"Painters & Poets"

Article excerpt

In 1950, Hungarian emigre Tibor de Nagy and American impresario John Bernard Myers announced their new gallery. "Not only will painting and sculpture be here," they declared, "but also anything that an astonished or adoring eve might select instantaneously from the cinema of life. ... [Visitors] will be objets trouves among objets trouves, beheld by one another in joy." Much of the venerable gallery's ethos is predicted here, from the tone of amused overripeness, to the accent on instantaneity and life as cinematic. What Myers and de Nagy didn't anticipate was that the "objects" joyously found under their auspices would often be poems and pictures. The mutual regard between writers and artists at de Nagy made avant-garde history, fusing postwar American Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism into Pop, while arcing toward the 1970s downtown literary scene around the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. There was "a certain ambience" around the place, as the poet Kenneth Koch once explained, "seeing each other all the time and being envious of each other and emulous of each other and inspiring each other and collaborating." The exhibition "Painters & Poets" celebrated that ambience, and the elan remains so enjoyable that it didn't much matter whether the art looked dated or amazing. (It looked both.)

With letters, photographs, posters, and other ephemera on display, in addition to books, chapbooks, broadsides, prints, paintings, collages, drawings, and films, viewing the show was a bit like sorting through the effects of a louche and brilliant gay uncle. The full space of this review could easily be spent detailing the social connections that supported the artistic experiments--the surprising fact, for example, that it was Clement Greenberg who drew up the list of mostly figurative painters for the founding roster; or the differences between Koch, Frank O'Hara, and John Ashbery (who knew one another from Harvard University in the '40s) and Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Joe Brainard (who knew one another from Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the '50s); or the curious detail that the gallery was more hospitable to female painters, including Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher, and Helen Frankenthaler, than to women poets, with Barbara Guest standing more or less alone. …