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Art Review

A Circle of Influence, Rippling Out

An exhibition looks at writer-curator Frank O'Hara's effect on artists.

July 16, 1999|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

For art, eclecticism is a virtue. The capacity to acknowledge the worthwhile coexistence of multiple aesthetic doctrines and artistic points of view--even if they might seem contradictory--keeps systems open and curiosity alive.

Eclectic viewpoints are encountered more often in today's internationalized art world than they have been at most times in the 20th century. But there have been exceptions. Frank O'Hara's (1926-1966) was one.

The precocious New York poet, who was killed in a freak accident at the tender age of 40, worked as both a critic (mostly for Art News) and a curator (for the Museum of Modern Art). In both roles he was a man of eclectic tastes.

Abundant evidence of that pluralistic range is on view in a newly opened exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. For "In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O'Hara and American Art," curator Russell Ferguson has brought together paintings, drawings, prints, a film and mixed-media works by two dozen diverse artists who were part of O'Hara's circle. The figurative Expressionism of Elaine de Kooning hangs across from the gestural abstraction of Michael Goldberg. Claes Oldenburg's painted, plaster-soaked muslin Pop sculpture "White Shirt on a Chair" (1962) stands in a corner near two jittery 1960 oil portraits of the poet by the indefatigable Alice Neel. Fairfield Porter's charming, sunny, deceptively simple portrait is around the corner from one by Larry Rivers (O'Hara's sometime lover), which casts the poet in a pompous pastiche of 19th century French Romantic painting.

The exhibition is a pleasurable, inside baseball look at the nuances of a particular milieu, which will provide special gratification to aficionados of the time and place. It's modest, too, filled with mostly minor works by artists both major and minor.

The abundance of minor art sometimes gives the show the immediate impression of being memorabilia. Still, the overall modesty is effective. It conveys a sense of the prosaic, workaday world in which art actually gets made, and which is often obscured in today's celebrity-mad, blockbuster-driven museum culture.

It also helps dispel a pernicious idea that has lately gained some currency in our increasingly academic world of contemporary art. O'Hara had little formal training in art history, and certainly none in the practice of criticism or curatorial work. There are those today who cling to academic credentials as a prerequisite for what O'Hara went on to do with such success; this exhibition exposes the bureaucratic foolishness of their churchly faith.

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Four categories of work have been brought together: portraits of O'Hara; art directly inspired by his writing; work he wrote about in his role as critic; and, finally, work O'Hara made in collaboration with other artists, ranging from the little-known collagist Joe Brainard to the famous Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline.

The show's spiritual core might be the room with six works by Jasper Johns, including his important 1961 painting "In Memory of My Feelings--Frank O'Hara." The title (like the show's) comes from an O'Hara poem. Two hinged panels, obliquely reminiscent of a large book, are covered with muted dove-gray markings in oil paint, creating a shadowy recollection of an American flag. Suspended on a wire from the top are a humble fork and spoon.

Johns' multifaceted art has always been notable for being plain-spoken in its materials and means, while simultaneously speaking in code. The show helps clarify its relationship to O'Hara's like-minded poetry, and to the double-edged cultural dialect the artist and poet shared as homosexuals navigating a repressive society. For homosexuals (as for other minorities), speaking in code was many things, including a path to social interaction, a playful source of fun, a tool with which to acquire otherwise unavailable power and--not least--a literal matter of survival.

The subtitle of MOCA's exhibition is a bit misleading. With one anomalous exception, it's actually "Frank O'Hara and New York Art," not American art. The tendency to equate New York with America in discussions of the nation's cultural life in the 1950s and early 1960s remains disappointingly common. Art gets confused with the dominant art scene.

New York was, at the time, a big city with a small art world. Still, it was the only urban ecology in the country then large enough to sustain the mix of art museums, commercial galleries and critical magazines that could draw O'Hara (and countless others) like a magnet from the provinces--in his case, Grafton, Mass.--and through which he could find work as both art critic and curator. As Brad Gooch explained in his terrifically engaging 1993 biography, "City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara," O'Hara was first and foremost a writer. His work as an art critic and curator was integral to the development of his own art, but that congenial labor also helped sustain his otherwise financially insupportable work as a poet.

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