Tuesday, 14 October 2008



NOTE: This is another piece I originally wrote, in 2000, for Alan Ross at London Magazine, which languished in his files. In Company showed at the New York Public Library, the Witherspoon Art Gallery, Greensboro North Carolina, the University Of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, and the Green Library at Stanford University. The catalogue, including a CD Rom and edited by Amy Cappellazzo and Elizabeth Licata of the Castellani Art Museum, Niagara University, New York was published by University of North Carolina Press. Creeley, of course, has since passed away, but I've left it in its original, present, tense.

“I Know A Man”, the best known of Robert Creeley’s poems (one line from it spawned a Jeremy Larner novel which became a Bob Rafelson film starring Jack Nicholson), begins:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,--

We think of poetry as a lonely art, but Creeley doesn’t. The most striking feature of “In Company”, an exhibition of the Bollingen Prize winning poet’s collaborations with artists, is sheer exuberance. When the exhibition opened in the refined surroundings of the New York Public Library’s Salomon Exhibition Hall, the works almost seemed to leap from their cases in an attempt to pull the viewer into dialogue with them, in much the same process as occurred, one imagines, between the poet and these artists.

Now 73, Creeley, twice a Harvard dropout, World War II ambulance driver, and struggling chicken farmer, began his poetic career in collaboration. On his New Hampshire farm in the late 1940s he heard Cid Corman’s poetry program on the radio from Boston. Through Corman, editor of the ground-breaking literary magazine Origin, Creeley began an intense correspondence with Charles Olson, then rector of the experimental Black Mountain College. Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” provided the blueprint for an entire generation of post-modern poetry, from Allen Ginsberg to Robert Duncan, and one of Olson’s key precepts quotes Creeley directly: “form is never more than an extension of content”. This phrase echoes continuously through the present exhibition: a breaking down of the distinct , and discrete, distance between artistic technique and subject.

Creeley had moved to Mallorca, where he tutored Robert Graves’ children and began to apply his own aphoristic precepts, starting with an essay on the French artist Rene Laubies. Laubies returned the favour by illustrating Creeley’s first book of poems, THE IMMORAL PROPOSITION (1953). Laubies’ art lies flat on the page facing the poems: each painting shares physical space with the words. Form extends content: simple broad strokes accompanying “An Obscene Poem” suggest wave motion and boats, but only suggest. Increasingly Creeley was seeing words as things in themselves, rather than symbols. Sight is an important metaphor: Creeley’s straight-forward perspective may be the result of losing one eye when he was two years old. But the primary position thatsight takes also suggests the realms where the body’s actions and mind’s perceptions move together, like boats rocking in the water.

He returned to American and joined the Black Mountain faculty, which included dancer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, and the artist Franz Kline.In an essay, “On The Road: Notes on Artsts and Poets”, Creeley recalled listening to Kline’s sad stories while drinking with him and Jackson Pollock in New York’s legendary Cedar Bar. Creeley responded to the “non-verbal” quality of Pollock’s painting. The paradox fascinated him. Artists like Kline possessed the verbal facility to captivate poets with their stories. Yet Kline and Pollock’s art spoke to the emotions while doing away with story-telling entirely. Form is never more than an extension of content? For Kline, form was content. Out of this collaboration, Creeley learned to focus the expressive reach of his writing in each individual word.

-- John, I
sd, which was not his
name,the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against

“If it’s you, he embraces it,” said the artist Jim Dine, whose etchings for Creeley’s MABEL (1977) try to make literal objects out of Creeley’s words, reflecting the way abstract expressionism saw painting as a process, manipulating its own materials. In an essay for this exhibition’s impressive catalogue, critic John Yau points out that Creeley’s move from Mallorca’s relative isolation to the myriad influences of Black Mountain, enabled a similar process: from using the external world as a “signpost” to thinking of words as material things.

He’d established artistic common ground. Creeley’s NUMBERS (1968), is a series of ten abstract poems, written to accompany Robert Indiana’s hard-edged silkscreens, trying to make the words equal to the numerals represented in Indiana’s art. Rather than suggesting a story for each number, Creeley simply tries to create that number for the reader. Think of Charles Demuth’s famous poster-portrait of William Carlos Williams “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold”. Unlike Demuth, Indiana dropped the backstory, and Creeley has not inserted one.

Given these aims, it is not strange that the only portrait of Creeley on show is by RB Kitaj, who did exceptional portraits of other 'Black Mountain' poets, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Paul Blackburn, and collaborated with Creeley on A SIGHT, published in London by Cape Goliard in 1967, and on A DAY BOOK (1972). The latter was Creeley’s attempt to write down the raw material of life without turning it into art. Kitaj’s DAY BOOK portraits are deceptively simple. As you can see at the top of this post, Kitaj's Creeley looks pensively from his one good eye, a playful wink implied behind his unique visual perspective.

or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

Experimentation is a constant. It’s a question of process, the energy at work between artist and writer parallels that between artist and materials. John Chamberlain once defined sculpture as “something that if it falls on your foot, will break it”. He sent Creeley completed prints; Creeley wrote FAMOUS LAST WORDS (1988) to accompany them. Chamberlain’s note to Creeley reads like a Creeley poem: “here are 10 prints/for whatever use to you—hope/they influence enough to find/words you haven’t used for/awhile.” The photo-copier images done by Creeley’s second wife, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, suggest there might also be a sexual element to artistic collaboration. So do Arthur Okamura’s tiny nudes, creating Busby Berkeley-ish mandalas for Creeley’s poems, or Susan Rothenberg’s mezzotints for PARTS (1993), completed entirely by post, but resulting in powerful animal images, like “Dog Leg Wheel”.

In his poem “For Jim Dine” Creeley refers to “the confounding, confronted/pictures of world/brought to signs/of its insistent self.” Later he speaks of the “intervals between silences”. For fifty years, Creeley has sought the insistent self behind the world’s pictures. His words have filled those silences, and in these collaborations, the intervals do grow smaller, and disappear.

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.