Courtesy the Museum ofContemporary ArtFRANK O'HARA COULD WELL HAVE been the love child of Walt Whitman and Jean Cocteau. He was and remains one of the central figures in postwar American literature and visual art alike — not least because he contributed, mightily, deliberately, self-consciously and selflessly, to both realms. O'Hara's involvement with the art as well as the writing of his day has been examined in print before, but, surprisingly, not to any significant degree on the walls of a museum — not even at the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked his way up from information-desk guy to associate curator. (The last show he organized before his death was MOMA's first Jackson Pollock retrospective.) So it's kind of beautifully astonishing (“as Frank would say,” as his friends still say) that this quintessentially New York flâneur, with his European tastes and his uptown-downtown-Hamptons sensibility, would be paid homage by a museum in Los Angeles.
But, then, it was cause for raised eyebrows when LACMA paid similar tribute to William S. Burroughs three years ago. I mean, where does this mass-cult company town get off celebrating New Yorkbased writers of rare and/or elegant vision? Why don't we see more — any — such homages in New York museums, or museums anywhere else in this country? Such art-and-document shows tracing the life and work of great men and women of letters are themselves a European taste; there's one at the Centre Pompidou every six months, and literary figures are constantly being retrospected and centennialized in Kunsthallen and Art Centres and Musea provinciale. It's not L.A. that lets its poets rot; it's America.
THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART'S “IN MEMORY of My Feelings: Frank O'Hara and American Art” shows, emphatically if sparingly, that its subject did indeed have, as he put it, the “Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible” (a line from the poem whose title the exhibition borrows, and the epitaph on his tombstone). As poet, critic and curator — and hands-on collaborator with artists to an extent unanticipated even by the Futurists or Surrealists — O'Hara was a driving force in New York art from the early 1950s until, well, until well after his death in a dumb beachside accident in midsummer 1966. He didn't pontificate about art or tell artists what they should be doing, as other prominent critics of his day were wont to do; instead, he interacted with artists as an equal, entwined with them (a few of them especially tightly) in a mutual admiration-and-inspiration society, and hung out with musicians and dancers and actors and other poets as well, collaborating with whomever whenever.
This is what you did in the New York arts scene of the late 1950s and early '60s, especially if you were a writer and you found yourself surrounded by people who were even more interesting than other writers (especially artists, who have always been writers' biggest fans, and vice versa). And if you had the appetite for art and life that O'Hara did, your clique was never so airtight that you couldn't suddenly discover and champion a young artist whose work seemed to be very different from your buddies', but which you were able to convince your buddies was worth a second and sixth look. In fact, O'Hara's most important contribution to the ideological discussions of the art of his day was to argue that art could be abstract, figurative or imagist, gestural or technical, intimate or stentorian, and as such of equal importance or nonimportance, standing or falling on its own merits. His democratic and unapologetic embrace of supposedly opposed styles was among the first (and best) stirrings of postmodernist pluralism.
So O'Hara could be tight with soft-edge realists Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, second-generation Abstract Expressionists Michael Goldberg and Grace Hartigan, proto-Pop painters Larry Rivers and Jasper Johns, and all manner of artists in between and outside these stylistic standpoints, all engaged in the arguments of possibility that made up the New York School in the wake of Ab Ex's first generation (Lee Krasner, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell), with whom O'Hara was also close. He could hang out comfortably in both the Cedar Tavern and Max's Kansas City (and probably the Stonewall Inn). He could engage in an extended series of painting-writing collaborations with burly, macho Ab Exer Norman Bluhm, and four years later a series of poem-collages with gangly, shy quasi-Pop cartoon-quoter Joe Brainard. And he could knock around with Larry Rivers (before, during and after their affair) and with Al Leslie (purely platonic) and come up with a series of lithographs called Stones with the former and a zany film with the latter.
That film, in which an African-American man drives a convertible from downtown to uptown Manhattan while a young woman chatters incessantly to him in what the show's catalog describes as “Finnish doubletalk” as ambient sound further garbles her — a scene repeated three times, the second two with wonderfully pensive O'Haran subtitles — is projected in a continuous loop on a back wall of the exhibition. At the entrance to the show is a TV monitor playing a half-hour documentary of O'Hara working on the film with Leslie, reading his poems and (as Frank did say) “standing still and walking in New York.” Next to each grouping of work, whether portraits of O'Hara by Alice Neel (who, as usual, shows her affection by rendering her subject as scrawny and grotesque), Howard Kanovitz's light box silhouetting O'Hara and other New York artist-intellectuals, or Alex Katz's portrayal of O'Hara as a Navy officer facing an enlisted seaman (fellow poet Bill Berkson), are either excerpts from his poems or annotations by curator Russell Ferguson. Several notebooks and letters to friends lie in vitrines, as does the limited-edition book In Memory of My Feelings, a memorial to O'Hara published by MOMA a year after his death in which 30 artists accompany as many of his poems with — illustrations? illuminations? what do you call nonobjective images paired with poems in a livre d'artiste? And there are several photos of O'Hara, by Fred McDarrah and Hans Namuth.
So there's the requisite stuff touching on various aspects of O'Hara's life, work, interests and circle(s) of friends; just what you'd expect from an homage show. Not all of it is of great substance, but homage shows are much larger than the sum of their parts, and you do get a great sense of the man and his milieu. The show is full of little surprises, from odd works by well-known artists (Philip Guston's terse rendition of O'Hara's head), to odder works by lesser-knowns (the gentle realist John Button, for instance, or Wynn Chamberlain, who did diptychs of figure groups, clothed in one panel and nude in the other), to those curious collaborations (such as the ones Brainard published in his C Comics), and even a few of O'Hara's own, admittedly glancing artworks.
“In Memory of My Feelings” is an airy show, with the works well-spaced and occupying five galleries in MOCA's north wing — galleries that feel at once too large and too constricting. However much stuff Ferguson has assembled, and however much of it is nifty, you hunger for more; it seems a bit too tidy, with none of the mess and funk of O'Hara's immediacy. Painterliness was the one characteristic common to all the art that O'Hara touched and that touched him, whether it was the muscular abstraction of Pollock and de Kooning or the awkward, drippy urbanism of Claes Oldenburg's The Store. But the painterliness here is confined to the art; the show's display is restrained to a fault. Ferguson's only real false step is including latter-day L.A. artist Larry Johnson's Standing Still and Walking in Los Angeles (a droll homage, but out of context — besides, who walks in this town, much less stands still?). Still, you get the feeling the curator pulled his punch just the merest bit.
But that may just be me, wanting to wallow in material connected with my favorite poet, wanting to see more of, by and about artists and writers I grew up staring at and began my career studying under and hanging out with and writing about and envying for having known someone as cool as O'Hara. They were and are cool, too, this generation of New York artistes who maintained their community as the center of the art world with an élan they both learned from Paris in the '20s and made up as they went along. But none was cooler than Frank O'Hara, who was at the very core of the New York School of Everything.
IN MEMORY OF MY FEELINGS: Frank O'Hara and American Art | At MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown | Through Nov. 14.