Feb 102011

Portrait and Poem Painting” (1961), by Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara, Image courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.


As a writer, I often turn to art for inspiration.  Flipping through the pages of a Paul Klee book, I can get lost in swirls of color, rigid lines, blocks of symmetry or irregularity and find myself at the exact literary abstraction I was looking for in my writing.  Turns out, I’m not alone.

Beginning in the 1950s the Tibor de Nagy Gallery served as a unique artistic salon where many New York School poets and abstract expressionist painters looked to each other for inspiration.  Poets such as Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery hung out with painters Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler and Willem de Kooning, sharing an artistic fellowship and an aesthetic style that often resulted in collaborative poem paintings.  These paintings offered a unique blend of visual and lyrical artistic passion.  The Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York is currently featuring the exhibit: Painters and Poets.  The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl disusses the exhibit in the article, “Artists and Writers: New York Mashups” (January 31, 2011).  Schjeldahl says the show is primarily dominated by literary material—collaborative imagery, books and ephemera.

“The typical New York School collaboration is a carefully nonsensical interplay of visual and verbal vernaculars, as infection and as frustrating as a lively party overheard through a wall. (You had to be there. You almost are.)”—Peter Schjeldahl

Schjeldahl has an audio slideshow featuring a few poem painting collaborations and an excerpt from John Ashbery’s “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name.” The New York Times also has an article describing the Tibor de Nagy salon’s early years entitled, “When Art Dallied with Poetry on 53rd Street.” You can see the poem painting collaboration between painter Larry Rivers and poet Kenneth Koch, entitled “In Bed,” (1982, mixed media).  The gorgeously designed Poets & Painters catalog features the collaborations and can be ordered through the mail directly from the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

There are many poets and visual artists collaborating today.  The Academy of American Poets website regularly features poetry and art collaborations. In addition, Saturnalia Press has published a series of books on artists/poet collaborations.  They’re really more poetry pairings, not poetry paintings, but nonetheless, I found them affecting.  I especially enjoyed Stigmata Errata Etcetera by poet Bill Knott and artist Star Black, as well as Midnights by poet Jane Miller and artist Beverly Pepper.


“The goal is not to make a story but to experience the whole mess.” —C.D Wright in the introduction to Midnight.

Some poets simply find painting a natural extension of their artistic expression and don’t seek out collaboration, but create their own poem paintings.  Poet Kenneth Patchen didn’t consider himself a painter, although almost all of his nearly 40 volumes of poetry and prose had a visual component.

“It happens that very often my writing with pen is interrupted by my writing with brush, but I think of both as writing,” said Patchen.  “In other words, I don’t consider myself a painter. I think of myself as someone who has used the medium of painting in an attempt to extend.” — “Kenneth Patchen’s Painted Poems” on Poets.org.

Trip to Paradise

painting3“Trip to Paradise,” poem painting by Tonia Colleen, current VCFA fiction writing student (Watercolor on rice paper, with the poem hand written in ink. Some of the images are from the artist’s original wood carvings.)

“Trip to Paradise” Excerpt:

The shredding cloaks of poverty
are gleaming satin gowns
and broken doors are used as boats
and oars are pulled by skies.
In Paradise your questions beg
and answers grow like alms.
And yes and no are Siamese twins and
Mondays carry songs.
In Paradise you are who
you are supposed to be and no one thinks to drown.

I’m on the look out for other inventive poem paintings.  The visual bath and literary conversation of a poem painting might jar something open inside my brain. Offer me more than just color and light, but some sort of linguistic grapheme to incite a fresh creation all my own.

Anna Maria Johnson’s  submission to the Numero Cinq Erasure Contest (above) could be characterized as a poem painting, of sorts.  Her Numero Cinq Novel-in-a-Box contest submission is perhaps a “novel painting.” Some writers are eschewing flat paper as a medium all together for their poetry and prose, extending their art form to wood, leaves, rocks.  Check out the Off-the-Page Project at the VCFA 2010 summer residency.  Also, Writer and VCFA instructor Nance Van Winkle melds her photography with small poems she “graffities” onto a photographic surface resulting in a creation she coined as: the PHO-TOEM (photograph + Poem=PHO-TOEM).

Post below if you find a unique poem painting or other writing/art blend that might excite a writer’s brain.

—Wendy Voorsanger


  13 Responses to “An Exploration of the Poem Painting and More, by Wendy Voorsanger”

  1. As I read the first half, I thought, “Love this!”, then got to the end and *blush.* “Poem painting” is a phrase I hadn’t thought of/heard before. I like it!

  2. Hi— I have some on my art blog, like this one:


    Saturnalia recently published a book of poems by Star Black with paintings by me, the latest in their series.

  3. Bill, thanks for the link to your art blog. I enjoyed seeing your images. And welcome to Numéro Cinq.

  4. sometimes there are not enough words and sometimes no image works….a marriage of the two can push each partner into a greater good…thanks for the article Wendy. I wish I could read the words in the novel in the box. I love its presentation ….

  5. Hi Bill! Thanks for sharing the link to your blog. I especially loved the poem painting/drawing, “Poem.” I sat staring at the image for quite a long time this morning thinking about how to prioritize my wishes. I was also taken with your painting, “Knotheads Should Know Better.” In your post above you referred to a another, more recent collaborative book between you and Star Black, “Velleity’s Shade.” Interesting that you switched artistic roles in this one. Your paintings. Star’s poetry. I envy your artistic ambidexterity, and plan to order the book.

  6. When I met Tonia Colleen she was declaring herself “writer!” And what has emerged along the journey is “painter!” Frantically painting one piece after the next. Slowly the two have blended. Her unique combination of words always makes me walk away with a different perspective, so I am glad to see the words with her images. Of course image can take us to places that won’t be put into words.

    She’s a gem!

  7. thanks for your kind words! I think the two
    Saturnalia books of Star’s and my works are unique in the history of poet/artist books——

    I mean the “switch” as you put it— the reversal of roles—

    Robert Creeley, to take just one example from the past, published books (usually limited editions) in collab or pairing with many artists, but Creeley never then reciprocated by contributing visual artwork to any of those artists’ books of poetry!——

    and as far as I know (someone please correct me if I’m wrong),

    neither has any poet/artist duo done this exchange until Star and I . . .

  8. p.s. email me your postal address and I’ll be happy to send you a free copy of “Velleity’s Shade”—

  9. Thanks for posting this, Wendy. It’s a good reminder that writers don’t need to turn merely to writing for inspiration.

  10. What a great article Wendy. I love seeing the convergence and interrelationship between various artistic forms.

  11. Hey Bill!
    Would love to chat with offline about perhaps featuring some of your poetry pairings with Star on NC. Can you email me directly at wendy@voorsanger.net? Thanks!

  12. Wendy, I keep meaning to tell you I loved reading and seeing your piece here and everyone’s posts. I just saw this person’s work, and we’re going to try to feature him soon on the Cinq here. Todd Bartel.

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