The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets

A group photo containing some members of the New York School poets. John Ashbery (standing right), Frank O’Hara (seated left), Kenneth Koch (seated right). Frank O’Hara’s loft, 1964.

“When John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler (pronounced ‘SKY-luh’) first lived in New York, the Korean War was in progress and McCarthyism was the scourge of freethinking intellectuals. It was the era of Levittown and the ‘silent generation’ when the original Guys and Dolls was on Broadway, suburban flight was in progress, New York had three baseball teams and at least one of them played in the World Series every year. In an age of split-level conformism, the poets of the New York School put their trust in the idea of an artistic vanguard that could sanction their deviations from the norm. The liberating effect of their writing became increasingly evident in the passionate, experimental, taboo-breaking early 1960s, when the nation’s youngest president was in office, men discarded their hats, women started using the Pill, the acceleration in the speed of social change seemed to double overnight, and America finally left the nineteenth century behind. In his book The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck characterized the avant-garde in Paris in the golden period before World War I as an ‘artistic underground’ dedicated to ‘heterodoxy and opposition.’ The artists maintained “a belligerent attitude toward the world and a genuine sympathy for each other.” They lived and worked ‘in an atmosphere of perpetual collaboration.’ The avant-garde ‘was a way of life, both dedicated and frivolous,’ generating tremendous excitement. Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet, was the ‘impresario of the avant-garde,’ the champion of Cubism and the man who gave Surrealism its name. Apollinaire’s ‘magnetic presence’ and his ‘expansive, volatile nature flowed inexhaustibly on and left behind it poems and lyric texts which seemed to flower effortlessly out of his enthusiasms.’ Substitute Frank O’Hara for Apollinaire and Abstract Expressionism for Cubism, and you get an eerie fit. The poets of the New York School were as heterodox, as belligerent toward the literary establishment and as loyal to each other, as their Parisian predecessors had been. The 1950s and early ’60s in New York were their banquet years. It is as though they translated the avant-garde idiom of ‘perpetual collaboration’ from the argot of turn-of-the-century Paris to the rough-hewn vernacular of the American metropolis at mid-century. …”
Jacket2, amazon: The Last Avant-Garde
Grace Hartigan, Frank O’Hara, and the New York School
The New York School: The First Generation
Guardian – New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight by Jenni Quilter – review, amazon: New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight

Fairfield Porter paints John Ashbery’s portrait.

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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