Letters

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THAT'S ALS, FOLKS

To the Editor:

After my complete dismay and sadness from reading the October 1999 Artforum article "Frank Appraisal," I would like to share a few thoughts. Hilton Als's "slant" is an outrageous, libelous diatribe!

The exhibition "In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O'Hara and American Art" seemed to be a launching point for Als to vent his personal fury with a vicious attack against Frank O'Hara. Portraits are often more about the artist's psyche than about the artist's model! In addition to Als's mocking response to various portraits and photographs, he touts an uneven and, in many instances, inaccurate book of confusion of fact, fiction, and hearsay--City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara by Brad Gooch. Gooch projected death and created a cynical, ominous tone that distorted and diminished Frank and his fully accomplished life. Neither Als nor Gooch knew Frank O'Hara.

Frank's life and work were filled with intelligence, caring, great wit, and integrity. His energies were focused on the present--writing poems, plays, essays, working at the Museum of Modern Art, being supportive of other poets, artists, great friends, and projects. He delighted in music, dance, theater, and film. He was very clear about the struggles, obstacles, and injustices of his time. Frank was just forty when he died thirty-three years ago. I am his sister. He was a splendid, loving, generous person.

For specific understanding, here is a primary source--Frank's writing on the poets and some of the artists whose works are included in the exhibition "In Memory of My Feelings." The following are excerpts from Frank's essay "Larry Rivers: A Memoir."

The milieu of those days, and it's funny to think of them in such a way since they are so recent, seems odd now. We were all in our early twenties. John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch and I, being poets, divided our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artists' bar, the Cedar Tavern. In the San Remo we argued and gossiped; in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip. So far as I know nobody painted in the San Remo while they listened to the writers argue. An interesting sidelight to these social activities was that for most of us non-academic and indeed nonliterary poets in the sense of the American scene at the time, the painters were the only generous audience for our poetry, and most of us read first publicly in art galleries or at The Club. The literary establishment cared about as much for our work as the Frick cared for Pollock and de Kooning, not that we cared any more about the establishments than they did, all of the disinterested parties b eing honorable men.

Then there was great respect for anyone who did anything marvelous: when Larry introduced me to de Kooning I nearly got sick, as I almost did when I met Auden; if Jackson Pollock tore the door off the men's room in the Cedar it was something he just did and was interesting, not an annoyance. You couldn't see into it anyway, and besides there was then a sense of genius. Or what Kline used to call "the dream." Newman was at that time considered a temporarily silent oracle, being ill, Ad Reinhardt the most shrewd critic of the emergent "art world," Meyer Schapiro a god and Alfred Barr right up there alongside him but more distant, Holger Cahill another god but one who had abdicated to become more interested in "the thing we're doing," Clement Greenberg the discoverer, Harold Rosenberg the analyzer, and so on and so on. Tom Hess had written the important book. Elaine de Kooning was the White Goddess: she knew everything, told little of it though she talked a lot, and we all adored (and adore) her. She is grace.. .

It is interesting to think of 1950-52, and the styles of a whole group of young artists whom I knew rather intimately. It was a liberal education on top of an academic one. …