Portraits of Frank O’Hara

(Mostly about poetry and art, poets and artists, with some raunchy moments on men’s bodies and mansex, so kids and the sexually modest should steer clear, but not much about language, or for that matter music or plants or food — you can’t always get you want, but if you’re Frank O’Hara, you can probably get what you need.)

In the Village Voice on June 1st, a piece by by Peter Schjeldahl,”Frank O’Hara: He Made Things and People Sacred”, with the summary subhead:

In 15 years as a poet, playwright, critic, curator, and universal energy source in the lives of the few hundred most creative people in America, Frank O’Hara had rendered that world wholly unprepared to tolerate his passing [in a freak accident on the beach at Fire Island on 8/11/66, at the age of 40].

Schjeldahl’s appreciation will also let me cash in the promissory note in the Alice Neel section of my 6/6/19 posting “What makes the world go ’round?”:

The AZBlogX posting [of 6/6/19, “On the art patrol: Alice Neel, Larry Rivers”] has (in #2 there) a famously scandalous Larry Rivers painting of a naked O’Hara with a hard-on and workman’s boots and nothing else; I’ll get to it in a separate posting on O’Hara. Here, Neel’s takes on O’Hara, in two paintings from 1960 [a side view and a front view, both entirely SFW; with a quote from an O’Hara poem: “I was made in the image of a sissy / truck-driver”]

(Hat tip to Rod Williams.)

From Schjeldahl’s homage:

… The sketchy obituary in the Times next morning barely mentioned his poetry, focusing on his role as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, responsible for the recent Motherwell and Nakian shows. It also rehashed the notoriety of a certain nude portrait of O’Hara (after Gericault, plus combat boots and erection) done by [Larry] Rivers 11 years ago.

… Nor did the Times note poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s remark that O’Hara had been America’s greatest living poet; nor did it refer to poet and art critic Bill Berkson’s eulogy: “Frank was the most graceful, quick, courageous, sometimes terrifying intelligence. Often, no matter how intimate or involved you might be, you could only begin to imagine what and how much he was feeling. It was electric, full of light and air and blood, amazing, passionate, and full of sense. As a poet, a genius, just walking around, talking, he had that magic touch: He made things and people sacred…”

Rivers, in his speech, said, “There are at least 60 people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend.”

… His friends, in attempts communicate the breadth of their loss, almost inevitably allude to Guillaume Apollinaire. It’s a na­tural. Both poets were patron spirits of the avant-garde liter­ature, painting, theatre, music, and dance — indeed, the sensibility and moral vision of their times. Both had enormous per­sonal charisma. Both revised the aesthetic assumptions of poetry, leaving poetry changed. And both died horribly, at the height of their powers, leaving life changed.

Another dark parallel, one that O’Hara himself might richly have appreciated, takes in Jackson Pollock. O’Hara’s first major work of art criticism was a book on Pollock, a massive retrospective of whose work he was just beginning to assemble when he died — two weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Pollock’s death, also in an auto accident on Long Island. The two men’s graves, in the little cemetery of the Springs, are a few yards apart.

Such references correspond to a certain essence of the man. O’Hara’s life was measured out in a sort of endless homage to his heroes — the great exemplars of personal and artistic integrity like Pollock, Franz Kline, and especially Boris Pasternak; the revolutionaries of poetic attitude and style like Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, and the forms of emotional identification, the movie stars like James Dean, Carole Lombard, and so many others, whom he celebrated bril­liantly without embarrassment and with only the slightest, functional trace of irony.

… Collaboration, a direct extension of O’Hara’s mode of living, is a good metaphor for the manner of his relationships — an intimate competition in which each participant goads the other toward being at his best. Among the artistic collaborations: poems with [John] Ashbery, [Kenneth] Koch, Berkson, and the French language (before he learned it); the famous “Stones” lithographs with Rivers; painting-collages and the book “Odes” (Tibor, 1960) with Mike Goldberg; comic strips with Joe Brainard; “Four Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos” with composer Ned Rorem; the movie “The Last Clean Shirt” with Al Leslie (shown at the New York Film Festival), and innumerable others. In his life, something of the same impulse was everywhere at work — to the ultimate dismay of some friends. Not everyone could cope for long with a mind that leapt at everything and missed noth­ing. Berkson: “I never heard Frank say ‘I don’t know what I feel about that.’ He could sum­mon a response, not just an opin­ion but a real emotional re­sponse, for anything.”

On this blog, a 12/25/11 posting “Poet among the painters” has brief mention of his great gifts of friendship, his advocacy of artists he admired, his outflowing of short poems every day, and his enormous enthusiasm for sucking cock. Along with several poems and works of art alluded to in them. Including Une Journée de Juillet (1955) “a little hymn to the pleasures of gangsucking and to its restorative powers” (as I put it), with the climactic lines:

… I suck off
every man in the Manhattan Storage &
Warehouse Co. Then, refreshed, again
to the streets! to the generous sun
and the vigorous heat of the city.

Then on my AZBlogX posting, the notorious Larry Rivers painting O’Hara Nude With Boots (1954), in #2 there; and in #3 there, this painting reproduced on the original dustjacket for O’Hara’s Collected Poems (1971), later suppressed in favor of this cover:


And then for the cover of the paperback edition, this photo:


Here, a penis-free portrait of O’Hara by Rivers:


Meanwhile, Nude With Boots is, to my eye, an affectionate, celebratory portrait of O’Hara, painted with a lover’s sensibilities, whatever the men’s physical relationship might have been like. (In a little while I’ll get to their romance, for such it clearly was.)

A digression on artistic modesty. From my AZBlogX posting, a comparison of a 1933 Alice Neel painting of the Greenwich Vilage eccentric Joe Gould as a triphallic celebrant, attended by two naked erect acolytes (#1 there) — obviously way over the line for public art — with Rivers’s  Nude With Boots (#2 there):

#2 is more complex. If the O’Hara figure had a soft cock, the painting might get by on the Fine Art Exemption for genital display; even more so if O’Hara were engaged in some serious activity (like useful work, or battle), but alas he’s displaying his body as an object of sexual desire. So the painting might have gotten by in some places if it showed a naked O’Hara lounging around amiably, with a soft cock. (I’m sort of surprised that none of his artist friends seem to have thought to paint him this way.)

A further twist: though a painting of this sort might get by, a photograph of the very same subject would not — a fine distinction I’ve remarked on several times in this blog: portrait photographs are of real people (so genital nudity in a photograph is the next thing to having a naked person in front of you), while figurative artworks are of imagined people (so representations of genitalia in them are, in principle, no more offensive than plants that uncannily resemble genitalia in great detail). I have struggled for years to appreciate the signficance of this distinction, but it continues to elude me. Maybe if I sympathized more with the idea that genitalia present a moral danger in public…

(Yes, I understand custom, which shrinks from genital display in public, but the custom of bodily modesty is hedged in complex ways that sometimes baffle me.)

Larry Rivers. Some background on Rivers and the beginning of his remarkable life, from Wikipedia:

Larry Rivers (born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, August 17, 1923 – August 14, 2002) was an American artist, musician, filmmaker and occasional actor. Rivers resided and maintained studios in New York City, Southampton, Long Island, and Zihuatanejo, Mexico.

Larry Rivers was born in the Bronx to Samuel and Sonya Grossberg, Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. From 1940–45 he worked as a jazz saxophonist in New York City, changing his name to Larry Rivers in 1940 after being introduced as “Larry Rivers and the Mudcats” at a local pub. He studied at the Juilliard School of Music in 1945–46, along with Miles Davis, with whom he remained friends until Davis’s death in 1991.

Rivers is considered by many scholars to be the “Godfather” and “Grandfather” of Pop art, because he was one of the first artists to really merge non-objective, non-narrative art with narrative and objective abstraction.

Rivers took up painting in 1945 and studied at the Hans Hofmann School from 1947–48. He earned a BA in art education from New York University in 1951.

Two wry works by Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953) (which provided the occasion for a poem by O’Hara); and The Greatest Homosexual (1964), a parody of David’s The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries (1812):


O’Hara’s On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art (1957):

Now that our hero has come back to us
in his white pants and we know his nose
trembling like a flag under fire,
we see the calm cold river is supporting
our forces, the beautiful history.

To be more revolutionary than a nun
is our desire, to be secular and intimate
as, when sighting a redcoat, you smile
and pull the trigger. Anxieties
and animosities, flaming and feeding

on theoretical considerations and
the jealous spiritualities of the abstract
the robot? they’re smoke, billows above
the physical event. They have burned up.
See how free we are! as a nation of persons.

Dear father of our country, so alive
you must have lied incessantly to be
immediate, here are your bones crossed
on my breast like a rusty flintlock,
a pirate’s flag, bravely specific

and ever so light in the misty glare
of a crossing by water in winter to a shore
other than that the bridge reaches for.
Don’t shoot until, the white of freedom glinting
on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.

(#5) Rivers, The Greatest Homosexual (1964)

Rivers’s work exhibits an often playful gay sensibility, while Rivers himself was a notorious libertine — a horndog forever sniffing out pussy. Also romantically attached, in a complex way, to O’Hara.

A relationship to which I now turn.

To the Harbormaster.  The 1957 poem:

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

From the Paris Review on 12/15/11, “Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster”” by Olivia Cole:

Lately I’ve been thinking about Frank O’Hara and his sometimes terrible taste in men. I can’t help but see the painter Larry Rivers as a thoroughly undeserving recipient for one of my favorite poems, O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” The pair’s messy entanglement started (inevitably) at a party, with a drunken kiss and grope behind a curtain. The two were hidden, but O’Hara was wearing his trademark white tennis shoes, and the two pairs of shoes, his and Rivers’s, were in full view of the heaving room. O’Hara’s letters to Rivers maintain that he could take him or leave him, but, like those trainers peeping out from underneath the curtain, the poems rather give the game away.

Rivers’s involvement with O’Hara was against his better judgement, and in his autobiography he claims never to have had full sex with a man, a fact that partly explains the poem’s fixation with impossibility and insurmountable distance. O’Hara was a far more emotionally demanding lover than any of Rivers’s girlfriends.

… In “To the Harbormaster” O’Hara’s optimism becomes carefully crafted romantic delusion. He recasts the relationship with Rivers, presenting himself as the unreliable lover: “I am always tying up / and then deciding to depart,” he writes. The doubts and hesitations are presented as his own: “Though my ship was on the way it got caught,” he says, before breaking the line and offering, rather unimaginatively, “in some moorings.” (It’s a kind of a watery equivalent of the dog ate my homework.) I love that the feelings spill into just over a sonnet. In what would be the sestet, O’Hara somehow seems to accept that his imagination has run away with him. The final lines are both a declaration and an acknowledgement of the truth: “I trust the sanity of my vessel” and “if it sinks,” it may well be in answer to reason: “the waves which have kept me from reaching you.”

Note: the “Polish rudder” looks like an allusion to Rembrandt’s Polish Rider, which figures in O’Hara’s 1960 poem Having a Coke with You, in this passage (quoted from my “Poet among the painters” posting, along with a reproduction of the painting):

… I look

at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world

except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick

which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time

The poem was addressed not to Rivers (who was 7 years older than O’Hara and worldly wise) but to O’Hara’s handsome young lover — 13 years younger than him — for some years, the professional dancer Vincent Warren.

And, remarkably, here’s a video of O’Hara reading Having a Coke, recorded not long before his death:


(If there’s a recording of O’Hara reading To the Harbormaster, I haven’t found it.)

One Response to “Portraits of Frank O’Hara”

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