Collection Spotlight: Norman Bluhm and Frank O’Hara’s “Poem-Paintings”
May 20, 2020
By Luke Campbell
In the artistic whirlpool of the New York School—a coterie of painters, poets, dancers, musicians, and photographers in mid-20th-century New York City—a poet and a painter got together and splashed words and paint on sheets of paper. The poet Frank O’Hara—also an art critic and curator, and the personable axis around which the New York School seemed to orbit—combined his verse with the gestural strokes and drips of painter Norman Bluhm—a second-generation Abstract Expressionist who distinguished himself by pushing action painting to its extreme. They called their collaboration Poem-Paintings. It consists of twenty-six black-and-white works on paper brought to life by fragmentary poetry replete with exclamations and gestural bursts of paint that drip down the pages and bleed into the words. Together, paint and poetry convey an air of spontaneous, playful energy, the two mediums in unbound conversation with each other. Bluhm, in fact, describes the inception of these works as “part of our conversation,” the collaboration a kind of conversation between friends, both on and off the pages.
In Let’s Wait and See, we can trace the course of their brief intermedial conversation clearly: O’Hara foregrounds the action with a line at the top: “Let’s wait and see / what happens,” and Bluhm responds energetically with a splashing semicircular gesture in white paint. O’Hara breaks his reply into two lines: at the center, interrupting Bluhm’s gesture of cascading paint, are the words “it could be,” and at the bottom right corner, “a golf ball.” That O’Hara’s verse does not serve as mere caption to Bluhm’s painting, nor Bluhm’s image as mere illustration to O’Hara’s text, is crucial to the Poem-Paintings. Although Let’s Wait and See toys with the notion of captioning, with the line “a golf ball” under an image of, perhaps, a golf ball, positing one side of the collaboration as a caption or an illustration to the other grossly underestimates an essential theme of the series: the dynamic interplay of image and text. As a record of the artists’ evolving acts of gesture and response, Let’s Wait and See is more accurately described as a rendition of a conversation in dueling modalities, spotlighting the act of creation. O’Hara’s central qualifier that “it could be” implies that the conversation extends beyond the sheet’s edges. His text seems to beg its antithesis—perhaps Bluhm’s image is not a golf ball. Thus, the work opens up a space for continued conversation, potentially implicating the viewer in its dialogue. After all, the poem begins, “Let’s wait and see / what happens,” the “us” of “let’s” possibly referring to the two collaborators, but equally possibly referring to the speaker and the viewer. Thus the viewer is drawn into the conversation and burdened with the question: What else could this image, this action in paint, be?
Alternatively, to further contextualize Let’s Wait and See, let us turn to the other pieces in the series. Within a traditional collection of poetry, a single poem generates meaning both as a standalone text and also as a moment in the larger collection’s ebb and flow. The poem’s specific placement––where it appears in the overall work, what comes before and after—provides avenues for insight, as does the larger narrative arc. Ostensibly, the Poem-Paintings lack the sense of order imparted by a bound book. Instead, the Poem-Paintings exist within a system that is more web-like than linear. As such, Let’s Wait and See can fruitfully be juxtaposed with any of the other Poem-Paintings to create a measure of continued conversation.
For example, let’s try juxtaposing Let’s Wait and See with BANG, which creates an alliterative, half-rhyme couplet between “ball” and “BANG.” BANG also provides a kind of response to the command “Let’s wait and see / what happens”; BANG contains a vertical explosion of black paint that contrasts with the horizontally oriented swirl of white paint in Let’s Wait and See. In essence, BANG records these conversational gestures as a single unified moment. These dueling modalities of text and paint spark in the viewer a synesthetic experience of onomatopoeia. Just as the Poem-Paintings liberate O’Hara from the binding of a traditional poetry book, the picture plane provides an arena for liberation from the bounds of a poem, allowing the poet to create a kind of allover, gestural poetry. BANG takes this even further, exploding the letters to the page’s corners, thus detonating the constructions of text itself. In so doing, BANG underscores the simultaneity of the two distinct modalities coursing throughout the Poem-Paintings.
In considering BANG within the Poem-Paintings as a whole, it becomes evident that this notion of simultaneity extends into the construction of the collection itself. In their absence of linear ordering, the Poem-Paintings achieve the effect of a total event, encompassing a host of discrete painterly and poetic voices that all seem to be talking at once. Yet, as we explored in Let’s Wait and See, these discrete voices do not impart complete conversations. The poetry parallels the gestural markings made in paint, which record the movements of the artist’s body as subjective fracturings of conventional poetry. While the Poem-Paintings document the vibrant exchange through conversation between two people, and between two mediums, when viewed today, they are abstracted from their original context. We encounter the Poem-Paintings as we might overhear snippets of conversation as we walk down the streets of New York City. Appreciating the Poem-Paintings does not require us to recover the generative context of the original conversation; instead, they celebrate the very act of conversation itself, chronicling the translation of private memory into the public sphere. The Poem-Paintings engage in a kind of gossip that excludes the viewer from their context yet simultaneously invites them in, to meld their own memories with those indiscernible recollections produced by the artworks.
In an interview with Marjorie Perloff, Bluhm recounted the conversation that produced one of the Poem-Paintings, Homage to Kenneth Koch: “One time, we (Kenneth Koch and I) picked up two girls at a cocktail party. He ended up with the better-looking one but she did have big feet. I told Frank about it and drew the shape of a foot.” O’Hara responded, in Perloff’s words, “by writing an appropriately foolish love poem.” This generative memory, however, is completely unrecoverable and thus divorced from the finished product. The memory that sparked the creation of this piece is indiscernible to viewers, who mirror the speaker at the poem’s outset, “standing / outside your window,” looking into the artwork—tracing the angular arch of the foot, the enigmatic big toe, and the fluid black-and-white drips. Even so, Homage to Kenneth Koch stands as a public-facing homage to a friend born out of, but divorced from, a private reminiscence that exists intangibly and indeterminately in the space connecting the words to the visual imagery, as paint drips messily overtop the poem’s final stanza:
were you inside
the hood too?
Confronted with this explicit invitation to step dramatically into the realm of the speakers’ memories, to join them in their gossip inside the hot hood of a car, we can only answer yes.
 John Yau and Jonathan Gams, “Twenty-Six Things at Once: An Interview with Norman Bluhm,” Lingo: A Journal of the Arts 7 (1997), 11. For further discussion of the Poem-Paintings, see Lytle Shaw, “Gesture in 1960: Toward Literal Situations” in New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection (New York: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 2008), 37–65.
 Marjorie Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (University of Chicago Press, 1977), 107.
Luke Campbell graduated this past month from Virginia Commonwealth University with a B.A. in English and lives in Richmond, VA. During his senior year, Luke completed a thesis project as a Distinguished English Major on the Poem-Paintings of Frank O’Hara and Norman Bluhm.