The New York School Poets and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Between Radical Art and Radical Chic

The New York School Poets and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Between Radical Art and Radical Chic

The New York School Poets and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Between Radical Art and Radical Chic

The New York School Poets and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Between Radical Art and Radical Chic


New York City was the site of a remarkable cultural and artistic renaissance during the 1950s and '60s. In the first monograph to treat all five major poets of the New York School-John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler-Mark Silverberg examines this rich period of cross-fertilization between the arts. Silverberg uses the term 'neo-avant-garde' to describe New York School Poetry, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Happenings, and other movements intended to revive and revise the achievements of the historical avant-garde, while remaining keenly aware of the new problems facing avant-gardists in the age of late capitalism. Silverberg highlights the family resemblances among the New York School poets, identifying the aesthetic concerns and ideological assumptions they shared with one another and with artists from the visual and performing arts. A unique feature of the book is Silverberg's annotated catalogue of collaborative works by the five poets and other artists. To comprehend the coherence of the New York School, Silverberg demonstrates, one must understand their shared commitment to a reconceptualized idea of the avant-garde specific to the United States in the 1950s and '60s, when the adversary culture of the Beats was being appropriated and repackaged as popular culture. Silverberg's detailed analysis of the strategies the New York School poets used to confront the problem of appropriation tells us much about the politics of taste and gender during the period, and suggests new ways of understanding succeeding generations of artists and poets.


Sometime in 1954, Frank O’Hara and his partner Larry Rivers, the enfant terrible jazz musician turned painter, wrote a play entitled Kenneth Koch: A Tragedy which, O’Hara later recorded, “cannot be printed because it is so filled with 50s art gossip that everyone would sue us” (OCP 514). In many ways, the play provides an ideal example of the New York School text and attitude which will be the subjects of this study. An improvised, collaborative production, the play began during one of O’Hara’s many modeling sessions for Rivers as a way of keeping the model amused. And with typical New York School nonchalance, it was abandoned when its momentary usefulness was exhausted; the play remains incomplete.

Regardless of (or perhaps because of) its gratuitous and casual genesis, Kenneth Koch: A Tragedy is a fascinating, self-reflexive document which uses parody and self-parody to examine the conditions of artistic production in New York in the 1950s. This is a play about the “New York School” which both enacts and satirizes the qualities of the movement. This doubleness is refreshing, especially given the fact that the New York art world of the 50s and 60s has developed a rather hallowed mythic aura (produced through the initiative of the artists of the time and with the help of critics like Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Thomas B. Hess, Irving Sandler, and David Lehman). Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets presents New York in the 50s and 60s as America’s answer to “Paris in the golden period before World War I” (1):

The poets of the New York School were as heterodox, as belligerent towards the
literary establishment and as loyal to each other, as their Parisian predecessors
had been. The 1950s and early ‘60s in New York were their banquet years. It
is as though they translated the avant-garde idiom of “perpetual collaboration”
from the argot of turn-of-the-century Paris to the roughhewn vernacular of the
American metropolis at midcentury. (2)

Frank O’Hara thus becomes America’s Guillaume Apollinaire, and Abstract Expressionism becomes its Cubism. It is instructive to compare Lehman’s romantic version of New York to one presented . . .

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