Driving Country Roads with John Ashbery

John Ashbery met the artist Jane Freilicher the day that he moved to New York, in 1949; he fell in love with her sly, terse wit, akin to his own but sharper in attack.

Illustration by Jane Freilicher. Private Collection Courtesy the Flow Chart Foundation.

Whenever a major artistic figure departs, whatever remains of the
intellectual press fills up with a genre of reminiscence that might be
called “Brief Encounters with Genius.” My memories of the poet John Ashbery, who died on Sunday, at the age of ninety, fall into that
category, but they have taught me something about the complexity of
art’s relation to life, about the shadowy symbiosis of personality and

Ashbery’s poetry is invariably described as difficult and enigmatic; in
that sense, the man was distant from his writing, since, in person, he
was anything but an enigma. Shy and sheepish on first encounter, droll
and mischievous on further acquaintance, fundamentally sweet in his
dealings with the world, he was free of the coldness that so often
appears in people of great talent. Yet, as you watched his huge mind
roam and burrow, nibbling on one cultural oddity after another, you
could almost see poetry forming in his mind—a process that Larissa MacFarquhar captured in a 2005 Profile for the magazine. His high, hooty voice, nosey without being nasal, gave lightness and levity to his
thought. It was often observed that at Ashbery readings, the most arcane
poems would become comedy routines, because of the exalting whimsy of
his manner.

I met Ashbery around twenty years ago, through my friendship with Eric Brown, the longtime co-director of the Tibor de Nagy gallery. That celebrated institution, which opened in
1950, was one of the meeting points of a remarkable artistic and
literary circle that included Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch,
Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Joan Mitchell, Rudy
Burckhardt, Joe Brainard, and Larry Rivers. Many of them were still
around in the mid-nineteen-nineties; the old, brilliant, raucous New
York roared back at any of their gatherings. Ashbery was especially
close to Freilicher, who died in 2014, also at ninety. They met the day
that Ashbery moved to New York, in 1949; he fell in love with her sly,
terse wit, akin to his own but sharper in attack. To be in their company
was to experience a relentless deflation of pretensions. Over time,
Freilicher’s work moved from luminous abstractions to landscapes and
still-lifes of deceptive simplicity; a rigorous, vibrant treatment of
color was the through line. Ashbery followed a roughly similar
evolution, from thickets of verbal complexity to a kind of carefree
stream of consciousness. Both had a sense of the mysterious vitality of
ordinary surfaces. “I’m an orphan now,” Ashbery said after Freilicher’s

Ashbery had fascinating, esoteric taste in music, as in everything else,
and he alighted on that topic whenever he saw me. I was disconcerted to
hear that he had been reading my reviews when I was an apprentice critic
writing for Fanfare, a record-collectors’ magazine. He had a penchant
for obscure composers whose careers seemed to exist only on recordings,
with an emphasis on curiously named French composers of the fin de
siècle. “Oh,” he’d say—Ashbery sentences often began with “Oh”—“I’ve
been listening to Déodat de Séverac.” Or, “I have a thing for Tristan
Klingsor.” I would answer, “Mm,” making a mental note to explore these
figures further. Once, he asked, “What do you think of Catoire?” I drew
a blank, and wondered whether he was putting me on. But Georgy Catoire
does indeed exist, and is worth hearing. At Bard College, where Ashbery
taught, he would press his favorites on Leon Botstein, Bard’s president
and master of music. At Ashbery’s instigation, Botstein performed and
recorded Ernest Chausson’s post-Wagnerian opera “Le Roi Arthus.” A
desire for a revival of Séverac’s opera “Héliogabale,” about the
decadent teen-age Roman emperor, went unsatisfied.

Some years ago, I joined Eric and the novelist Paul Russell on a visit
to Ashbery and his husband, David Kermani, at their house in Hudson, New
York. Ashbery decided that we should make an expedition to a local
bookstore. For whatever reason, we went in two cars. Ashbery took the
lead, in a sedate sedan of domestic manufacture, and Eric, Paul, and I
followed. We turned off the main road in the vicinity of Hillsdale and
went down a series of increasingly narrow and poorly paved roads, until
the pavement disappeared altogether in a patch of woods. There was a
certain amount of nervousness in the car behind. Where were we? Was
Ashbery lost? Suddenly, the destination appeared: the remote, glorious
Rodgers Book Barn, which instantly
became one of my favorite bookstores. Each time I visit, I relive the
sense that Ashbery had conjured the place out of nowhere, like the
original Klingsor, in “Parsifal.”

When I began working on a book called “Wagnerism,” about Wagner’s
literary and artistic influence, I had an absurd idea: I wanted to ask
Ashbery to make a translation of Mallarmé’s infamously cryptic sonnet
about Wagner. I never gathered the courage to make this request, but
Eric did ask him about the poem in question. He replied, “I don't think
I know Mallarmé’s Wagner sonnet. Maybe I could explain it to Alex
anyway.” No doubt he would have managed it. Alas, that encounter never
came about, and the sonnet is destined to remain unexplained—like the
highest art, in whose realm John Ashbery now resides.

Sourse: newyorker.com