On the Street with Frank O'Hara

The Frieze New York 2018 campaign maps the poet and curator’s Lunch Poems

BY Matthew McLean in Frieze New York | 14 FEB 18

Marjorie Perloff has called him ‘a poet among painters’. This year, the words of Frank O’Hara – a poet, curator and, from his arrival in the city in 1951 until his untimely death in 1966, a New Yorker – are brought back into the fold of the city’s art scene in the form of the Frieze New York 2018 campaign, a collaboration with the O’Hara Estate. 

Campaign displayed in Broadway Windows, 80WSE Gallery. Photograph courtesy: Clément Pascal/Frieze. Frieze New York 2018 Campaign: Excerpt from Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara. Used by permission of City Lights Books. Photography: Clément Pascal

The 16 images which comprise the campaign, commissioned from New York-based photographer Clément Pascal, feature excerpts from O’Hara’s 1964 collection Lunch Poems, graphically overlaid on contemporary photographs that capture romantic glimpses of the city’s streets, people and architecture, from its museums to its billboards, the opera to the phone booth.

‘When we start conceiving campaigns for the fairs’, Frieze Head of Design Amy Preston explains, ‘we always start with the city’. For Preston, a sense of the city - its geography, its history, and its creative energy - abounded in O’Hara’s work. ‘Reading these poems’, adds Frieze Senior Designer Valentine Ammeux, ‘you really feel like you’re going on a journey - like you’re walking along with him.’  

A Step Away from Them, excerpt from Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara. Used by permission of City Lights Books. Photography: Clément Pascal

In the case of Lunch Poems, the feeling is explained by the fact that many of the poems were composed ‘on the fly’: on the streets around Midtown where O’Hara would take his lunch breaks from working at the Museum of Modern Art - hence the collection’s title. “It’s my lunch hour, so I go/for a walk among the hum-colored/cabs”, opens one, A Step Away from Them; appearing in one campaign image, the lines run in a diagonal slant along the space between a rich, Marigold-yellow New York cab and a pedestrian, her pumps alighting from the sidewalk, the whole thing suffused with movement and potential. 

Evocative as they are of the city’s streets, when it came to developing a visual identity to join the Lunch Poems, Preston and Ammeux turned to New York’s rich tradition of street photography - from Paul Strand to Berenice Abbott to Bill Cunningham. In particular, the dramatic, saturated shots of Saul Leiter were a touchstone when developing a ‘look’ with Pascal, seeking to channel some of Leiter’s strong New York sunlight, and its lush, colourful contrasts - as well as a “soft, filmic quality”, in Preston’s words, that reflects the cinematic, montage-like effect of O’Hara’s verse. Moreover, to fully marry O’Hara’s words and the geography they arose from, Preston and Ammeux worked closely with Maureen O’Hara Granville-Smith, the poet’s sister and guardian of his literary estare, together creating a map of Midtown locations where Pascal could explore and shoot. This included some quite specific locations - such as the fountains in the Seagram Tower plaza, the “luminous humidity” of which O’Hara encounters in Personal Poem, and the statue of General Sherman that stands in Grand Army Plaza, on which O’Hara reflects over a liver sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe in Music.   

‘Frank’s business was being an active intellectual’, the veteran painter Alex Katz recalled in an interview. Through their chatty, unselfconscious intimacy, what emerges from the Lunch Poems is an impression of an active mind - a mind, or a sensibility ‘kind, inquiring, deeply curious’ as Ashbery described it - at work, or perhaps at play; the Lunch Poems are a document, in this sense, of a personality in action (‘O’Hara’s first real accomplishment was his personality, which became famous long before his poems did’, the poet Dan Chiasson wrote in the New Yorker). Their rhythms hurry, pace and slow, like the varying speeds of a city walk, and like a walk - at least one in a city like New York - the poems encompass high culture and popular culture alike, with mentions of the Frick, St Sebastian and Rachmaninoff mingling with those of Coca-Cola, Lana Turner and Billie Holiday. Though he had published five previous collections, Lunch Poems was O’Hara’s most seminal. Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2014, John Ashbery claimed that: ‘No other poetry collection of the ’60s did more to shatter the congealed surface of contemporary academic poetry’. Today O’Hara’s influence can be mapped in the work of writers as different as Charles Bernstein, Wayne Koestenbaum, Olivia Laing and Eileen Myles (the journalist Hermione Hoby took a line from the Lunch Poems for the title of her recent novel, Neon in Daylight).

How To Get There, excerpt from Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara. Used by permission of City Lights Books. Photography: Clément Pascal 

It’s striking, therefore, that in his obituary published in the New York Times, his poetry is almost a footnote: ‘Frank O’Hara, 40, Museum Curator/Exhibitions Aide at Modern Art Dies—Also a Poet’, the title read. But, as Preston says, what made O’Hara such an appealing subject for the Frieze New York campaign was how deeply interwined visual arts were in his life and work - even his first poetry collection, 1952’s A City in Winter and Other Poems, was published by a commercial art gallery, Tibor de Nagy, Preston points out. Starting in 1951 selling postcards (just so he could see the museum’s art for free, one story goes), O’Hara rose through MoMA to become a curator, working on exhibitions of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell among others, and writing on Jackson Pollock. A central figure in the so-called ‘New York School’, O’Hara’s social life was steeped in visual arts too. Katz painted him as a cut-out in 1959, as well as in Marine and Sailor (1961), for which O’Hara posed with fellow poet Bill Berkson. O’Hara also posed for the painter Larry Rivers, nude but for shoes and socks, resulting in a portrait which caused a minor stir when it went on display in at the Jewish Museum in 1965. Rivers, along with Joe Brainard, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Marisol and others, would contribute drawings to a memorial volume published by MoMA in 1967, titled In Memory of My Feelings, after O’Hara’s 1956 poem of the same name (the same poem was the inspiration for Johns’ own painting of 1961, In Memory of My Feelings - Frank O’Hara).

Campaign displayed in Broadway Windows, 80WSE Gallery. Photograph courtesy: Clément Pascal/Frieze. Frieze New York 2018 Campaign: Excerpt from Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara. Used by permission of City Lights Books. Photography: Clément Pascal

O’Hara died in 1966, after being struck by a dune buggy one early July morning on Fire Island. Four days later, Rivers delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Two months following, a reading was held at which the poet Kenneth Koch for the time first revealed a poem O’Hara had kept secret in life: the mysterious A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island - now one of his most loved and puzzled-over works. That reading took place at at NYU’s Loeb Centre, just a few steps away, on Washington Square East, where in April 2018 an exhibition of the New York campaign images will go on display, in the windows of 80WSE Gallery - as well as appearing on posters, banners and flyers across the city.  In ‘A True Account...’, the sun advises the narrator - presumably, O’Hara himself - “I know you love Manhattan, but/You ought to look up more often.” If you see one of Pascal’s images fluttering above a street between now and Frieze Week, why not take the advice?

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.