REPORTED SIGHTINGS: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 <i> by John Ashbery edited by David Bergman (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 417 pp.) </i>
Poet John Ashbery, whose “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975, is perhaps less well known for his art criticism. The best of these essays, written over the course of 30 years and ranging over such topics as Dada and Surrealism, the expatriate American art community in Paris, the careers of Jackson Pollock, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Michaux, architecture and wallpaper, are collected in this volume.
Ashbery writes as a keen, informed, but disinterested observer. Analyses of painterly qualities and habits recombine with personal responses or musings. “A painter like (Jackson) Pollock . . . was gambling everything on the fact that he was the greatest painter in America, for if he wasn’t, he was nothing, and the drips would turn out to be random splashes from the brush of a careless housepainter.”
In his essay about expatriate American artists in Paris (“American Sanctuary in Paris”) Ashbery writes of “the advantages of isolation” to the creative process, and the importance of breaking from tradition to claim an individual style. “It is as though (these artists) had given up all efforts at trying to please a public, whether French or American, and had gone back to pleasing themselves.” But it is in his essay on the painter Esteban Vicente that Ashbery is at his most original and enlightening. The artist, Ashbery reports, has tried “to get rid of brushstrokes, which had begun to seem to him as something false . . . (and often) made to substitute for genuine passion and inventiveness in painterly abstract painting.” Ashbery elucidates this sentiment with a recollection of a Mutt and Jeff strip, “in which Jeff went into business selling honey with a dead bee in each jar as proof of genuineness . . . frantic brushwork is often the dead bee in Abstract Expressionist painting.”