Issue 231, Winter 2019
In bohemian postwar Manhattan, poets (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch) naturally gravitated to painters (Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers) whose work they appreciated on its own terms. Certain poets were lauded for their perceptive, unbiased eye; some painters instinctively sensed a resonant poem. Painter Helen Frankenthaler and poet James Schuyler had such a mutual appreciation. Their run-in during the 1954 Venice Biennale was memorable enough to open Schuyler’s poem “Torcello” (they must have met previously to have recognized each other, though it is unclear when). In any case, they kept circling: Schuyler reviewed Frankenthaler’s shows at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1957 and at the André Emmerich Gallery in 1960.
Paintings, like poems, thrive on subjective associations. Even a postcard can inspire a poem or a print, as did Frankenthaler’s from Alassio, Italy, where she and her husband, Robert Motherwell, summered in 1960. A prolific correspondent, Frankenthaler wrote copious, endearingly chatty postcards to friends. “In 3 colors, I send you greetings from the Riviera dei Fiori,” this one begins, written in colored inks, fronted by a sky-blue sports car, street life, and a hand-drawn arrow indicating their hillside villa. Schuyler responded with “Torcello,” which incorporates snippets of text from that breezy postcard and from an earlier one, which has been lost (it began, “Bob and I leave Wednesday on La Belle Queen Mary. We’ve rented a house in Italy”). Schuyler composed some drafts of “Torcello” on his typewriter, wrote some stanzas by hand, and worked over the poem with pencil and pen—several drafts are in his papers at the University of California, San Diego. The version he sent back to Frankenthaler is marked in red pen, in which he counted lines and indicated his intentions for landscaping the poem.
Frankenthaler was delighted. The letter she typed to Schuyler from Villa della Grazia’s “makeshift desk” brims with local flavor and high expectations. She was excited about a batch of poems he sent from his Lower East Side digs and interested in collaborating on a book. “Let’s make a fall-winter project out of somehow printing Torcello,” she typed. Their mutual efforts never came to fruition, however. Maybe her hunch regarding potential publishers didn’t pan out? Maybe both got distracted by other matters? Maybe life intervened? Regardless, when it came time to tackle one of her first lithographs, at Universal Limited Art Editions, Tatyana Grosman’s workshop in West Islip, New York, the painter remembered her correspondence with the poet and conceived a homage to their friendship—in three colors plus black. The print evokes a postcard, stamped and postmarked, with broad swatches and delicate touches of black ink. She spent five years returning to it, perfecting its composition. Two chambers emerge from the darkness, each occupied by a splotch of color, one red-violet and the other orange-red. A third splotch of cobalt blue hovers outside the improvised complex. In the left chamber, a tiny circle and rectangle commune across an internal divide. An errant line rises from the adjacent chamber and bolts through an opening into vast white space. Helen Frankenthaler dedicated Post Card for James Schuyler (1962–65–67) to her friend.