parrish Art Museum in Southhampton, New York. I don't know if anyone in the visual arts would argue that this is a major twentieth century exhibition, though for O'Hara-philes, the exhibit is a must-see, which leads one to wonder why it isn't being shown in New York City. (The answer is, I suppose, that NYC is by now, especially given the recent Pollock retrospective, Abstract Expressionismed out.) Anyway Southhampton isn't really that far. For those of us who won't be able to see it, the book is sure to become an essential part of our own libraries.

Russell Ferguson, the curator and author of the extensive notes to the catalog, states that his aim was "to use the charismatic figure of Frank O'Hara as a lens through which to take another look at the most mythologized period in American Art. Despite much recent scholarship, the oversimplified narrative remains only too familiar: a heroic generation of Abstract Expressionist pioneers followed by a much weaker 'second generation,' and then by the explosion of Pop. In that version of history, there is little room for the strong tradition of realist and figurative painting that continued throughout the period. Nor does it easily accommodate idiosyncratic figures who cannot be easily pigeonholed, such as Joe Brainerd or Alfred Leslie."

I cannot argue, by virtue of my limited scholarship in visual art, that this goal was achieved. Certainly, however, the book is an invaluable tool in terms of the poetry, especially as a companion to Marjorie Perloff's Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters and, to a lesser degree, Standing Still and Walking in New York, a book of collected essays and interviews by and with O'Hara regarding both poetry and painting–both of which Ferguson has drawn significantly from for his understanding of O'Hara's poetry and the role painting had on it. Looming above all of these is of course the poetry itself, specifically (though not exclusively) "Oranges: 12 Pastorals," "Why I Am Not a Painter," "Second Avenue," and "In Memory of My Feelings." The great service the book provides to poetry is to gather many of the paintings and collaborations O'Hara fans have read about in the poetry and criticism, many of which are from private collections, and present them in a wonderfully designed and beautiful format. In many cases, it will come as a surprise to readers to find out that many of the poems existed first, or at least first publicly, as collaborations. In some cases, these collaborations are documented briefly in the notes to O'Hara's Collected Poems, but in many cases they aren't.

Even when they weren't the first appearances of the poems, their existence here in their collaborative incarnations is something both poem and not a poem. They are poetic instances, or circumstances, which bear an authenticity located somewhere between an original manuscript and a first edition. They are also both paintings and not paintings. From the point of view of either medium, there is always the sense of a certain equality of space. (Charles Olson helped pave the way for the idea of the page as an open field, a field similar to the canvas of the Abstract Expressionists and artists around the same period.) In Memory of My Feelings focuses on collaborations with Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Hans Namuth, Norman Bluhm, Michael Goldberg, and Joe Brainerd. In some instances, these are not true collaborations, in that a poem may have existed before its presence on the canvas; however, these instances represent a sovereign existence for each poem, independent of any prior or future life it may have. In Memory of My Feelings makes these available to readers for the first time in a single book, which is an exciting and important event.

I will have done an injustice to Ferguson if I continue to discuss what this all means for poetry; his argument is first and foremost from the point of view of the visual artists. The most compelling argument Ferguson makes has to do with the struggle many artists of this generation had with representation, specifically with the figure. With the arrival of Pollock, painting was supposed to have reached its Greenbergian peak: complete abstraction, the flattening of the canvas, the elimination of representation and narrative (which were supposed to be handed over to film and literature, which could do a better job of it anyway). This argument neatly shoves aside painters who continued to experiment with the figure (specifically Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, Grace Hartigan, and others) and it also ignores the idea that Jackson Pollock himself was the figure in his own paintings.

But poetry didn't necessarily want the job of representation either. To my mind, any poet in the last thirty or forty years that has been interesting at all has dealt, at least at some point, directly with the problems of representation– either wanting to represent but finding language inadequate; or wanting to free oneself from the tendency of language to represent things. In short, poetry's struggle with language is analogous to painting's struggle with the figure.

Nowhere is this more present in O'Hara's poetry than in "Why I Am Not a Painter," which Ferguson explicates very well and points to as a significant chronicle of the art scene in New York in the fifties– one of intense personal friendships between artists of all mediums, awareness of each other's current work, and how this closeness was both energizing and in a sense, collaborative. The poem also serves as perhaps the most coherent guide to O'Hara's own struggle with the tension between image and word, a tension he, living in both worlds simultaneously, surely felt. The very existence of the poem, with its (unusual for O'Hara) strict adherence to chronology, speaks to O'Hara's acceptance of his own medium, while recognizing, with a calm lament, its limitations.

Ferguson's reading of O'Hara and his struggle with representation is the very lens we can look through to understand the analogous struggle the painters were having. This lens can also help situate some of the artists that critics and historians have heretofore either ignored or subjugated as minor. Whether or not Joe Brainerd or Alfred Leslie become household names, we'll have to wait and see. But this book is a compelling look at the aesthetic issues such artists faced.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999