Intimate Abstraction: New York School Coterie and Hybrid Form

By Frances Lazare, NYPL Short-Term Fellow
June 29, 2022
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

This blog post was written by Frances Lazare, a Short-Term Research Fellow at the NYPL’s Berg Collection in August 2021.

Kenneth Koch, “Sun Out,” from Poems (New York: Tibor de Nagy Editions, 1953).

Photo by Frances Lazare at NYPL Berg Collection

In 1953, poet Kenneth Koch published his first book of poetry, simply titled Poems, under the direction of John Bernard Myers with the Tibor de Nagy Gallery’s poetry imprint. The volume includes seven poems in which Koch variously employed techniques associated with literary Surrealism, including stream-of-consciousness, absurdism, and an interest in the detritus of daily life, to craft poems that emphasized form and sound above coherent narrative. “Bananas, piers, limericks!” Koch announces at the start of the book’s fifth poem Sun Out, a summation of its spirit. The publication sparked critical debate over the seriousness of Koch’s work. Finding Koch’s verse “tasteless, futile, noisy and dull,” critic Harry Roskolenko questioned whether it was possible “to call any of his word combinations the bric-a-brac of poetry.” Roskolenko’s review prompted a rebuttal from Koch’s fellow poet and friend Frank O’Hara— who had recently published his own collection of poems with the Tibor de Nagy Editions— which held that Koch had “vivacity and go, originality of perception and intoxication with life. Most important of all, he is not dull.[1]   

Poems was accompanied by a series of nine original block prints by his friend, artist, and scene-maker Nell Blaine. At the time of the volume’s publication Blaine was well-known for the parties and studio sessions she held in her 21st street apartment as well as her rigorous, semi-abstract painting. The prints presented little help for critics like Roskolenko in their search for legibility. Poems was published at a pivotal moment in Blaine’s career, as she transitioned away from the ascetic abstraction of her early work into a more naturalistic mode. Much like Koch’s writing, Blaine’s illustrations skirted the line between naturalism and abstraction. Ranging from structural explorations of pure color to figure studies and lyrically rendered drawings of potted plants, the artists’ prints experiment with the limits of legibility much in the same way as Koch’s verse, without feeling illustrative or redundant. Indeed, legibility may have been beside the point for both Blaine and Koch. As would seriousness. Rather, Poems stages a playful conversation between artist and writer about the boundaries of genre, idiom, and form.

Nell Blaine, Abstraction, 1947. Reprinted in Kenneth Koch, Poems (New York: Tibor de Nagy Editions, 1953).

Photo by Frances Lazare at NYPL Berg Collection

The cooperative, even chatty spirit of the New York School—especially its poetic branch—is often noted in histories of this celebrated moment in American artistic practice. Yet, art history still has many lessons to learn from works like Poems, whose ephemeral, and low-circulation nature have kept them relegated to the archives of a painterly movement that has (at least historically) celebrated large and singular works of art. The Kenneth Koch Papers housed in The New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, holds vital examples of co-authored works that explore the formal resonances of poetry and painting. Such work, including chapbooks like Poems, as well as the full run of Folder magazine, a mid- 1950s literary journal published lesbian poet Daisy Aldan out of her bedroom, evidence a pervasive desire on the part of artists, writers, and critics such as Meyers to materialize the intimate conversations and correspondence which was already informing their work across media.

Nell Blaine, Terrace, 1953. Reprinted in Kenneth Koch, Poems (New York: Tibor de Nagy Editions, 1953).

Photo by Frances Lazare at NYPL Berg Collection

As a short-term research fellow in August 2021, I was able to examine these documents of collaboration in person at the Berg, in the service of research for my doctoral dissertation, “Intimate Abstraction: New York School Coterie and Hybrid Form,” which proffers a new configuration of the terms abstraction and figuration through the structure of cooperative work. Through my two weeks stay at the Berg, I made great advances in my study, including hours spent pouring over letters between Koch and his peers which background work like Poems, and solidify its existence as an extension of their more private, epistolary conversations. I was particularly delighted to view Folder in its entirety, given my long-time interest in Daisy Aldan, and her up-start publishing house Tiber Press.

Excerpt from Daisy Aldan “The Last Blast,” and untitled silkscreen by Grace (George Hartigan), in Folder vol 1, no.1 (New York, 1953).

Photo by Frances Lazare at NYPL Berg Collection

I examined these works as documents of intimate conversation but was also struck by their fragility and handcrafted nature. In considering for instance, the ways that Blaine’s illustrations for Poems were laid in individually, and by hand, clarified their status as low-budget, low-circulation and essentially non-commercial objects. This work ossified my methodological interest in the ephemeral and collaborative aspects of classroom these lyrical but cheaply produced magazines and journals, and interest in privileging a wider range of sources on the New York School than has previously been studied in art historical scholarship. In looking to the New York School’s homemade, collaborative, and ephemeral sources, practices of artists like Blaine and Aldan—and even to some degree Koch, who is as yet the least studied of the New York School Poets— are made visible anew. Time spent at the Berg reinforced the importance of archival work, in which the process and character of research informs the very methods for writing art, and literary history.

[1] O’Hara, Frank. “Another Word on Kenneth Koch.” Poetry 85, no. 6 (1955): 349–51.