Book review – GANGS OF NEW YORK SCHOOL

by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

New York School Painters & Poets by Jenni Quilter
Rizzoli, 2014

Quilter

It was a big scene and this book (at three hundred pages) is packed with photographs, memoirs, essays, book covers and lots of artwork and poems. The primary text written by Jenni Quilter is highly readable as it navigates the many tributaries that formed this formidable association we call “The New York School.”

The interface of art and poetry, and the friendships therein, form the original impulse for this aesthetic. From the beginning when Rudy Burckhardt (artist) and Edwin Denby (poet) met Wilem de Kooning, a dynamic between the two art forms has been at the crux of what defines the NYS.

As New York flexed its artistic muscles in the 1940s and 50s, a group of painters and poets challenged the cultural landscape. The gallery most associated with the phenomenon, Tibor de Nagy Gallery continues over 60 years later. Since 1993 the gallery has been run by Andrew Arnot and Eric Brown and remains a locus for the “School.”

Tibor de Nagy and Johnny Myers started the gallery in 1950. The two teamed up to do puppet shows for artists and their families on Long Island. (That’s what Tibor told me in 1987 — a great story!) Anyway, with advice from Clement Greenberg, they began showing a group of mostly figurative painters who bucked the big trends of AbEx and Pop Art.

The stable included Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, Nell Blaine, and Fairfield Porter as well as abstractionists Mike Goldberg and Helen Frankenthaler,

These painters were friends with poets and the circle grew to include Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and John Ashbery. The easy mix of art and poetry was probably the central organizing principle of this association. In his vital proclamation: “go on your nerves, ”O’Hara provided a manifesto in his “Personism” poem.

Rudy Burckhardt was perhaps the central overarching figure of the NYS. He spanned generations as well as disciplines (painting, photography and film) and New York City was very much a key subject.

Bill Berkson also spans generations and his contribution to the movement (and the book) is also central. He appears in two iconic group portraits — one from the first generation NYS and again in the second. He sits beside Frank O’Hara with a “well-coifed… tanned” group from the 50s. In the 60s he’s with Ted Berrigan (poet) and George Schneeman (artist) and many of the next generation, which Quilter notes is more “scruffy” and less interested in Academia.

Berrigan really propelled the idea of a Second Generation New York School. By 1961 his dazzling posse from Tulsa (where he had been studying English) had come to the city and included poets Dick Gallup, Ron Padgett and his future wife Pat, and artist and writer Joe Brainard.

Both Brainard and Schneeman were tireless collaborators and worked with numerous poets including Anne Waldman, Alice Notley, and Larry Fagin, as well as Berkson, Berrigan, and Padgett. A burgeoning scene found a haven at St. Mark’s Church where Waldman became director of the Poetry Project in 1968.

This group eagerly reached out to their elders and many more collaborations ensued. Alex Katz painted numerous portraits of the poets. In overlapping circles, Philip Guston produced magazine covers and Trevor Winkfield painted book jackets.

Quilter notes, “In general… throughout these decades there was a distinct pleasure in the air, of being contrary.” That tone percolates through the work. There was also a lot of humor. Ted Berrigan’s fake interview with John Cage is innovative, transgressive and very funny. Ron Padgett’s sonnet for Andy Warhol, “Zzzzzzzzzzzz,” is too.

There is so much talent and perspective included here: poets Frank Lima, Maureen Owen, Bernadette Mayer, Lewis Warsh, David Shaprio, Clark Coolidge, Charles North, Tony Towle, and Paul Violi; poet and critic Carter Ratcliffe (who wrote the foreword); artist Donna Dennis; publisher Lita Hornick and many others.

Eileen Myles represents the third generation in a collaboration with Alice Notley. (For the record: I’m third generation NYS having studied with Ted, Alice and Jim Brodey at St. Mark’s in the late 70s.) A fourth generation might include painter Pamela Lawton and poets Elio Schneeman and Vincent Katz.

Berkson wrote in his introduction, that a deep appreciation “of modern art and poetry as ever-expanding fields” valuably provides “continually fresh insight.” He also pinpoints the primary commonality: “If surface tension is the one attribute shared across the board in the art and poetry of the New York School, it is probably this ongoing sense of recombinant impulse and reckless assemblages that keep the surfaces lively….”

A seemingly careless daring runs throughout. Along these lines, Quilter finds the risk of being absurd or ephemeral to be liberating. “This art keeps the horizon of possibility wide open.”

It’s easy to romanticize these figures, but the art and poetry gathered here remain very open and relevant. This amazing book is an invaluable resource and an endlessly tantalizing trove of delights.

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