Issue 188, Spring 2009
John Ashbery made a few collages in the 1940s while he was a student at Harvard. He made several more in the 1970s. Some of those were lost and then, years later, found in a shoebox. Others were thrown out. In 2008 he returned to collage work—making many of the pieces featured here, most of which are no bigger than a three-by-five card, although the largest, Chutes and Ladders II, is the size of a game board. Collage is an art of time, like poetry. Ashbery’s collages are both demonstrations of this fact and analyses of it. The background elements often depict possible pasts: people on go-carts, a scene in Rotterdam of men in bowlers, and the teetering, top-heavy trucks of the twenties. The foreground elements seem to express Ashbery’s elation or relief at having escaped those pasts to make the art he has made and keeps making. Some of these collages were assembled from elements given to Ashbery on his birthdays by his friend, the artist and writer Joe Brainard. Brainard died in 1994. These collages are a collaboration across decades: like Ashbery’s poems, they are a way of keeping time an open question.