Abstract Critical

‘A surprise dragging the signs’[1]: The Art Criticism of John Ashbery

Written by Natalie Ferris

This essay won 3rd  prize in the abstract critical Writer’s Prize 2013

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

These opening lines from the poem ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons,’ from Ashbery’s later 1981 collection Shadow Train, are perhaps the most overt poetic testament to Ashbery’s own ‘dreamed role-pattern’ (9) of criticality. This ‘poignantly modest sixteen line quasi-sonnet’ (Vendler, 2005; 60) severs the typically lyric sublimation of a poet’s voice and a sympathetic interpreter, in introducing the ‘it’ of the poem, centring the poetic artefact itself. ‘It’ esteems of itself as an object with an achieved form, ‘it,’ as separate from the voice of the poet; whilst at the same time co-opting the reader into a personal involvement with the object itself; ‘You miss it, it misses you.’ The seeming solidity of this assertion, in its unshakeable parallelism, is nevertheless, in its loosely chiastic structure, a cancelling-out of clarity. As it evades you, so you evade it; established rules for interpreting words cannot exist and words will not interpret themselves. All that remains is the object itself.

Matthew Arnold’s critical tenet, to ‘…see the object as in itself it really is’ converges to a certain extent with Ashbery’s own notion of the ‘object’ in both his poetry and his criticism. Arnold’s assertion that it is not only possible, but eminently desirable, to see and represent the object as it actually exists, undistorted by surrounding circumstance or the viewer’s own perception, is, in our postmodern, post-structural, post-medium world, hotly contentious. Arnold sees the subordination of criticism to any other purpose than that of an attention to the object, to serve any number of ‘…ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas’ (17), as a derailment in the traction of aesthetic consideration. Much of Ashbery’s own art criticism in fact centres on this very matter, arising from the critical debates on the art object at the time: between Harold Rosenberg’s notion of ‘action painting,’ Clement Greenberg’s ‘situational field’ of painting, and Meyer Schapiro’s canvas as a ‘field of operation.’

Amidst the furore in the ‘cresting of the heroic period of Abstract Expressionism’ (RS; 241), Ashbery was to champion an increasingly outmoded Surrealist art, such as that of Joseph Cornell, Yves Tanguy and Henri Michaux, and the lesser acknowledged ‘New Realist’ [2] painters, such as Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher and Nell Blaine. It was primarily their treatment of the ‘object’ that seemed to alight Ashbery’s intrigue. He was not intent on the evocative ‘signs of the artist’s active presence,’ the ‘great importance of the mark, the stroke, the brush, the drip, the quality of the substance of the paint,’ or the figured ‘consciousness of the personal and spontaneous,’[3] which was seen to characterise what became known as ‘American-Type Painting.’[4] In his ARTnews review of the ‘Romantics and Realists: French Painting 1820-70’ exhibition at the Wildenstein Gallery in New York, Ashbery reckoned; ‘If there is one single common characteristic of current trends in the arts, it is probably impatience with existing forms of expression’ (35). He was shrewd enough to shy away from the fading Modernist axiom, ‘Make it New’, however, and discount the avant-garde dismissal of ‘perceptual realism’ as backward-looking, far more interested in what he called the ‘tentative’ quality of the anomalous art object.

‘…Most good things are tentative, or should be if they aren’t’ (RS; 239) Ashbery quips, delicately disavowing the expressive hedonism and ‘heroic’ scale that had become intuitive to mid-century American art, in his frank review of friend and painter Jane Freilicher’s retrospective in 1986. Known for her unassuming and tempered still-life paintings and portraits, Kenneth Koch, who lived in the same New York building as Freilicher, recalled in his poem ‘A Time Zone’ that when Ashbery and Freilicher met it was ‘…as if they’d both been thrown into a swimming pool / Afloat with ironies jokes sensitivities perceptions and sweet swift sophistications.’ Koch omits the stumbling blocks of punctuation, creating an effusive list of interactions to imply their uninhibited affection for one another, a relationship of wit and frivolity unbarred by social rigidity. And yet the baldness of the line, in spite of its smooth sibilance, calls attention to their abstracted parataxis. The spacing, most significantly, concentrates absence and presence.

This lack of staged causality broaches Ashbery’s concept of the ‘tentative,’ not merely insinuating caution, experiment or trial, but as found in Freilicher’s paintings, ‘…objects in the prospect’ (SP; 278), meaning objects, rather complicatedly, at the occasion of their being. Objects aware of their own existence and representation; an object becoming ‘as in itself it really is.’ In his review, Ashbery develops his discussion of Freilicher’s uniquely reflexive ‘realism’:

Her realism is for fun, the ‘magic’ kind that tries to conceal the effort behind its making and pretends to have sprung full-blown onto the canvas. Such miracles are after all minor. Both suave facture and heavily worked over passages clash profitably here, as they do in life,[…]That is what I meant by tentative. Nothing is ever taken for granted, the paintings do not look as if they took themselves for granted, and they remind us we shouldn’t take ourselves for granted either. Each is like a separate and valuable life coming into being (RS; 241).

In so far as this echoes Meyer Schapiro’s statement over a decade earlier, in his ‘liberated’ conception of a ‘work of art as an ordered world of its own kind in which we are aware, at every point, of its becoming,’ Ashbery believes of Freilicher’s work to be a less aggressive assertion of its own existence. Each painting is a ‘life’ coming into being’ as opposed to an ‘ordered’ compound of ‘becoming’; paintings that do not take their existence ‘for granted’, and subtly ironize those that superimpose their own existence on the world.

One of the best examples of Freilicher’s discursive assiduity is in the celebrated painting ‘The Painting Table,’ (1954) which featured in this year’s retrospective, ‘Painters & Poets,’ held at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery on the sixtieth anniversary of its inception. This enigmatic oil still-life, modest in scale, unpretentious in character, commanded the attention not only of Ashbery in his earlier writings on Freilicher, but also of the most recent reviewers of her work, Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker and Dan Chiasson for The New York Review of Books. In muted palette, Freilicher renders the numerous objects on her work surface with shifting degrees of realism, some sharper than others, some fuller than others, some brighter than others; ‘…one can’t be sure where reality leaves off and illusion begins’ (RS; 240). An awkward aggregate in its irrelation, it nevertheless betrays a fidelity to each object as it is. She resists the ‘Expressionist urge to set things on edge’ (RS; 241), what Freilicher herself found hollow in contemporary art practice; a self-regarding ‘pomposity or heavy symbolism.’[5] Some objects seem complicit with one another, similarly scumbled, others resist such unifying contingencies, uncertain in their blurred perspectives. From the slick gold paint can, to the thick impasto walls, to the flooded tinctures of paint in the foreground, the result is what Ashbery astutely names ‘a little anthology of ways of seeing, feeling and painting, with no suggestion that any one way is better than another’ (RS; 241). These multiplying moments are the driving forces of art and life. In the ordinariness of their disunion the objects are democratised, defined as individuated entities, inveighing ‘disunion just to abolish confusion.’[6]

This is what Ashbery is getting at when he speaks of not only the objects but the paintings not taking ‘themselves for granted,’ and in turn reminding us that ‘we shouldn’t take ourselves for granted either.’ They are at once aware of their own making as we are, at once implicated in their own representation as we are, and at once alighted with a notion of their own being as we are; this is what Ashbery is alluding to when he ends ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ with the epithet, ‘The poem is you.’ The articles arrange themselves according to the quality of attention brought to bear, and, in all their specificity, are brought into being through such qualities of attention. This is a painting less concerned with presenting a strong sense of place, than a looser sense of the elemental components of place. Chiasson, fascinated by ‘the one raised glob’ of white paint in the lower right quadrant of the painting, honours it as ‘one of the great daubs of white paint in American art,’ in its unassuming brilliance at bringing attention to its very quality as paint, as a ‘daub’ of paint itself, and as representing a ‘daub’ of paint. This leavened glob of gouache is present in its intrinsic ‘paint’-ness, and neither apprehension is considered the more important; the ‘…pigment that stands in for water is as much an object of delectation as the water itself.’ (SP; 279).

This ontological posturing, between paint and painted, may seem affected, as satirized on ‘a plain level’ in ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons.’ The implication of ‘language on a plain level,’ is a degree of simplicity in our ability to understand as well as an eradication of alienating pretension; an equivalence of face-value with honest matter. Yet ‘This poem’ is entirely aware of the role it takes in this ‘play’ of straightforwardness; attentive to its existence as a poem, it complicates its very existence as a poem, much like Frelicher’s painting. Indeed, as Ashbery presses of both the poem and the reader, with a sardonic tilt of the head, ‘What is a plain level?’ The poem does not ‘wear a mask of its own candour,’ (Wilkinson; 47) but holds it several inches before the face; its self-awareness both peeling back the interpretive refuge of the poetic, while flaunting, in its flippancy, the availability of expression. The title itself already sends up the reader to ‘exculpat[e] our own shiftiness through our attributing of shiftiness to texts’ (Wilkinson; 47), and thus sends up the interpretive task of the critic or reader.

In this sense, the poem is perhaps one of the most effective proponents of Ashbery’s ‘tentative’ aesthetic, both a manifestation and an instrumentation of his shifting critical demeanour[s]. Helen Vendler astutely notes that Ashbery’s title places ‘propositional impossibility (paradox) next to figurative impossibility (oxymoron)’ in order to ‘…propose the contradictions of life in the contradictions of rhetoric’ (1988; 242). This seems to me to be central to what much of Ashbery’s writing is doing in his approximations of artwork. In all awareness of the impossibility, both ‘propositional’ and ‘figurative,’ of conveying a real sense of an artwork, Ashbery is enlivened by this ‘threat’: ‘I always begin at zero and discover my thought by writing’ (Qtd in Shoptaw; 6). And it is from ground zero, in the point-blank of paradox, that Ashbery exposes the true absurdity of critical reality; his ‘mysteries of being.’[7]



1 ‘Fragment.’ The Double Dream of Spring. (1970) From hereafter, all quotations from poems will be taken from the Collected Poems 1956-1987, (CP) edited by Mark Ford, unless stated otherwise. All quotations from Ashbery’s critical writings will be taken from Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987 Ed. David Bergman. New York: Knopf, 1989, unless stated otherwise.

2 Ashbery may well have been aware of an earlier use of the term ‘new realism,’ in Puteaux Group and French artist Fernand Léger’s essay, ‘A New Realism – The Object,’ published in the Winter of 1926, in the Parisian Little Review, in which Léger praised the beauty of the everyday object. Not an uncommon trope in the early twentieth century, Ashbery was nonetheless taken by the work of Léger in his formative years, writing four favourable reviews of the artist’s work between 1960 and 1962; the period in which Ashbery was also to compose his oblique poem ‘The New Realism.’ The label ‘new realist’ was put into circulation by French art critic Pierre Restany, to denote the emerging Pop-Art aesthetic in late fifties’ Europe. Ashbery also contributed an essay to the catalogue of the ‘landmark’ (Wolf; 83) ‘New Realists’ exhibition, held at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York in 1962.

3 As outlined by Meyer Schapiro, in his 1957 lecture ‘The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art,’ as characteristic of the new gestural figuration in Abstract Expressionism.

4 Clement Greenberg described the altered ‘situational field’ of individuated painterly gesture within the work of the Abstract Expressionsists, constructing work on a scale beyond the Romantic ‘easel-tradition,’ as ‘American-Type Painting,’ in his landmark essay of the same name, in 1955.

5 Freilicher in conversation with Klaus Kertess, qtd in ‘Jane Freilicher: Poet of Intimacy.’ Womanshow, Spaightwood Gallery. Upton, Massachusetts. 13 June 2007. Web. 22 April 2011.

6 ‘Clepsydra.’ Rivers and Mountains. CP; 141.

7 ‘Re-establishing Raymond Roussel.’



  1. Pete Hoida said…

    Response to John Bunker.

    Playful dig at the end there. But surely John, you are a painter making paintings not “practicing”.
    This is new-labourish language, often appearing alongside a nod towards post-modernism. The S word ? This by the way is not a crit of your comment, though I do wonder if you meant to say DNA past on. Did you mean pasted ?

    • John Holland said…

      Yes- ‘practice’- I think it’s meant to make artists feel like more important people, such as doctors or lawyers. It’s a manifestation of the niggling fear in the contemporary art world that art is a bit silly, a bit trivial, to be shored up with the language of the social sciences (which, in turn, aped the language of the medical and physical sciences), and the need to be seen at all times in the close company of Very Important Subjects.

      My favourite art word of the moment is ‘interrogate’- as in ‘the strategy of the artist’s practice is the interrogation of the liminal ontology of gender identity.’ The word brings a nice touch of torture-porn to art discourse, I think.

  2. Terry Ryall said…

    To say that “much of the good work by Alan Gouk to counter academicism is being undone on this site” is surely a clear criticism of some of the contributions to Ab Crit. Some examples would be necessary to form a view of whether that criticism is justified. As for the final sentence of Pete Hoida’s post I don’t think that it necessarily implies that he believes Ab Crit is at the ‘centre’ but (unlike John Holland) I can quite see how Sam has taken that as its inference. Words eh, who needs them? Oh yes, those pesky poets.

    • Pete Hoida said…

      Cross out my last sentence. There are quite a few examples of academicism, even on Ab Crit, it would be invidious to pick on one. To re-hash the obvious is tiresome, curators rule, and the evidence is rife; art students are infected, making “statements”, and “practice”. If the language is ugly the man lacks style. Snib the latch.

      • Terry Ryall said…

        There might well be contributions on Ab Crit that argue for an academic approach to making art,it is after all a liberal place that welcomes all sorts of views, opinions and voices not all of which will meet with universal approval. What I am saying is that it isn’t obvious to me that academicism(on Ab Crit)is in any way a dominant or strong voice as you seem to suggest. I respect your choice not to enter what you see as invidious territory but none if this stuff is personal is it and its only Art we’re talking about here anyway.

    • John Holland said…

      Sorry, I misread ‘undone’. Blind as well as senile.

  3. Pete Hoida said…

    I quote from verse V of Malcolm Mooney’s Land, W.S.Graham, Faber 1970.

    “Why did you choose this place
    For us to meet? Sit
    With me between this word
    And this, my furry queen.
    Yet not mistake this
    For the real thing. Here
    In Malcolm Mooney’s Land
    I have heard many
    Approachers in the distance
    Shouting. Early hunters
    Skittering across the ice
    Full of enthusiasm
    And making fly and,
    Within the ear, the yelling
    Spear steepening to
    The real prey, the right
    Prey of the moment.
    The honking choir in fear
    Leave the tilting floe
    And enter the sliding water.
    Above the bergs the foolish
    Voices are lighting lamps
    And all their sounds make
    This diary of a place
    Writing us both in.”

    This concrete proposition of the difficulty of communication was composed well ahead of Ashbery. Ashbery has become the John Masefield, the acceptable face, of post-modernism in poetry. Fey and whimsical by turns. Kenneth Koch on the other hand is poetry’s answer to Pop – I quote an extract from The Departure from Hydra, reprinted in Penguin Modern Poets 24, 1972.

    “They’ll despise me, oh sob sob -’ ‘ Giorgio,’ I said, trying to calm him down but laughing
    So hard I could barely digest the dinner of imagination
    In which your breasts featured as on a Popeye card”

    Self-regarding, at the centre of the universe, they were almost certainly unaware of Graham, down in West Penwith (St Ives), whose friendships and support came mainly from painters (he’d been sidelined, I digress, by the Martians, by the grotesque Hughes, the maudlin Larkin) (and I may add here the less said about Freilicher the better).

    Were you to listen to Sonny Rollins it would be the voice you’d hear. The virtuoso deconstruction and re-assembly of the tunes, yes, but its the sound that gets you. Listen to the tone of what is being said. I notice that much of the good work by Alan Gouk to counter academicism is being undone on this site. Is it any accident that the best takes place away from the centre?

    • Sam said…

      Hi Pete, I’m not going to comment on the poetry, though I’m attracted to your comment on Sonny Rollins. However I am smilling to myself a little at the idea that AbCrit is somehow at the ‘centre’; and that the site presents an academic foil to Alan G…

      • john holland said…

        I understood Peter as saying the opposite- that the best (ab crit and Gouk)are NOT at the centre, the centre being where academicism lies….

      • Robert Linsley said…

        What centre? To paraphrase Smithson quoting Pascal – the art world is a circle whose edge is everywhere and centre nowhere.

      • John Bunker said…

        A little wander around Hauser and Wirth’s Saville Row showrooms at the moment gives some lively jarring perspectives on these different notions of ‘academicism’. It was particularly revealing to contrast Morris Louis’ ‘Gamma Tau’ 1960 with Jim Dine’s ‘The Hammer Acts’ of 1962- if only because both fore-front large areas of naked canvas for seemingly very different purposes. With Louis we get this sense of an attempt at absolute ‘truthfulness’ to the material properties of painting in its pursuit of a pure optical intensity. Or is this the turning point where a certain brand of Modernism becomes reductive to the point of retreating into its own form of ‘academicism’- self referential, neutered? Is it not a vicious ( though well played out) irony that the attempt to get at painting’s essential qualities leads to it sucking the living day lights out of itself?

        Dine’s focus seems to be on the artist’s ‘labour’ via theatrical fabrications (both literal and metaphorical by the use of found objects etc) and what might be a quotidian matter-of-factness toward the idea of painting as creative endeavour. Is this approach ‘academic’ in its need for ‘specialists’ to heave symbolic weight on Dine’s use of otherwise mundane everyday objects like hammers, pliers and chisels etc?

        I’m interested in these different approaches to art making and how their DNA has been past on in the last 50 odd years…. How does the future of abstraction grow with them or not here in the teens of the 21st century?

        This sentence leapt out at me from Alan Gouk’s excellent piece on Greenberg……

        “….. for a moment’s thought will reveal that the great innovators (as in any sphere of thought) are more open to the cross-fertilization of ideas from other media than to reduction.”

        Many thanks for that Alan! Gives me hope! And so does the winner of the writing prize! James Hassall navigates abstraction’s history brilliantly and avoids so many of the historical/ philosophical dead ends that can hold back one’s development, or dare I say it, ‘practice’.
        I live and learn…….

    • Peter Stott said…

      Sonny Rollins? Pshaw, you haven’t lived, you’ve got to play an instrument and then you’ll know. Art Pepper, that’s what you want to listen to. :-)