aunque misteriosamente presente, por algún lado.
Pero nosotros sabemos que no puede intercalarse
entre dos momentos adyacentes, que sus meandros
no llevan a ninguna parte excepto a más afluentes
y que estos desembocan en una vaga
sensación de algo que no puede conocerse nunca
aun cuando parezca probable que cada uno de nosotros
sepa qué es y sea capaz de
comunicarlo al otro. Pero la mirada
que algunos llevan como señal le hace a uno querer
avanzar haciendo caso omiso de la evidente
ingenuidad del intento, sin que le importe
que no esté nadie escuchando, ya que la luz
y está presente, incólume, una anomalía permanente,
silenciosa y despierta.
(John Ashbery, Autorretrato en espejo convexo, Visor, Madrid, 1990
Traducción de Javier Marías.)
John Ashbery: Collages: They Knew What They Wanted
by John Yau, The Times
Tibor de Nagy Gallery September 4–October 4, 2008
In many of the collages, particularly from the early 1970s on, innocence and tenderness mix seamlessly with the sinister in ways that seem emotionally in keeping with “Girls on the Run,” Ashbery’s book-length poem inspired by Henry Darger’s anatomically incorrect drawings and watercolors of girls (they all have penises) from his massive epic, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. In Ashbery’s poem, attuned to the many languages, and their tones and registers, spoken by the different tribes he depicts running amok in America, surely the word “Girls,” a campy term for gay men, deliberately and sweetly inverts Darger’s mixed-up genitalia. Ashbery’s ability to make the figure (the word) evoke the ground (context) is unrivaled. In the collages, his method is straightforward enough; he cuts out a figure, often of a young boy, and places him against a rather banal background (woods, a greenhouse-cum-conservatory). His innocence is disarming because it enables a disquieting atmosphere to slither into his virginal conjunctions, the sense that the author knows that devastation and knowledge go hand-in-hand.
In Biarritz (1972), two men watch a ship (Noah’s Ark?) foundering on the rocks, while a manhole cover hovers in the sky, like a UFO. In his poems and collages, Ashbery looks at the most familiar things as if they were utterly new to him, even strange. Rather than judging, he investigates. This is what he has in common with Georges Seurat, whose drawings recall that period in early infancy when we can only make out dark and light, and we must feel our way through the world. Ashbery’s innocence enables him to take a deep delight in the world, to see it with a fresh, unjaundiced eye. In another collage, Superman slams a car against a deserted beach, and the viewer is left wondering how this omnipotent creature deals with frustration and misunderstanding. It is certainly a state that poets are familiar with, but few are delighted by. And this seems to be Ashbery’s special province; he doesn’t let the public’s incomprehension get to him, nor does he elect to speak to only a handful of readers, as if he regarded them (and, by extension, himself) as special.
This seems to me to be the hardest road to take in any art form, particularly if one wants to maintain a democratic stance, which isn’t the same as claiming to be a populist or anti-elitist. As a poet and collagist, Ashbery rescues sentiment from the sentimental, while other, more traditionally minded poets eschew the sentimental only to devolve into it with all the graciousness of an angry giraffe. Over the course of his career, Ashbery has given us many delightful and surprising gifts. With this exhibition, the list has just gotten longer.