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In Memory of My Feelings:
Frank O'Hara and American Art
Alex Katz: Frank O'Hara, 1959-60, front view
by Russell Ferguson

¶ an excerpt from the catalog which accompanies the exhibition In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O'Hara and American Art organized by Russell Ferguson and presented at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, July 11 - November 14, 1999

¶ published by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in association with University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California and University of California Press, Ltd., London, England, 160 pages, bound, ISBN 0 520 22243 1


Alex Katz:
Frank O'Hara, 1959-60

Don't be bored

FRANK O'HARA was one of the most important poets of his generation. Born in 1926, he had originally trained as a pianist, but as a Harvard undergraduate changed his focus to poetry. He moved to New York in 1951 and became deeply involved with the art world there. He worked at the front desk of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) until 1953, when he became an editorial associate at Art News for two years. He returned to MoMA in 1955 as an assistant in the International Program, and in 1960 became Assistant (later Associate) Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. In 1966 he was struck by a jeep on the beach at Fire Island, sustaining injuries that led to his death. Throughout his career as a critic and curator, O'Hara wrote the poetry that is the primary basis for his reputation today.

George Cserna- Frank O'Hara (wearing bow tie) with Elaine de Kooning and Reuben Nakian at the Nakian opening, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966 This book is not, however, a study of his poetry. Nor is it a biographical study. [1] Its aim, rather, is to use the charismatic figure of O'Hara as a lens through which to take another look at the most mythologized period in American art. Despite much recent scholarship, the oversimplified narrative remains only too familiar: a heroic generation of Abstract Expressionist pioneers followed by a much weaker 'second generation,' and then by the explosion of Pop. In that version of history, there is little room for the strong tradition of realist and figurative painting that continued throughout the period. Nor does it easily accommodate idiosyncratic figures who cannot be easily pigeonholed, such as Joe Brainard or Alfred Leslie.


Photo, above: Frank O'Hara (wearing bow tie) with Elaine de Kooning and Reuben Nakian at the Nakian opening, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966, photo © George Cserna

Endnotes and copyright credits are given at the foot of this page. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.


The real lives of artists, and their relationships with those they consider their peers, are much more complex than the processes of art history sometimes render them. In looking at the extraordinarily rich texture of the New York art world from the early fifties until 1966 through the lens provided by Frank O'Hara, I want to suggest one alternative path through the period.


Other focal points would yield other narratives, but the milieu that is visible in O'Hara's writing and in the work gathered for this exhibition will, I hope, be compelling enough to communicate with those who look back at it today from a distance of almost forty years. This account is devoted to the artists who made up much of his circle, among whom he was by turn acolyte, friend, model, muse, collaborator, and critic.

O'Hara's poetry has of course a much greater scope than that circle. But it is also true that his artist friends are everywhere in the poetry. His friendships and his work are in fact inseparable. For O'Hara poetry had no meaning except in the context of a life fully lived, just as living life fully for him meant always to be engaged with poetry and with art.

To be fully engaged did not mean the pursuit of any doctrinaire position. O'Hara was notorious, in fact, for the rapidity with which he could shift his position. He often preferred the vigorous cut and thrust of argument itself to the conclusions drawn from it. In art he rejected absolutely any rigid identification with one tendency in painting over another. He had no time for critical approaches that would declare certain areas off limits for serious artists. O'Hara was consistently eclectic in a period when an exclusionary reductivism was increasingly becoming the critical norm. His passionate engagement with the work of an enormously diverse group of artists could not have been more different from the prescriptive criticism practised by Clement Greenberg.

Greenberg saw the future in an art that was self -referential and devoted to the special qualities of its medium. There was little room here for strongly expressed personal feelings. 'The ambitious contemporary artist,' Greenberg wrote, 'distrusts more and more of his emotions.' [2]


It is hard to imagine a position further from that of O'Hara, who trusted only his emotional responses. The composer Morton Feldman has said that, 'It is interesting that in a circle that demanded partisanship above all, he was so totally accepted. I suppose we recognized that his wisdom came from his own 'system' - the dialectic of the heart.' [3]

O'Hara, as an artist himself - a poet - perhaps identified with the individuals who struggled to create as much as with their completed works. As the painter John Button put it, 'Frank's respect, his admiration, his judgment, and his love seemed inseparable.' [4] He was always open to whatever he saw emerging from the studios in which he was a constant visitor, resistant only to work that he felt lacked true passion.

As he said about the sculpture of David Smith, 'Don't be bored, don't be lazy, don't be trivial and don't be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death.' [5] This sense of constant attentiveness to the shifting nuances of his physical and emotional worlds was at the heart of both his poetry and his relationships with his countless friends.

With regard to his own work, O'Hara was both self-effacingly modest and supremely confident. His poems, he wrote, might 'just shrivel up, turn brown and blow away. But on the other hand, if we can't make leaves, neither can god poems.' [6] While he was in no doubt about the quality of his poetry, he made only the most cursory attempts to disseminate it, sometimes simply putting completed poems away in a drawer, and often not even keeping copies of poems he sent to friends. When he did publish, it was predominantly in the most fleeting of little magazines. Feldman recalls that:

He never talked about his own work; at least, not to me. If ever I complimented him on something he had done he would answer, all smiles, 'well, - thank you.' That was the end of it. As if he were saying, 'Now, you don't have to congratulate me about a thing. Naturally, everything I do is first rate, but it's you who needs looking after.' [7]
Such self-effacement was not simply a matter of politeness. On a deeper level O'Hara's very sense of self was constantly refracted through his relationships with other people, their work and their needs. He was always available. 'At times Frank seemed to be a priest who got into a different business,' Alex Katz wrote. 'Even on his sixth martini - second pack of cigarettes and while calling a friend, 'a bag of shit,' and roaring off into the night. Frank's business was being an active intellectual. He was out to improve our world whether we liked it or not.... The frightening amount of energy he invested in our art and our lives often made me feel like a miser.' [8]

Alex Katz: Marine and Sailor

Alex Katz
Marine and Sailor, 1961


It is probably impossible to capture in print the essence of a charismatic figure like O'Hara, no matter how many of his friends' voices are invoked. 'I remember him coming into a crowded party, and he just seemed to have a spotlight on him,' said Lewis MacAdams.' [9] 'He talked and I listened,' James Schuyler remembered. 'His conversation was self-propelling and one idea, or anecdote, or bon mot was fuel to his own fire, inspiring him verbally to blaze ahead, that curious voice rising and falling, full of invisible italics, the strong pianist's hands gesturing with the invariable cigarette.' [10]

Philip Guston recalled how O'Hara's flights of language could make even Guston's own studio, previously 'a giant ashtray,' into a site of new inspiration. 'Frank was in his most non-stop way of talking, saying that the pictures put him in mind of Tiepolo. Certain cupola frescoes. Suddenly I was working in an ancient building, a warehouse facing the Giudecca [in Venice]. The loft over the Firehouse was transformed. It was filled with light reflected from the canal. I was a painter in Venice.' [11]   Guston's portrait drawing of O'Hara goes to the edge of caricature to catch him in the act of holding forth in this way. Guston's line traces the elegant curve of O'Hara's neck and head, his broken nose, and his lips, parted to deliver the next sparkling line.

Larry Rivers and John Ashbery at Frank O'Hara's funeral, Springs, Long Island, 1966

Larry Rivers and John Ashbery
at Frank O'Hara's funeral,
Springs, Long Island, 1966

At O'Hara's funeral, Larry Rivers said, 'Frank O'Hara was my best friend. There are at least sixty people in New York who thought Frank O'Hara was their best friend.' [12] That sentiment was echoed repeatedly by those who knew him. Everyone he befriended felt the greatest intimacy with him, even as they recognized that his intimacy was exclusive only for the time that they were with him. As John Gruen wrote, 'When Frank talked to you he made you feel everything you did was of vital importance and interest - at least for the moment.' [13]

Why I am not a painter

As a literary figure, O'Hara is usually said to be a member of the New York School of poets, a group that has as its core O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, with a number of other distinguished poets such as Edwin Denby, Kenward Elmslie, and Barbara Guest sometimes included. Others such as Bill Berkson, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett, and Tony Towle followed a little later. The idea of a 'New York School' of poets began as a light-hearted imitation of the New York School of painting, a term that was itself initially a parody of the Schools of Florence, Paris, and so on. None of the poets involved saw themselves as a group in any sense beyond a group of friends, and Ashbery himself lived in Paris for most of the period during which the 'School' might be said to have been most active. [14]

The New York School is thus a loose concept at best. Its central characteristics might be said to be an informality of both tone and structure, an idiomatic lack of pretension, and a self-conscious, often playful, spontaneity. Today it is impossible to read the work of Ashbery and O'Hara without feeling the enormous differences of style, intent, technique, and sensibility that separate the two poets. Indeed, as Marjorie Perloff has written,

what we might call 'criticism based on movement affiliation' is bound, sooner or later, to give way to a historical and literary reshuffling of the deck. Beckett the 'absurdist' becomes Beckett the Anglo-Irish heir to Yeats and Joyce. Frank O'Hara, the 'New York School Abstract Expressionist poet' becomes O'Hara, the oppositional gay American poet in the line of Whitman.' [15]
As each wave of more or less facile characterizations emerges and recedes, what is left behind by such historical sifting (we hope) are the individual voices of the poets. It is precisely the specificity of O'Hara's poetry (much criticized at the time as 'gossipy' or diaristic) that gives his voice such a distinct presence today. His language always tended toward the vernacular and the casual, in marked contrast to what Kenneth Rexroth called the 'dreadful posturings' [16] of the poetry mainstream. O'Hara wanted to be able to pull his poetry right out of the life he was actually living, not cobble it together as labored allegory. 'Lord! spare us from any more Fisher kings!' he sighed. [17] Instead, as Ashbery put it, 'O'Hara grabs for the end product - the delight - and hands it over, raw and palpitating.' [18]

Of all the so-called New York School poets, it is unquestionably O'Hara who had the closest relationship with the painters for whom the term New York School has now become canonical, despite differences between the work of, say, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman that are at least as wide as those between O'Hara and Ashbery. O'Hara wrote the first monograph on Jackson Pollock (in 1959), he was a close friend of de Kooning and Franz Kline, and he organized The Museum of Modern Art retrospective of Robert Motherwell's work in 1965. One of his simplest and most affecting poems, 'Radio,' is written in praise of a de Kooning painting he owned at one time, Summer Couch (1943, below).


Willem de Kooning, Summer Couch, 1943. Oil on board, 36 x 51 inches, Private Collection. 

Willem de Kooning, Summer Couch, 1943. Oil on board, 36 x 51 inches, Private Collection.


Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning
to aspire to. I think it has an orange
bed in it, more than the ear can hold  [19]
These relationships with the giant figures of Abstract Expressionism remained the foundation of his career as a curator, even as he developed less reverential relationships with a younger generation of artists. O'Hara's poem, 'Why I Am Not a Painter,' elucidates the differences between the practice of painting and that of poetry even as it subtly suggests some parallels.
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
'Sit down and have a drink' he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. 'You have SARDINES in it.'
'Yes, it needed something there.'
'Oh.' I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. 'Where's SARDINES?'
All that's left is just
letters, 'It was too much,' Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems. I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.
The poem evokes downtown artistic life in the mid-fifties, with the poet-critic regularly dropping by the studios of his friends. It is the kind of scene that would later be the stuff of myth-making, but in the poem there is only a workmanlike attention to the mechanics of creation and a shared enthusiasm for them. There is sociable drinking, there is the artist's laconic but friendly resistance to interpretation, and, most of all, there is the sense of work steadily progressing, almost with a life of its own, as the 'days go by.' And this is true for both the painter and the poet. Both men present themselves as engaged in a kind of dialogue with their work, a process in which they intervene without being able to exercise complete control. Goldberg's painting seems to speak to him, even as O'Hara's poem cycle tries to run away.


Michael Goldberg and Frank O'Hara, cover of Odes, 1960

Michael Goldberg
and Frank O'Hara

cover of Odes»


Beyond this sense of a simultaneous, parallel, and continuing process, O'Hara's poem sets up a complex web of comparisons and distinctions between the two practices. Goldberg can insert a word, 'sardines,' into his painting, but then he can smash that word into fragments, retaining it as a whole only in his title. 'Exit' actually remains more prominent, although that too may be a fragment. Words for him are visual elements at least as much as they are signifiers of particular objects. O'Hara, symmetrically, begins with a color, orange, although, as he says, he never uses the word itself. Just as Goldberg breaks his word down into letters, O'Hara's poem devolves from 'a line | about orange' into a 'whole page of words, not lines.' Lines here can stand for both conventional poetic structure, with which the poet can break ('It is even in | prose'), and the linearity of a painter's gesture, the purity of which he cannot reach, tied as he remains to the specificity of language. 'Not lines' thus represents simultaneously a rebellion against literature and a failure to attain true independence from representation. For O'Hara, even if he never mentions orange, it retains its 'terrible' quality as a word as well as a color.

While O'Hara sought out relationships between the paintings he loved and his work as a poet, he remained aware that any such connection would always be problematic. He denied that any of his poems, even sprawling explorations of spontaneity such as 'Second Avenue,' were abstract in any meaningful way, even if others saw them so. Allen Ginsberg, for example, called such 'long meaningless poems' exercises in 'freedom of composition' [20] and thus comparable to abstraction in art, but O'Hara himself saw Willem de Kooning's women in 'Second Avenue.' In fact O'Hara remained consistently interested in issues of representation in painting, even in an era when abstraction dominated. He was one of relatively few critics of the period, for example, to see that even for Pollock, representation remained an urgent issue. 'The crisis of figurative as opposed to non-figurative art pursued him throughout his life,' [21] O'Hara wrote in 1959, when Pollock's achievement was all but universally taken to be purely abstract. And he knew that poetry would always be unable to completely break the chains of representation. Ashbery has emphasized that,

artists like de Kooning, Franz Kline, Motherwell, Pollock - were free to be free in their painting in a way that most people felt was impossible for poetry. So I think we learned a lot from them at that time, and also from composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, but the lessons were merely an abstract truth - something like Be yourself - rather than a practical one - in other words, nobody ever thought he would scatter words over a page the way Pollock scattered his drips. [22]
The work of Stéphane Mallarmé and the Dada poets notwithstanding, words always retain elements of representation. O'Hara never made any very serious attempt to pursue an experimental practice that would have taken him outside language as a referential system. He accepted that his poetry - any poetry - could never achieve the direct immediacy in itself of a brushstroke across a piece of canvas.

Everything suddenly

If there is a true point of contact between New York School painting and O'Hara's poetry, it is to be found less in the painters' pursuit of untrammelled access to the realms of the unconscious - O'Hara was above all self-conscious - than in the idea of the spontaneous. 'Like Pollock,' Ashbery wrote, 'O'Hara demonstrates that the act of creation and the finished creation are the same.' [23] He could produce wonderful poems in a single sitting, most famously 'Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!),' which he wrote on the Staten Island Ferry on the way to a reading with Robert Lowell:
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
He was also capable of writing poems in bars or at parties, and often did so. Kenneth Koch vividly recalls him sitting typing in the middle of a crowded party. 'Whatever was going through his head was precious. Frank was trying to run faster than ordinary consciousness.' [24] This fecundity impressed painters who were struggling to produce. 'All the artists I knew at the time were vaguely constipated,' Goldberg recalls. 'The favorite refrain of the period was 'Ain't it hard, gee ain't it hard.' [25]

Larry Rivers and Frank O'Hara, Stones: Inner Folder, 1957-60 (lithograph)

Larry Rivers
and Frank O'Hara

Stones: Inner Folder, 1957-60 (lithograph)


O'Hara's apparent casualness did not conceal his great learning, and he regularly dazzled his friends with the range of his knowledge. For O'Hara, however, the goal was never to flaunt his erudition, but rather to submerge its deeper content in the embrace of the quotidian; to write always in the now of a particular time and place. Where the first generation of New York School painters often sought an overt profundity, O'Hara strove to preserve in his writing the spontaneity and lightness of touch of his speech. 'I don't believe in reworking-too much' he told Edward Lucie-Smith. 'And what really makes me happy is when something just falls into place as if it were a conversation or something.' [26] As Koch has convincingly argued, 'The speed and accidental aspect of his writing are not carelessness but are essential to what the poems are about: the will to catch what is there while it is really there and still taking place.' [27]

still from USA Poetry: Frank O'Hara, 1966

still from
USA Poetry: Frank O'Hara, 1966


Or as Bill Berkson put it, 'It is not that he lacked selectivity or discrimination, but rather that his poems grew out of a process of natural selection - discrimination conjoining civility of attention - so that any particle of experience quick enough to get fixed in his busy consciousness earned its point of relevance.' [28]

For O'Hara what was really there was always filtered through his relationships with other people. Although his poetry is highly personal, it is rarely confessional, a common trope in poetry both then and now. He complained, for example, that Lowell had 'a confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad but you're supposed to be interested because he's supposed to be so upset.' [29]

O'Hara was certainly not opposed to the expression of emotion, only to emotional effects that he felt were obtained too easily, too cheaply. In this he could find common ground with the painters among whom he moved, who prized authenticity above all else. He rarely fell into the sentimental or self-indulgent. O'Hara was self-consciously a man of his time, for whom selfpity was something that had to be risen above. The dark, semi-apocalyptic mood that had characterized forties culture was dissipating and giving way to a new optimism about the present and the future. It is hard now to recapture the sense of supreme self-confidence that American culture had in the late fifties and early sixties.

John F. Kennedy's election at the beginning of the sixties brought to the presidency a man in some ways very similar to O'Hara in background: a Harvard-educated Irish Catholic who had served in the Navy during the war. What is more, his administration seemed to look favorably on the arts. Jackie Kennedy visited the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, an event that O'Hara celebrated in a poem. [30]  Among artists, critics, and poets, it was implicitly agreed that New York was simply the new center of the cultural world. O'Hara loved the rough, agitated, constantly surprising buzz of the city. 'I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.' [31]  In many ways he has become the poet of New York City. Part of the success of his vision of New York is that, while it is intensely romantic, it is not too romantic. The hot dog stands and car repair places attracted him as much as or even more than the shining skyscrapers.

Is it dirty
does it look dirty
that's what you think of in the city

does it just seem dirty
that's what you think of in the city
you don't refuse to breathe do you [32]
This love for the filth of the city was matched by a hostility to the country. 'I'm not a pastoral type any more,' he wrote. 'I hate the country and its bells and its photographs.' [33] The unchanging rhythm of church bells and the frozen passage into the past of old photographs form an unwelcome counterpart to the ever-changing clamor of the city, the constantly evolving present in which O'Hara wants to live. The city can even be seen as the new nature, superseding the old rather than simply obliterating it.

'A woman stepping off a bus may afford a greater insight into nature than the hills outside Rome, for nature has not stood still since Shelley's day.' [34]  He welcomed the changing fabric of the city, the construction workers continually transforming the urban landscape. His friend William Weaver was with him one day as some old brownstones were being demolished.
I said, in the usual clichéd way, 'Oh what a pity they're tearing down those brownstones.' Frank said, 'Oh no, that's the way New York is. You have to just keep tearing it down and building it up.' [35]
O'Hara's new nature is a kaleidoscope of individual moments that flow into and out of his consciousness, and his New York is both grimy and glamorous.
It's my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks. I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot. but the
cabs stir up the air. [36]
In the evening there were cocktail parties and dinners. Jane Freilicher's Early New York Evening (1953-54) shows us the view from her studio as the sun starts to go down over the city. O'Hara was a constant presence here, and this downtown view gives us the dirty but alluring city he loved.

In a moving 'Poem Read at Joan Mitchell's' (1957), but addressed to Freilicher on the occasion of her marriage, O'Hara called up the city they all shared:
Tonight you probably walked over here from Bethune Street
down Greenwich Avenue with its sneaky little bars and the Women's Detention House
across 8th Street, by the acres of books and pillows and shoes and illuminating lampshades,
past Cooper Union where we heard the piece by Mortie Feldman with 'The Stars and Stripes Forever' in it
and the Sagamore's terrific 'coffee and, Andy,' meaning 'with a cheese Danish' -
did you spit on your index fingers and rub the CEDAR's neon circle for luck?
did you give a kind thought, hurrying, to Alger Hiss? [37]
This kind of evocation, verging on invocation, demonstrates the perfect pitch for the telling detail that O'Hara brought to his walks down the streets of the city. 'Attention was Frank's gift and his requirement,' Bill Berkson wrote. 'You might say it was his message.' [38] But his attention was not simply a matter of close observation. The details are always acutely personal, specific to particular individuals, in this case Jane Freilicher.

If Freilicher's Early New York Evening evokes a moment of calm before the evening begins and before O'Hara had risen to real prominence, Howard Kanovitz's The New Yorkers (1967) shows us O'Hara in full flight, an urbane sophisticate exulting in brilliant conversation. O'Hara's poetry begins in the middle of real lives, casually dropping names as it they were as familiar to the reader as to the poet. While the informality of the tone can at first seem baffling, as a reader one is quickly drawn into O'Hara's world, access to which is surprisingly easy to obtain. He simply assumes that people will be interested enough to find their way in, as he himself had quickly found his way into the worlds of avant-garde painting and poetry after he came to New York. The invitation is open for those who care to accept it. O'Hara is confident that it will be taken up.

Barbara Guest remembers being in Paris with O'Hara in the summer of 1960. She had identified the location of the 'bateau-lavoir' building where Picasso and many other artists had had their studios in the early years of the century. But O'Hara didn't care; he wouldn't even go inside. 'Barbara,' he said, 'that was their history and it doesn't interest me. What does interest me is ours, and we're making it now.' [39]

Cedar Bar 1963

Photo: Fred W McDarrah, Closing of the Cedar Bar, March 30, 1963, detail.

Frank O'Hara and Barbara Guest (center), Allan Kaplan (right), and sculptor Abram Schlemowitz (foreground), 1963


That sense of riding the wave of the present can be felt in much of O'Hara's best poetry; the urgency of his need to be right there, right now. As Marjorie Perloff has written, 'O'Hara loves the motion picture, action painting, and all forms of dance - art forms that capture the present rather than the past, the present in all its chaotic splendor.' [40] His poetry is strewn with markers of precise dates and times that add precision to his emotions.

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner [41]
At any moment, the whole world that surrounds him and through which he moves can suddenly come into the sharpest focus, and it is necessary to be absolutely in that moment. At lunchtime in midtown Manhattan on a hot summer day, 'Everything | suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of | a Thursday.' [42]

Such intensity of living always carries with it the fear, actually the certain knowledge, that at any moment it could all come to an end, and this too is part of what drives O'Hara's writing.
There's nothing more beautiful
than knowing something is going
to be over [43]
Until it is over, life is to be lived with style, but also with an intense emotional commitment to each moment as it passes.

John Button - Swimmer, 1956John Button's portrait of the dancer Vincent Warren, with whom O'Hara had a passionate affair, shows him stretched upward in a pose that can be held only briefly. It is a perfectly balanced visual representation of an image that will inevitably pass away in another second or two, but which approaches perfection while it lasts. Its very ephemerality makes it all the more urgent to grasp. Its counterpart is Button's portrait of O'Hara diving into a wave. The tension is resolved, as the poet flies headlong into the ever-changing crest of the present.

(above) John Button - Swimmer, 1956, detail


Frank O'Hara, cutout, by Alex Katz, back view

(left) Alex Katz: Frank O'Hara, 1959-60, back view


[1] For O'Hara's poetry, see The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), Marjorie Perloff's Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), and the anthology edited by Jim Elledge, Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1990). For O'Hara's life, see Brad Gooch, City Poet. The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara (New York: Knopf, 1993). Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur, eds., Homage to Frank O'Hara (Berkeley: Creative Arts, 1980) is invaluable. See also Alexander Smith's Frank O'Hara: A Comprehensive Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1979), as well as the bibliography included in this catalogue.

[2] Greenberg, 1952, quoted in Kirk Varnedoe, Jackson Pollock (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 43.

[3] Feldman, 'Lost Times and Future Hopes,' in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 12.

[4] Button, 'Frank's Grace,' in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 42.

[5] O'Hara, in the television film David Smith: Sculpting Master of Bolton Landing, WNDT-TV, New York, 18 November 1964.Reprinted in Frank O'Hara, What's With Modern Art?, ed. Bill Berkson (Austin, Tex.: Mike & Dale's Press, 1999), 27.

[6] O'Hara, letter to Fairfield Porter, 7 July 1955.

[7] Feldman, in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 12.

[8] Katz, 'Memoir,' in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 99.

[9] Interview with the author, 4 September 1998.

[10] Schuyler, 'Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters', in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 82.

[11] Guston, in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 101.

[12] , in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 138.

[13] Gruen, The Party's Over Now: Reminiscences of the Fifties (New York: Viking, 1972),143.

[14] See David Lehman's The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (New York: Doubleday, 1998) for a comprehensive study of this group.

[15] Perloff, Radical Artifice (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 174.

[16] Rexroth, from 'Two Voices Against the Chorus,' in Elledge, Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City, 3.

[17] O'Hara, in 'Sorrows of the Youngman: John Rechy's City of Night' (1963), in Frank O'Hara, Standing Still and Walking in New York, ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas, California: Grey Fox Press, 1975), 162.

[18] Ashbery, 'Frank O'Hara's Question,' Book Week 25 (September 1966): 6.

[19] 'Radio' (1955), in Collected Poems, 234

[20] See Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, 25.

[21] O'Hara, Jackson Pollock (New York: Braziller, 1959), 12.

[22] Ashbery, quoted in Lehman, 305.

[23] Ashbery, 'Frank O'Hara's Question,' 6. See also Daniel Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity (Chicago: the Univiersity of Chicago Press, 1998).

[24] Kenneth Koch, interview with the author, 22 February 1999.

[25] David Shapiro, 'Conversations with Michael Goldberg,' in Shapiro, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, and Elisabetta Longari, Michael Goldberg (Viterbo: Primaprint, 1997), 21.

[26] Lucie-Smith, 'An Interview with Frank O'Hara,' in Standing Still and Walking in New York, 21.

[27] Koch, 'All the Imagination Can Hold,' in Elledge, Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City, 33.

[28] Berkson, 'Frank O'Hara and His Poems,' in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 162.

[29] O'Hara, interview with Lucie-Smith, 13.

[30] 'Who Is William Walton?' (1961), in Collected Poems, 395.

[31] O'Hara, 'Meditations in an Emergency' (1954), in Collected Poems, 197.

[32] O'Hara, 'Song' (1959), in Collected Poems, 327. O'Hara wrote on the manuscript: 'If I called this Vilanelle it would seem like Empson but I call it Hangover.'

[33] 'Corresponding Foreignly,' in Frank O'Hara, Poems Retrieved, ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1996), 161.

[34] O'Hara, 'Nature and New Painting,' in Standing Still and Walking in New York, 42.

[35] Quoted in Gooch, City Poet, 218. O'Hara was in tune with his times. There was virtually no preservation movement in New York until after the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station in 1963. The Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed in 1965.

[36] O'Hara, 'A Step Away from Them' (1956), in Collected Poems, 257.

[37] Collected Poems, 265.

[38] Berkson, in 'Frank O'Hara and his Poems,' in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 161

[39] Guest, in Homage to Frank O'Hara, 77.

[40] Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, 21.

[41] 'The Day Lady Died', in Colleclted Poems, 325.

[42] O'Hara, 'A Step Away From Them' (1958), in Collected Poems, 190.

[43] O'Hara, '[There's nothing more beautiful]' (1958), in Poems Retrieved, 190.


© Alex Katz / Licenced by VAGA, New York, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery - Frank O'Hara, 1959-60, front and back view of cutout figure; painting Marine and Sailor
© Camilla McGrath, Courtesy Earl McGrath Gallery - photo of Larry Rivers and John Ashbery at Frank O'Hara's funeral, Springs, Long Island, 1966
© George Cserna - Frank O'Hara (wearing bow tie) with Elaine de Kooning and Reuben Nakian at the Nakian opening, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966
© Eric Pollitzer, New York, courtesy Allan Stone Gallery - Willem de Kooning, painting, Summer Couch
© Brian Forrest - Michael Goldberg and Frank O'Hara, cover of Odes, 1960
© Larry Rivers / licensed by VAGA, New York, lithograph: Stones: Inner Folder, 1957-60
© Al Leslie - still from USA Poetry: Frank O'Hara, 1966
© Fred W. McDarrah - photo - Closing of the Cedar Bar, March 30, 1963, detail
© John Button - Swimmer, 1956 (Frank O'Hara diving into a wave)


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