Right at Home: On John Ashbery’s Hudson House and Its Collections

ashbery collects

This essay by Adam Fitzgerald was originally published as a companion piece to the exhibit “John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things,” curated by Fitzgerald, Emily Skillings, and the Loretta Howard Gallery. The exhibit ran at the gallery until November 2, 2013. All photos in this post were provided courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery. You can find more pictures here.

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But why the object? Why are objects any more or less important than anything else? The answer is that they are not, and that, I think, is the secret of their popularity… They are a common ground, a neutral language understood by everybody, and therefore the ideal material with which to create experiences which transcend the objects… What these artists are doing is calling attention with singular effectiveness to the ambiguity of the artistic experience; to the crucial confusion about the nature of art, which, let us remember, has never been properly defined.

—John Ashbery, “The New Realists,” Reported Sightings

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In the mid-1970s, John Ashbery was in search of a house to buy, one to retreat to on weekends as certain overworked New Yorkers fantasize they must, a place to keep his books. Then, in 1978, approaching the exterior of a sleepily distinguished Victorian-era house plunked down near the center of Hudson, New York—Ashbery turned to the real estate agent (before even entering the house) and exclaimed, “I’ll take it!” For the next thirty odd years, Ashbery has continued to tease out and queer the stereotypical rules of Victoriana, stuffing his house with the cluttered eclecticism of Japanese prints, American art pottery, period furniture, mementoes and bric-a-brac—further puzzling his interiors with bewildering incongruities as only this poet could (artworks by Joe Brainard and Jane Freilicher, Jean Hélion and Alex Katz, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Fairfield Porter and Trevor Winkfield). Eclectic, campy, ornate, the Hudson house evolved into more than just a restoration project. It has blossomed into a immersive, living collage, one capable at such a scale of synthesizing the poet’s inimitable handiwork as antiquarian, collagist, art critic and lifelong poet. “John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things” is an invitation to look closer inside at, as it were, that Hudson space through the evocative line drawings of Matthew Thurber, the work of two dozen visual artists he has personally collected and written about, and a selection of actual objects transported from the house’s dramatic rooms.

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Published one year before Ashbery’s purchase in Hudson, Houseboat Days contained his most ambitious literary blueprint to date of such a sublimely jumbled aesthetic, an intersection of contemporary American vernacular with 19th century French aesthetics, Baudelairean decadence and Rimbaudian surrealism. That volume of poems also boasted a most intricate syntax that noshed on such supple Modern prose stylists as Henry James and Marcel Proust, among others including Gertrude Stein’s slippery grammar to the highly mannered Auden of The Sea and the Mirror, Henry Green’s colloquial stream-of-consciousness and most furtively perhaps, Giorgio de Chirico’s masterpiece surrealist novel Hebdomeros. These ghosts presided while yet another kind of cultural catch-all music, a bizarre compendium of obscure diction and populist reference, broke through in jubilant mania. Here’s the famed opening of one of the great poems in the English language, “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” (from the very same collection):

Something strange is creeping across me.
La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars
Of “I Thought about You” or something mellow from
Amadigi di Gaula for everything—a mint-condition can
Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy
Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile
Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged
Stock—to come clattering through the rainbow trellis
Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland
Fling Terrace.

How the hell can any mental vision span this kind of immensity? From Warner Brothers and Italian opera to American kitchen goods and their waspy wholesomeness, from cinematic and painterly terminologies to those archly preposterous proper nouns: Helen Topping Miller, Pistachio Avenue, Highland Fling Terrace. Come again, Ronald Firbank? And yet, seen another way, this mountain of language mashes up image, sound and phrase in ways that recall the New York School (of painting) more quickly than it does Milton’s Wall-of-China prosody and Chuck Jones’ meta-cartoons (cf. Duck Amuck), two items the poet has admitted to being mindful of during the poem’s composition. To many early readers of Ashbery’s work, a production like “Daffy Duck In Hollywood” very well might have meant nothing at all. Today, surely, the tide has turned among academics and general readers as Ashbery is recognized as our great mainstream avant-gardist. What may have seemed so overwhelmingly nonsensical then is reread now in our Google Era as intriguingly jam-packed with an unending litany of possible meanings, references, intentions and analogues.

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The way Ashbery’s career has dealt with the tension of ever-widening, at times decentering and dizzying accumulation is a decidedly American pragmatic approach: keep doing it. By 2013, there’s quite a lot of product to tally. Twenty books of poetry. Three plays, a co-written novel (with James Schuyler), even the collaborative The Vermont Notebook (drawings by Joe Brainard). Prose collections of essays, lectures and art criticism. Two gallery shows of original collages. Countless uncollected translations from the French (next spring Farrar, Strauss and Giroux will publish two volumes of selected prose and poetry translations edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie). Indeed, Ashbery has continued on for over seven decades so that what seemed so splintered and unfocused in the early years now seems so unified and coherent. Though he will be counted as a poet foremost, his poetic sensibility and imagination no longer seem easily distinguishable from or tangential to his life as professional art critic, collagist and collector. Like Proust, the delightful excesses of Ashbery’s life and art have coalesced into a continuous, radiating whole. While most readers will be familiar with the extent of that literary corpus through the ongoing project of Library of America’s “collected” Ashbery, viewers have a chance to browse publicly, for the first time, what is arguably Ashbery’s most fully-realized artwork—an array of representative objects and artists showcased within the Hudson house.

The privilege and problems of being an iconoclast have followed Ashbery since the publication of his first book, Some Trees, which was selected by W.H. Auden in 1955 for the Yale Younger Poets Series. His second collection, The Tennis Court Oath, solicited by the late John Hollander for Wesleyan University Press and published in 1962, only exacerbated matters, offering a bewildering aesthetic radicalism no one had seen in American poetry since Gertrude Stein (though Williams Burroughs’ fiction, John Cage’s music and Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema were concurrently happening across the arts). But time has been favorable to The Tennis Court Oath. Once the pariah championed solely by second-generation New York School poets and later by the Language movement, more recently its first foreign translation (into Spanish) has been a best-selling volume; it also served as the inspiration for the title, and themes therein, of Ben Lerner’s acclaimed debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station. Fifty years later, it’s still in print by its original publisher, with a new e-book edition available.

Readers have had years to catch up with Ashbery’s originality as poet while the Hudson house has only recently entered into the awareness of a small group of scholars, critics, fellow poets and artists, who are beginning to develop a vocabulary and methodology to its significance. To be sure, home-making, as a subject of critical interest for Ashbery, can be perceived throughout his writings. In a 1985 Newsweek review of the Kurt Schwitters exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (“Fragments of Celestial Trash”), Ashbery notes how the artist had:

lived in the family home until forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1937… Meanwhile he had transformed the house’s solemn Teutonic interior into a mad, dreamlike environment that he termed Merzbau… this constantly evolving project was to be the summit of his life’s work… collages, junk assemblages, garbled poetic texts. Merzbau was a sort of Tower of Babel, meant never to be completed, and fragments were what it was all about.

Two years earlier, Ashbery had also written about David Ireland’s San Francisco home, an article called “Artist’s Daring Dream House” for House and Garden: “Ireland is a conceptual artist and his house is a work of art that can be lived in—must be, in fact, to be experienced whole. It is a combination often attempted but seldom realized.” This concern with the artist’s living space, with the idea of turning living space into art, echoes onwards, from an essay on the “purposeful hodgepodge” of Sarah Winchester’s eccentric mystery mansion to an extensive Architectural Digest article about another Hudson property, the painter Frederic Edwin Church’s 19th century estate known as Olana.

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No gallery, catalogue or other document can contain nor hope to replicate the experience of  seeing Ashbery’s collections in the careful, canny composure of their home environment. What “John Ashbery Collects” does hope to do, however, is frame some of the basic elements of Ashbery’s sensibility. Note a few of the wonky juxtapositions of one poet’s regal whimsy in action: a bottle of “Pee Cola” (a gift from Joe Brainard) across from drinking glasses featuring Daffy Duck in the butler’s pantry. A vintage advertising sign that hangs in the kitchen proclaiming “Take a – WHIZ Drink / ‘A Better Beverage.’” A figurine Swee’Pea leaning against a bust of Lord Byron in his TV room. Staffordshire figures of maids and dogs. A toy-soldier toothbrush-holder. VHS tapes of Jacques Rivette’s classic Céline and Julie Go Boating next to Daffy! and Fritz Lang’s Spiders and the six-hour silent film French classic Les Vampires. This echo chamber of Ashbery’s ephemera doesn’t just represent a cheat-sheet of the artists and iconography he has championed most—it enacts a sublime leveling of culture, a daredevil democratizing of taste, obscure and populist at once, reminding the viewer that creative life has always been more numinous and varied than our narrow human focus tends to allow, let alone report. Instead, in the Ashberian dream-house we’re allowed to wander through, detour around, dream large and small, we no longer feel uneasy about the ironies and earnest loving that material culture has instilled so rigidly, so divisively inside us. The zaniness, learning and prodigality of Ashbery’s poetry—which the Hudson house instantiates in unrivaled creative fashion—might make for a daunting sensation of almost everything joining hands, assembling together. And yet that’s precisely what’s so genius about Ashbery, his way of making everything, what might otherwise be lost, overlooked or all-over-the-place, an entire horizon of possibilities between various art-forms and the objects of daily life, appear as if it’s all right here. Like we’re right at home.

Adam Fitzgerald

New York City

September 2013