A couple of years ago I read and enjoyed Frank O’Hara’s ‘Lunch poems’ for the first time.
Intrigued, I looked up details of O’Hara’s life and discovered that he was active in the New York art world of the 1950’s, working as a reviewer for the journal Artnews. In 1960, he became assistant curator of painting and sculpture exhibitions for the Museum of Modern art. O’Hara was also friends with artists such as Williem de Kooning, Norman Bluhm, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell.
Around the time I was reading O’Hara, I came across an article about abstract art. The writer recounted a scene from around the turn of the millennium in which a discussion took place about who made the first abstract art. Unfortunately I can remember neither the scource of the article nor the writer’s name. The poem below began by using detail from the text, so it’s partially a ‘found poem’ and I’d like to reference the text if I could locate it again. To develop the poem into something relevant to O’Hara, I did some research into abstract art history and omitted and added abstract artists to form a new conversation. I looked up knowledgeable contemporaries and friends from O’Hara’s art scene to provide the characters in the piece, and put them in the car with him. I added period voices and period detail.
The poem is voiced by O’Hara, and I attempted to capture some of the immediacy of his writing style, and perhaps some of the tone he uses in some of his poems. Although O’Hara’s poems are often fun and funny, as by all accounts, was he, I find several of them strangely haunted and emotionally affecting.
I wonder if his wartime experience as a sonar operator in a submarine may have lain beneath his often urbane and ironic style. Another poem I wrote around the same time, ‘Sardines’, explores this idea a little.
The poem I’m sharing here was described by someone I showed it to as a pastiche. I think I’m happy with that description, as it is meant to celebrate O’Hara and his interest as well as making a serious point about the ancient origins of supposedly ‘modern’ art.
I rediscovered the poem while browsing old files on my computer this evening. It doesn’t really fit in my new book, so I’m giving it an airing here. A version of the poem was previously published in Sheffield Hallam’s Matter magazine in 2014. Thanks for reading.
Frank O’Hara Talks Abstract Art
I recall driving back to Manhattan
on the New Jersey Turnpike the day after
New Year’s, the heater jammed on high,
rain turning to sleet and hitting the windshield
like cloud borne jellyfish between wiper blade sweeps.
That’s when Henry asked, who made the first abstract?
I said Kandinsky, and Henry said Kupka came before him
and that Arthur Dove showed oil studies to Seiglitz
in nineteen-ten, way before Malevich or Mondrian.
I was wearing my leather hat, the one with the flaps,
a gift from Joan Mitchell before she went back to Paris.
I said Serusier made his Talisan painting
in the eighteen-eighties. Henry replied that was just
one painting, and anyway it’s still a landscape. Al Martino
came on the radio and Henry grumbled, jeez, why not spin
some Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. I remarked that
Victor Hugo drew abstracts in the eighteen-fifties
while Henry packed his pipe and I said I hope
you’re not going to light that. Then we argued about
Besant and Leadbetter who made their Thought Forms
in nineteen hundred and five. Henry said those weren’t
really paintings at all. I mentioned Hilma Af Klint
and her Paintings From The Temple series
and that’s when Hal Forden woke up in the back,
his big face creased from the leatherette seat
and told us we were both fools and asked
what about the Peruvian carpet makers
and the Mayans and the Tantra painters
and the American Indian rock painters
and the Aboriginal dream-time bark painters
and then he told us we’d just missed
the Lincoln Tunnel exit.