LEISURE & ARTS: Words Worth a Thousand Pictures ---
Juxtaposing Poetry and Painting, Robert Creeley's Collaborations
Give Art New Meaning
by Anne Midgette

Date: Thu, 23 Sep 1999 21:17:18 -0500 Wall Street Journal,
September 22, 1999
New York

Put words together with music, and it's often the music you hear first. Put
words together with a picture, and people will often read them as a caption.
"The poetry does get eaten up by the image," says artist Archie Rand.

Poet Robert Creeley wouldn't agree. In 1998, he collaborated with Mr. Rand
on "Drawn and Quartered," a collection of 54 prints by Mr. Rand, each
embellished with a quatrain by Mr. Creeley. And the show "In Company: Robert
Creeley's Collaborations," now at the New York Public Library, displays this
and 46 other collaborations Mr. Creeley has done with visual artists over
the past 46 years. In books, portfolios and broadsheets created with the
likes of Francesco Clemente and Jim Dine, R.B. Kitaj and Sol LeWitt, words
and images maintain an uneasy tension: The pictures are not illustrations of
the texts, the texts not captions to the pictures.

Juxtaposing poetry and painting "keeps shifting the emotional center," says
Mr. Creeley, "particularly working with someone like Clemente, with such
affective particularizing imagery. Any person reading what I've written and
seeing what he's made is moving back and forth between two emotional

The show, which originated at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara
University (N.Y.), is handsome testimony to Mr. Creeley's creative life. Now
73, Mr. Creeley, who once wanted to be a novelist but ultimately
concentrated on the "domestic" realm of poetry, has followed an academic
career, holding a professorship at SUNY Buffalo and teaching at other
universities around the world, while garnering awards and grants from a
Guggenheim through a tenure as New York State Poet (1989-91) to this year's
prestigious Bollingen Prize. By age, he belongs to the periphery of the Beat
generation; by allegiance, to Black Mountain College, where he taught and
received his B.A. in the '50s after dropping out of Harvard a decade before,
in the spring of his senior year.

At Black Mountain, the verbal and visual arts met as a matter of course.
"There was a small job press in the print studio," recalls poet Jonathan
Williams, who like Mr. Creeley attended Black Mountain and was enormously
influenced there by the poet Charles Olson. "(Poet) Joel Oppenheimer was a
student, and he knew something about printing; and (Robert) Rauschenberg
made a drawing for a poem of Joel's. It was the first time anything of
Rauschenberg's had ever been published." That broadside launched Mr.
Williams's Jargon press, which has since produced more than 100 books of
poetry, photography, drawings and whatever else takes the publisher's fancy.
Mr. Creeley's 1953 collaboration with French artist Rene Laubies, "The
Immoral Proposition," in which Mr. Laubies's Franz Kline-like gestural
drawings threaten to ensnare the printed poems in their tangles, was
Jargon's eighth publication, and is the first Creeley collaboration in this

Spare yet lush, tough yet yielding, Mr. Creeley's poetry is ideally suited
for such collaboration, portraying states of being or facets of reality
without, usually, creating images itself. In a catalog essay, poet John Yau
points out that Mr. Creeley shares with the Abstract Expressionists a
concern with his physical media -- with doing things that are only possible
in words -- and with the process of making art, playing with the sense of
time and narrative flow in subjective, elliptical juxtapositions of words
and sentences. Mr. Creeley was attracted to the work of an Abstract
Expressionist like Jackson Pollock because, as he explained to the show's
curator, Elizabeth Licata, "It's a way of stating what one feels without
describing it." Mr. Creeley aims for this kind of statement in his own
poetry. Collaborating with visual artists is a way for him to expand the
terms of his poetry beyond the horizons of the self.

The nature of collaboration varies. In some cases, such as "The Immoral
Proposition," poems and images simply coexist side by side. In others, Mr.
Creeley sent completed poems to the artist, or wrote poems based on existing
images, such as "Life & Death" with Francesco Clemente in 1993. "It's not a
question of understanding the paintings," he says, "but of picking up their
vibes -- more like playing in a band."

Among the most successful collaborations in the show are the "Numbers,"
which Mr. Creeley did with pop artist Robert Indiana in 1968. Mr. Indiana
made large, slick silkscreens of the numerals one through nine, and Mr.
Creeley furnished poems dealing with aspects of each number. Because Mr.
Indiana's posterlike style evokes printing-press production, there's a
seamless fit between the artist's images and the printed word. In sober
black type on a sheet of otherwise empty paper, each poem contrasts with the
loud exclamation of the numeral opposite it, and preserves a kind of
theoretical balance between letters and numbers into the bargain.

As the poet became better known, he was invited to do projects with artists
he didn't actually know, coordinated by third-party dealers or publishers.
While some of these projects are beautiful, the distance between the
collaborators is reflected in a kind of coolness in "7&6," with Robert
Therrien (1988), or "Visual Poetics," with Donald Sultan (1998). In these,
Mr. Creeley's poetry is more literal. Where he avoids simply describing the
artists' images in collaborations with Mr. Clemente or Marisol, he is
specific about the associations evoked by Mr. Therrien's small, one-color
geometric shapes, and his poems reflect the painter's finicky precision. He
is similarly descriptive of Mr. Sultan's quasi-photographic outline images
of fruit and flowers ("Looks like a pear? Is yellow?"), writing, as in many
of his other poems, in stanzas that fall in and out of rhyme.

"There are artists whose work doesn't really let anyone else in," says Mr.
Creeley, speaking particularly of John Chamberlain, an old friend from Black
Mountain, who sent him the lithographs for "Famous Last Words" in 1988. "I
don't know what the poems have to do with the images" in that collaboration,
Mr. Creeley laughs. In other cases, there's a real dialogue between the two
art forms. "Sometimes, when my work has a unique form," Mr. Clemente has
said, "it calls for his (Mr. Creeley's) ability to read it." And Mr. Creeley
describes Susan Rothenberg's reaction to a poem he wrote for a catalog of
her upcoming retrospective in Boston (the two collaborated on "Parts" in
1993). "I was working from images the museum provided," he says. After Ms.
Rothenberg read the poem, "the phone rings; and she said, `How did you know?
I don't really know you that well; how did you know this?' I said, `I look
at your paintings, friend.'"

Displaying these books and folios in a show, whether on the walls of a
museum in Buffalo or pinned like butterflies in the library's display cases
in New York, means seeing poetry, at least in part, as a kind of visual art.
Placed next to a painting or print, the words are pinned into the realm of
the seen, becoming something that must be looked at as well as read. Indeed,
reading Mr. Creeley's poems as if they were paintings brings into sharp
focus the counterpoint between horizontal and vertical, between the meaning
of individual lines and of the sentences they form when taken together as a
whole. But looking, in a museum context, is not a wholly satisfying way to
take in poetry. Marvelously, the show's catalog comes with an excellent
CD-ROM that reproduces several pages of each collaboration, word and image,
which allows the viewer the option of reading the poems in intimacy, and
creates the implied irony that new technology is able to give words, again,
the upper hand.

"In Company: Robert Creeley's Collaborations" is now on view at the New York Public Library through Jan. 15, 2000, and subsequently travels to the Weatherspoon Art Gallery at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro (Feb. 13-April 22); the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa (May 15-July 15); and Green Library at Stanford University (Aug. 20-Jan. 6, 2001)



Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/creeley.html
Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:25:33 EDT