7 September – 15 December 2006
E.S. Bird Library, 6th floor

Viewing Hours: Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"The avant-garde atmosphere in New York at that time was a close and exciting one," Grace Hartigan recalled of the beginnings of the New York School. The close association of artists (Hartigan, Larry Rivers, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Goodnough, Fairfield Porter, and Alfred Leslie) and poets (Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest) produced a creative excitement that lasted from the late 1940s into the 1960s.

The painters of the New York School took their inspiration from a group of New York artists that had been exploring the boundaries of abstraction since the late 1930s, especially Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Hartigan described this influence: "In the late 1940s I, along with other students in our twenties, found a new way of painting being created in our New York backyards. Meeting with and seeing the work of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning changed my life-I understood what it meant to totally identify one's self with one's art." John Ashbery was more cryptic: "We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing."

This identity of self and art makes it impossible to ascribe a "style" to the New York School. Hartigan's style moved back and forth between the figurative and abstraction all through the 1950s; Joan Mitchell was relentlessly abstract, while Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher were clearly figurative. The terms "abstract expressionism" and "action painting" were applied by critics, but Hartigan may be more helpful when she explained that "in the late 40s and early 50s, the painters who came to be known as 'abstract expressionist' wanted to give emotional content to abstract art." This emotional content, to no small degree, was fueled by the connected lives of the artists, who studied together at Hans Hoffman's School, the Artist's Club, and Studio 35, and drank and communed at the Cedar Street Tavern and the Five Spot.

Also central to this creative atmosphere was the collaboration in life and art between artists and poets. Some of the poets of the New York School had studied together at Harvard, but they came together socially and professionally when they gathered around the art scene in New York. Many of the poets had their first work published by John Bernard Myers at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where most of the painters had their first shows. As Frank O'Hara commented, the poets "divided our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artist's bar, the Cedar Tavern. In the San Remo we argued and gossiped: in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip." There were so many collaborations between the New York School poets and artists, it is hard to keep track of them all. The painters' appreciation of the poetry scene was not unreciprocated. Grace Hartigan, for example, wrote of her admiration of O'Hara's poetry: "His poetry involves a tapestry of ideas, images-the artist's inner sensibility, the observed world, art and poetry of the past & present and modern man's life on 'the edge.'?"

It was a unique time suffused with a vigorous creative fire that we celebrate in Imagine! Painters and Poets of the New York School.


JUST THE WORD IS ENOUGH to start the process. Imagination is the image-making power of the mind, and we all have imagination. In flights of fancy, in remembered experience, in considering what might be or never could be, imagination will not be contained. This exhibit appeals to imagination in many ways, and a tour of the items will challenge your imagination on at least three different levels.

One level is the imagination that each of these artists and writers used for the creation of their own works. The creative artist uses imagination to transform experience into poetry, painting, or some other medium. Skill, talent, and training are all important, but one can have technical ability and never become an artist. It is imagination, the ability to see and express the unique, even in the ordinary, that makes for art. For Grace Hartigan and Frank O'Hara, imagination meant seeing the artistic possibilities in everyday life: costumes bought on the street become the painting Masquerade; a news article about a singer's death becomes the poem "The Day Lady Died." This exhibition celebrates the artistic imagination of a wonderfully creative group of people who lived in New York City in the 1950s.

Cooperation and collaboration-one work of art, a painting, flowing from the encounter with another work of art, a poem-calls for imagination. A painter reads a poem and translates that experience into her own medium, perhaps including the very words of the poem into the shape of the painting. Perhaps the poem suggests visual images, or the artist's experiences are evoked by the poet's insights. The artworks in our exhibit are connected with poetry, and many include the written word right in the painting or print. Writing poetry based on works of art has a long history-the Greeks had a word for it, "ekphrasis." The New York School poets loved the plastic arts and collaborated with painters; Frank O'Hara even worked at the Museum of Modern Art, eventually as a curator. The poets in our exhibit celebrated the visual arts in their poetry and criticism; our painters wrapped their creativity around poetry, a second level of imagination.

Imagination is not frozen in the past, in a painting completed or a poem published. Today, now, you are reading the poem; you are taking in the work of art. When you see a painting or a print, or when you read a poem, you bring your experiences, your prejudices, your likes, and dislikes with you. What you see and understand is a product of your own imagination. In addition, the New York School, both in painting and poetry, was defined less by specific styles and more by the relationships of its participants. The exhibit documents the interaction of these young artists through their letters and photographs. Your imagination can use these letters and photographs as a window into their lives. What was it like to be alive in the creative mix that was the painters and poets of the New York School? Imagine!

Enter the Exhibit