Fluxus Type Thing: A Review of Frank O'Hara
Impressionism was a major influence of the New York School of poets. By using visible brush strokes, open composition, and the emphasis of light and its changing qualities to accentuate the passage of time, Impressionism was very much an artistic revolution that rebelled against classical, studio painting. The plein air techniques brought painting out of the confines of indoor studios and into the open air. As a result, light became a fixative aspect of the Impressionistic movement. Ordinary subject matter was used—boats, people on docks, and day-to-day happenings were documented, pressed upon the memory in what functions as an archive of temporality. By painting people and objects as they move and shift through their day, Impressionism included movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience.
This approach was quite practical; movement cannot be expected to take place within the confines of studio space no more than fresh tabloids can be seen from ones couch. The exposure of the artist to the human element and environment highlighted the importance of vitality, life, and action. Impressionism also featured unusual visual angles of the ordinary by capturing momentary and transient effects of sunlight, intensifying color schemes, and emphasizing the immediacy of art.
Because of the profound influence of Impressionism upon the New York School movement, many of the poets of that classification were more apt to show the spontaneity and urgency of light, time, and space. In Kenneth Koch’s poem, “The Circus”, the movement is frantic, showing the urgency of the events surrounding the speaker. Frank O’Hara’s poems famously include shards of light, fragments of flurried activity, and impassioned ejaculations of thought and speech. Upon listening to O’Hara’s spoken word, I remembered hearing him introduce his poem “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)” by saying, “These next two poems are sort-of walking-around-New-York type poems, which I like to write. I think the events in them are quite explicable, not just the events themselves, but what I am thinking about as I see them.” Spontaneous and direct, O’Hara and other New York poets poetry focuses on the action-painting of city life: headlines, tabloids, weather, traffic patterns, and lunch quietude. In the aforementioned poem, O’Hara talks about his reaction to Lana Turner’s fall in relation to the events that were simultaneously happening around him in the bustling city.
“Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly/it started raining and snowing/and you said it was hailing/but hailing hits you on the head/hard so it was really snowing and/raining and I was in such a hurry/to meet you but the traffic/was acting exactly like the sky/and suddenly I see a headline/LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!/there is no snow in Hollywood/there is no rain in California/I have been to lots of parties/and acted perfectly disgraceful/but I never actually collapsed/oh Lana Turner we love you get up”
As he reads this poem, O’Hara’s voice gets more and more distressed, frantic, and hurried—the typical walking-around-New-York type poem has turned urgent. A life is on the line, no! A legacy is in jeopardy. The Impressionism of this poem shines through in the short brushstrokes (short line-strokes), interjections of emotion in the middle and end (“LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED” and “oh Lana Turner we love you get up”), and the en plein air technique of outdoor painting—the traffic is acting exactly like the sky. The two parallel plains of ceiling (sky/heavens) and floor (earth, traffic) are mirroring each other. The light is passing through the sky and marking time as the cars are passing along the asphalt, moving people from point to point. The interruption of the collapse of Lana Turner comes with the proclamations “there is no snow in Hollywood/there is no rain in California”—amidst this flurry of activity, O’Hara puts in his tiny brush strokes of temporality. Those two lines slow the pace of the poem; surely, nothing can mar the legacy of sunshine and fame, golden hours upon the stage. There is no thick dampening snow or imperfection in the Great Gold State, but here it comes! A legacy collapsing is equated to the impossibility of imperfection.
Yet the imperfection is what drives this poem; O’Hara is “painting” the world as he sees and perceives it, en plein air, not from still-life. There is motion is this poem—in fact, action is the crux of the poem. As in a good Impressionistic painting, O’Hara focuses his subject matter on the immediacy and urgency of the day to day, the passing of time, and the critical job of documenting the metropolitan life.
Though the Fluxus art movement did not influence the New York School of poets, it ran concurrently (1960s-present) and was confluent with some of the ideals of the former. Fluxus is difficult to define—it lives within liberal parameters, occupies copious amounts of space, and blurs the lines between medium, not all of which are artistic. In short, it defies taxonomy as a categorical style. Instead of a manifesto, there seems to be a call-to-arms that has historically brought forth battalions of performers, musicians, and videographers. “The name Fluxus, derived from the Latin word that denotes a continuous passing or flowing, suggests the fluidity between media that marks the artistic activity if this time period.” Fluidity helped to facilitate the currents of an intermedial form, allowing for artistic flexibility while still, true to its nature, creating a theoretical framework.
A contributing factor to this creative blitzkrieg is the absolute lack of traditional artistic vehicles, beginning with the Fluxian challenge of museums of “temples of high culture”. (Halbreich, 1). Instead of showcasing work in galleries or curatorial spaces, Fluxus instead exists generally in places of non-art: churches, houses, warehouses, etc to allow for the disintegration of the artist-appreciator relationship. Public accessibility and critical freedom are keystones to the longevity of this fluid form.
Along with public facility, Fluxus artists promoted the agenda of the dispensability of their own talents. “For many artists associated with Fluxus, their works and performances were intended to transgress boundaries, decentralize their own activities, and gradually lead to the elimination of the category of fine art.” (Smith, 36). ‘Decommodifying’ art was a way in which purveyors and virtuosos alike deconstructed the previously established barriers of fine art, breaking them down to a kind of eccentric normativity. Though objects and tangible medium found ways into Fluxus demonstration, performance and music were more common, as they did not require curators; they were also more in line with the ephemeral nuances of the form.
The longevity of this fluid activity has been questioned by generations of art scholars; in fact, Fluxus is still ever-present today. The brilliance of this endurance lay in the crux of the movement: temporality (ephemerality), and ambiguity. The evanescence of performance has several advantages that contribute to this: the changes that recreation ultimately brings, and the lack of tangible object. Without concrete record of an event happening, there is no commodity, and therefore, a forgetting that leads to artistic renewal. As for ambiguity, Judith Butler explained the principle of life outside the box, stating that she wished that the word ‘queer’ would forever remain vague and complicated, and therefore eliminating potential structural threats. George Brecht had a parallel idea, specifically related to the nature of this post-Dadaist activity: “Each of us had his own ideas about what Fluxus was and so much the better. That way it’ll take longer to bury us.” (24) Temporality aided ambiguity, forming together the chameleon-like creature that still exists today.
A basis of creative fluidity is that it can adequately translate into the common day-to-day. Artistic execution, in all Fluxian media, greatly concerned itself with how abstraction could be made a part of life. Not only were household objects admired for their non-aestheticism, but mass-production became incorporated into ideas of non-art. At Yoko Ono’s San Francisco MOMA exhibit in 2004, she had on display an old-fashioned 25 cent machine, full of little blue boxes. It was called “Sky Machine”, and had a tag underneath that invited people to put in a quarter and take away a piece of the heavens. The natural world, heavens included, is represented here as integrating a day-to-day occurrence—seeing the sky—into art, or art into sky; the point being that soon both subjects become interchangeable.
The seemingly contradictory phrase that kept popping to mind while studying Ono’s work was an idea of tangible liminality—the notion of art that exists on a threshold you can feel, but occupies a space between medium—not hybridity. Upon entering the MOMA exhibit, viewers were invited to sit down and play a game of chess on Ono’s ceramic chessboard. At second glance, it becomes obvious that the board and the pieces of both “sides” are completely white—thus negating the rules of chess. Still, many played and found themselves jumbled into a world devoid of signifiers. In short, a household object was recreated into an artistic threshold. The playing of said object created a liminal space that transgressed rational boundaries. The act of toying with the sculpture therefore became crucial to the art itself, and immensely accessible. “(Fluxus is) the extraordinary which remains latent in the undisclosed ordinary.” (Stiles, 19). By all means, this was a piece that smacked of Fluxus.
While living in Santiago, Chile, I had the good fortune of seeing an exhibit of Nicanor Parra’s work. Parra is a poet who invented the concept of anti-poetry; non-prose that escapes the pomp and tradition of previously canonized works. His poems are highly colloquial, and often straddle the line of the intermedial—focusing mostly in sculpture. A highly resonant piece for me was one that consisted of a bird cage that encased a large dildo inside. The placard below it read: “La Felicidad Cautivada” (Captured Happiness). Another was called, “A Future Suicide Note: Chao (colloquial goodbye). I won’t tolerate mood music.” In both works, Parra translates real life objectification into art, and then releases them back into life, while emphasizing and disclosing the ordinary.
Both Parra and Ono continue to create resonant art that transcends space and medium, tramples traditional ideas of fine art, and embraces interactivity. That the artists of the Fluxus period questioned the intrinsic value of art is a moot point; the value is not tradition, but rather, resonance—the prolongation of sound by reflection; reverberation. The tangible limin continues to be the ever-transformant new frontier. “Fluxus is a new cultural paradigm, related to the breakdown of boundaries between artistic media, cultural conventions, and even political states…A larger movement toward a global humanism.” (Stiles, 22). This movement is concurrent with the ideals of the New York School of Poetry in many ways—the urgency and decomodification of art and poetics, the artist/poet as the everyman, and the integration of the natural world.
In Yoko Ono’s blue box exhibit, she blurs the lines between nature and art, signifying the ease of deconstruction; sky and art can be thought of as two separate things, or not. In Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Homosexuality”, he occupied a similar tactic to shorten the brush strokes of the living world by harmonizing himself and his metropolitan surroundings into art and poetics.
“14th Street is drunken and credulous,/
53 rd tries to tremble but is too at rest. The good/
love a park and the inept a railway station,/
and there are the divine ones who drag themselves up and down the lengthening shadow of an/ Abyssinian head
/in the dust, trailing their long elegant heels of hot air
crying to confuse the brave "It's a summer day,
/and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world."”
In the above poem, O’Hara employs a similar temporal tactic that recalls ideas of Impressionism, much like in “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)”. First, he assigns anthropomorphic characteristics to New York City—14th street is intoxicated and 53rd is resigned. The parts of the city act together as a band of characters, a Great Recreational Anatomy of blurred lines and intentions. Love, if it is good, is a park—constant, peaceful, and pastoral. If it is inept, it is in constant action, a railway station that is home to transients and the homeless. New York City, in this poem, is at binary odds with itself, juxtaposed between good and bad, stationary/static and bustling. The “divine ones” further the cast of characters; at this point, it is unclear whether O’Hara is discussing prostitutes or buildings/areas of the city, but it does not matter anymore, because he has created his own Ono blue box exhibit. The anthropomorphic pieces of sky/city/streets have taken on human or natural characteristics and have thus been blended into the human paradigm. At the end of “Homosexuality”, it is no longer necessary to claim the divine ones as either human or structure because they have become one. Human and city are one in the same.
In the end of the poem, O’Hara interpolates the sigh of emotion that he exhibited in the poem about Lana Turner. “It’s a summers day and I want to be wanted more than anything in the world.” The characteristic end-lines of O’Hara’s poetry inspire a unique kind of longing in the reader that further allows accessibility into his poems; the subject of want and desire are left ambiguous, though they exist through the characters of the divine ones. Because of the blurred lines between people and cities in this poem, the expressed desire of the ambiguous subject leaves the ‘wanting to be wanted’ as a queer or skewed structure of lust. After all, the ‘good love’, and presumably desirable love is a park, static and fertile. The inept love is transient and characteristic of a changing chameleon. The breakdown between the two ideas (love, which is an abstract, liminal idea and the concepts of the concrete, corporal metropolis, which is physical and tangible) creates the same kind of breakdown as the Fluxus movement—tangible liminality that exists upon a threshold you can feel, but is without hybridity.
In my opinion, Frank O’Hara’s greatest love poem is the highly acclaimed “Having a Coke With You” in which his love for Impressionistic art and his love of his lover spill over one another in a dalliance of light, passing time, and the urbane and sexy representation of urban nature.
“Having a Coke with you/
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne/
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona/
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian/
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt/
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches/
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary/
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still/
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it/
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth/
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles/
and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint/
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them/
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 the first time/
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism/
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or/
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me/
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them/
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank/
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully/
as the horse/
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience/
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it”
In “Having a Coke With You”, O’Hara is discussing the concept of confluence, or fluxus, itself; He is writing with all of the culture and worldliness known of the New York School, along with describing Impressionism in relation to his lover, upon whom he would rather look than any portrait at all (“except for maybe the Polish Rider”). In this sexy blend of metropolitan musings, “walking-around-New-York” type poetics, and depictions of art reviews, O’Hara is again blending Impressionistic art with people, statuary, the city, and nature (“like a tree breathing through its spectacles”), while using metered light to measure temporality and space. Because, truly, what is the use of an appreciation for art if you have no one to share light with you?
This particular poem reads almost theatrically, as if O’Hara was setting a stage and the descriptions of surroundings (as blurred as they are) were stage directions. The accessibility and inclusion of the reader in this very private moment also blurs the lines between artist and viewer/reader, which is something characteristic of artists of the Fluxus movement. Without the barrier, or the literary triangle, of piece/author or artist/viewer or reader, the taxonomy of art becomes muddled, and one does not know if they have read or actually experienced the fluent emotion of such a beautiful piece.
The confluence of these three art forms as represented in Frank O’Hara’s poetry is profound—together, they create a template for archiving queer desire and the urgency of human motion. Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story “Pierre Manard, Autor de Don Quixote”, stated that there are no original stories anymore, just stories that have been recycled, retold, and reconsidered. This concept, though originally applied to Cervantes’ magnum opus Don Quixote, is applicable to all kind of revolutionary and reactionary art that forks from another or, in this case, washes over one another, mingles, and decommodifies. Because of the nature of heteronormative traditional archive, art also makes a wonderful space for documenting histories that would otherwise be erased. In the case of Frank O’Hara, his experience as a queer art reviewer in the 1960s is forever recorded and archived through “Having a Coke With You” and other love poems, of the which there were many. His spontaneity and directness in poetics allowed his work to be a direct representation of plein air city life, where the traffic acts exactly like the sky, love is manifested in city dwellings, and divine ones are neither flesh nor metal.