Writer’s block



A show pays homage to poets who also make art


A.R. Ammons, John Ashbery, Star Black, Joe Brainard, Mark Strand, and Marjorie Welish

Through February 23

Ziehersmith Inc.

533 W. 25th Street

(212-229-1008; ziehersmith.com)

Chelsea is being good to poets. Recently on 25th Street, there was a book party for Carter Ratcliff’s poems at Cue and an opening at ZieherSmith celebrating art by poets. On the same night, Anne Lauterbach read her poems nearby at Max Protech Gallery. Never have more poets been involved with the arts—whether as critics, curators, collaborators or painters. And poets have especially embraced collage.

Ah, yes—poetry and collage—the poor cousins at the banquet. Yet how witty and magical they can be. I remember talking about that with Joe Brainard (who seemed very suave to me) at one of Lita Hornick’s parties.

For collage aficionados, Brainard may be the star of the post-Pop era, employing cartoon characters such as Nancy and Sluggo and flowers a la Warhol. Going further back, his tack was more akin to the mellifluous reconfigurations of Max Ernst than the rhythmic geometry of Kurt Schwitters. While Brainard was deft at finding ready-made images with resonance (such as a playing card or a matchbook), it was his neatly cutout and painted figures that mark his style—a tiny Pegasus painted on a matchbook.

An actual icon (a Saint) is also included. Here Brainard departs from his smooth elegance and produces a bumpy surface. Wads of paper are glued down around a central image of a religious figure that appears to be cut from a magazine. Here we have the high-low contrast that Brainard championed both in subject and tone.

No one epitomizes the New York School more than John Ashbery. Our foremost poet, he has also written art criticism, painted modest, evocative scenes (along the lines of his friend Fairfield Porter) and made collages. Three collages are on view, all of them based on postcards.

A cut-out boy on a balance beam is superimposed over a cityscape of blue-green glass and concrete towers. The lad appears antique and innocent, adding to the contrasts: solitary/public, old/new, small/big. It’s a simple collage actually, but a complex intersection of metaphors, typical of Ashbery’s inventive charm.

On an old photo of a European beach resort, Ashbery has floated the torsos of two Victorian era women. A flying manhole cover adds a surreal touch. In the third collage a boy wearing a blue jacket and knickers carries a basket of roses. He is placed in an evergreen forest. Radiating from his sides are the crinkled ridges of a pink taffeta rosette, implying ascension (or propulsion).

Mark Strand, former poet laureate, is represented by etchings. Rounded islands jut up from a flat seascape. Hulking protrusions, they are declarations of presence. They brood in their own ironic insistence on monumental silence.

Marjorie Welish is known for poetry, art criticism and paintings. Her three acrylic and ink triptychs are hard-edged compositions in black and yellow with lots of white. Here absence is amplified and dressed up neatly in x’s and right angles.

Star Black is another jack of all arts—photographer, poet and consummate collagist. Her image bank is replete with classic collage materials: antique stamps, old photographs, and reproductions of architectural and botanical engravings. She has made 12 collages on a folding panel that stands upright.

A sea-diver is centered in a sea of green snake plant leaves. Red shapes mimic the undulating contours. A fish head pokes in from an ornate frame. Tiny photographs are jogged to the sides, breaking the square picture plane.

Some images are built up with receding frames to as many as seven layers. Square patches of color alternate with unexpected windows. Larger images, such as a dog or a lizard, hold the works together like bolts on a shimmering plate.

Referring to his life-size fabrication of a 15th century painting of St. Jerome translating the Bible, Adam Winner says, “It’s my interpretation.” The original shows St. Jerome’s writing area to be “in the round, so you can walk around it,” Winner says. He’s updated the musty scene with a portrait of Frank O’Hara, a typewriter, blank paper and four copies of the hip journal “Sienese Shredder.”

Winner was also fascinated with perspectives that sometimes didn’t jive. It was the breakthrough of their age and they were still working it out. When I ask what is the issue of our age, he replies, “It’s about a return to quality. I let the symbolism slide. It’s about practicality and problem solving.” Let the answers begin.

The exhibition at Ziehersmith was co-curated by Scott Zieher (a poet, too) and his partner, Andrea Smith, with Alice Quinn of the Poetry Society of America.