In early 1950s America, creative sparks lit off like fireworks. The days of WWII were in the past, vinyl record albums hit the shelves, televisions sprouted up in every well-to-do American living room, and the doors of Tibor de Nagy Gallery on West 53rd Street swung open for the first time.
Now, on the occasion of its sixtieth birthday, the gallery has mounted a spectacular and charming show entitled Painters & Poets: Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Residual thumbprints of the gallery’s formative players are everywhere, from numerous personal letters to roughly-hewn plaster busts. Everything in the show—the intimate portraits, the family-style photographs, the handmade flyers—speaks to the existence of something exceedingly rare these days: a tight-knit community founded on real, analogue, presence.
The work Portrait and Poem Painting (1961) by Rivers and O’Hara is an artifact of such kinship. A quick, angular outline of a male figure pushes against a surface of scattered words and weighty acrylic. The strokes of paint are heavy, vertical, and reach beyond the figure, extending rhythm outside his contours. To the left, snippets of poems, in different handwritings, bubble up to the whitewashed surface. One fragment proclaims, “A cheap thrill is still a thrill!” This layering of paint and play, of lexicon and personality, is collaboration made manifest. Both artist’s fingerprints are visibly there, but to extract one from the other would mean to let them both wither away.
Evidence of close collaboration is interwoven throughout the show. Even when these artists were not sharing canvases, they were the subject of each other’s art. Rivers sculpting O’Hara, O’Hara writing poems to Rivers, Rivers painting Ashbery, Joe Brainard and O’Hara collaging. Yet in all of the works, no voice ever drowns out another; the mark of each artist swirls around the gesture left behind by his partner.
In two works on paper from 1975, Joan Mitchell colors a response to the poetry of James Schuyler. Schuyler’s small, typed words float near the bottom of the page, “And when I thought/Our love might end/the Sun/went right on shining.” A field of pastel golden sunlight hovers above, breaking against a chalky, aberrant gesture of blue. Neither contribution is an illustration nor a caption; both ground the other in collective expression.
In such a highly collaborative atmosphere, things were bound to get personal. Like much of the other work in the show, In Bed (1982) solicits larger-than-life questions with anecdotal honesty. A mixed-media collage by Larry Rivers and Kenneth Koch, In Bed is a compilation of musings on the various scenarios in which beds play a leading part. Short poems are scattered about, written in pen or colored pencil, and tell stories of buying a new bed, basketballs in bed, cowards in bed, even Chopin’s Études in bed. Photographs and magazine cut-outs are pasted in, and the piece becomes a collective scrapbook of the eccentricities from which relationships grow. Hand written next to a photograph of depressions left behind in wrinkled bed sheets are the lines, “Plato says this bed/Isn’t the real one/What did Plato know/about beds.”
The show is heavy on ephemera, and four large display cases are filled with archival documents and photographs that tell tales of love, art-making, vacations and unbalanced budgets. They compose a kind of unfurled yearbook, and as I peered through the plexiglass, it was the only time I wanted more from the show. But alas, if visitors were allowed to flip through O’Hara’s personal postcards, would anyone ever leave?
Keeping any sort of chronological tab in “Painters and Poets” is nearly impossible, but it doesn’t seem to matter. What comes out of this show, perhaps even more strongly than an actual aesthetic experience of the work, are the magnetic personalities of these figures. Their charms, their talents, their relationships, their faults. Even the presentation of the work, hung close together and stacked in uneven registers, emphasizes this impression of intimacy.
The brightest figure remains O’Hara, seen here in a short film from 1966, the same year of his untimely death. As he recites a poem in his off-the-cuff style, his charisma lights up the screen. The camera zooms in to his hand as he clanks a typewriter, lifting it only to take a pull from his cigarette. Every part of him, right down to his fingers, seems alive with creativity. The show isn’t intended purely as an homage to O’Hara, but it’s hard to turn the eye away from his presence. His aura permeates, and the show—like the lives of the artists he inspired—is saturated with palpable vitality.