January 21, 2011  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
An Inspiring Collaboration: Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara

Larry Rivers. Springtemps, from Stones. Print executed 1958. 1 from illustrated book with 13 lithographs, composition (irreg.). page: 19. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. E. Powis Jones. © 2011 Estate of Larry Rivers/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

As a writer, more specifically a poet, I like to turn to art as a source of inspiration. The relationship between the written and the visual presents itself best in the form of collaboration, where both mediums can share the same space. Collaborations between writers and artists can range from artist books and performances to publications and series of prints. The current Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition shines a light on one of my favorite poets and well-known collaborators: Frank O’Hara. O’Hara and the poets of his time (Ashbery, Berrigan, Koch to name a few) were part of what was known as the New York School poets. The New York School also included painters and sculptors who pioneered the Abstract Expressionist movement. It makes sense that these two creative groups, living and working within the same neighborhoods and sharing a similar aesthetic, would collaborate with each other.

While viewing the works in the exhibition Rock Paper Scissors, located in the second-floor galleries and part of the Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition, I was drawn to the collaborative piece Stones, a book of lithographic prints by Larry Rivers with poems by O’Hara.

Rivers drawings help to narrate O’Hara’s poems, and they appear at once fluid and disjointed. The viewer can see when Rivers was inspired by O’Hara’s words, but he doesn’t offer a literal interpretation of the poem. In Springtemps we see a hazy flower, which most likely comes from the line “Joe comes in with/a new pair of flowers and/we have another May whiskey.” But what about the rest of the drawing? Could it be Rivers’s way of picturing a May whiskey, or could it be the “work” that O’Hara goes on to talk about in his poem? O’Hara is known for observing the everyday within his work; friends and works of art are mentioned as if they were present in the room when he wrote. I like to think that Rivers was taking the same approach when creating the drawing for Springtemps.

Another example of the creative relationship between Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara can be found upstairs in The Big Picture galleries on the fourth floor. Rivers’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware hangs within one of the last galleries, and O’Hara wrote a poem inspired by the painting (read it here). For more information on the collaborations between Rivers and O’Hara, listen to this brief audio piece that accompanies Stones in the exhibition.

For more on Frank O’Hara and his work with the Abstract Expressionist movement, be sure to attend the lecture, “Dorothy Miller and Frank O’Hara: Championing Abstract Expressionism at MoMA” on January 26.