Dwight Ripley has his first show in fifty years, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which he helped to found in 1949. In the little back room, where John Ashbery has shown his collages, where so many small but exquisite presentations have been offered, there are fifteen pieces hanging: letters, landscapes, four-paneled stories, illustrated poems. Ripley’s life, writes Douglas Crase in Both, his double biography of Ripley and Rupert Barnaby, lifelong partners, “was a mix of friendship, travel, enthusiasm, and incident.” The works here, chosen by gallery directors Andrew Arnot and Eric Brown and on view through March 10, engage us with all of these energies of personality, space, and time, “bright with wit and foreboding, affection, and above all, a radiant intelligence” These works—113 drawings made by Ripley between between 1946 and 1973—were stored in a footlocker for decades in the home of Douglas Crase and Frank Polach, and finally brought out by Crase, as he tells the story in the exhibition catalogue and elsewhere.
The earliest piece, from 1946, is entitled “Evolution with Mushrooms, Bud, and Pineapple” and combines ink; colored pencils in pink, olive, charcoal gray, and russet; and cut-outs collaged from what look like etchings from a sample book or dictionary. The pineapple is lushly leafy top and bottom, precise, round, and Victorian in aspect; a morel neatly tops an extended abstract laddering form, stretching out into the disk of a bittersweet-berry orange sun.
A letter from 1951 on a sheet of stationery from Wappingers Falls, New York, has a spouting whale floating in a sort of asymmetrical alembic, which rises from a curving vaselike cage. A peacock is inscribed vertically, with full-spread tail, inside the vase’s cylinder. The poem that these creatures illustrate begins with a title and two lines of Hungarian, which, as Google Translate informs me, mean something like “a whale is resting on water the color of emerald: he is very lazy.” The poem is titled “A Hímzett Hím,” “the embroidered male,” and continues:
But Mr. Peacock cannot rest:
He’s frantic for an underdressed
And madly mousy peahen.
Another drawing captures, in two tall wavering Gothic cartouches, a pair of quotations from Joan Miró’s Constellations, flanking a similar horn-shaped cartouche holding a stacked set of five rows of stained-glass windows. These three shapes stand in front of a brick wall, a chicken-wire fence, a row of thin vertical stripes with a pale green band at its foot. Over them floats the shadow of a bird on a trapeze. Something about the translucence and solidity of colored pencil is particularly satisfying when depicting the light that glows behind stained glass and that fails to penetrate through shadows.
Crase characterizes Ripley’s series of thirteen Travel Posters, from 1962, as “landscapes, but . . . so stylized, so deftly combined with text and other allusions, that even on first sight they presumed you would regard them with an attention more complex and historicized than we might give to ordinary landscape. They were, in other words, remarkably up to date." Elsewhere Crase writes that the works were “so structurally and keenly colored that each drawing . . . seemed almost to project an alternative spectrum of its own.” All thirteen were shown in 2009, at Esopus Space; seven are on view at the Tibor. I found standing in front of each landscape again rewarded me with many new appreciations, not only of details of color, but with surprises and delights of reading Ripley’s loopy calligraphy: what do these pictures say?
There’s something at once private, obsessive, and trangressive in what Ripley’s done with words in these landscapes. His images begin with a bored gradeschooler’s habit of doodling in secret at his desk with a pencil, pen, or markers, filling in the loops of cursive l’s and o’s and e’s, or the teacher’s big red letter grade on top of a page of homework: capital D’s, especially, fill in nicely, but an A or B will, too. The similarity begins with Ripley’s ballpoint-pen-inked lines, and carries through because of colored pencils. You’re not supposed to do that, are you? It’s what you do as a prisoner in class, when you’re not listening, when you’ve tuned out, when you’re obsessively somewhere else. It’s so cool that Ripley, the baby millionaire exiled to boarding school well before adolescence by his inattentive mother, remembered and valorized that desperate kid’s psychic escape strategy. My affection for his art begins with its grain of painful truth about art, which his wit wraps round with shiny adult experience.
And what escapes! The Travel Posters at the Tibor feature—what to call them? wordscapes?—of Alicante, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain; El Cabo de Gata, to the southwest down the coast; Loulé no Algarve, Portugal, on the Atlantic side of Gibralter; and Setubal, halfway up the Portuguese coast. As Crase reads it for us, the Cabo de Gata beach is neatly labeled with the proper binomial terms for its native vegetation: Cichorium spinosum, Erythrostictus punctatus, and Apteranthes gussoneana. A road upwards has Antirrhinum charidemi both lettered and growing beside it; printed on the rock is Dianthus charidemi.
Things get wilder, though. Ripley’s handwriting repeatedly patterns the coast of Setubal, and indeed the sky itself, where the name of the town is floating. The hill bears Lithospermum diffusum, Arbutus unedo, Lavandula multifida, Linaria arrabidensis.The color is sun-drenched, intense, and vivid, the coastline a riot of curves, loops, and circles in russets, greens, and blues; the sky pure cornflower; with a contrasting sea-green turquoise stretch of ocean. The sun floats alone above black cursive letters, an orange disk with a salmon-pink aura. Inset is an architectural detail, a bright façade labeled “Anserra d’Arrabida,” with a wide balancing stripe down the right border, cut into by the curve of the final “l,” with a startlingly rich depth of progressively blended colored-pencil oranges and yellows.
As Crase intuits, Ripley’s calligraphy falls somewhere between the figural shorthand of Miró’s Constellations and Jackson Pollock’s freeform, epideictic scribbles, artists whose works Ripley owned and admired. He owned, in fact, seven Mirós and seven Pollocks by 1950. He was inspired by the work that he collected, as Crase told us at the opening for the show: He reprises the abstractions of one of his Pollocks in riotous images of vegetation/lettering below the rising limestone-gray calligraphic rock formations in his Travel Poster for Torcal de Antequera. The chances of evolution and of Linnaean nomenclature are captured in his loopy handwriting, at least as logical a strategy to represent greenery on a mountainside or rocky corrugations of a cliff as the classic art-school sketchbook fillers of crosshatch or scumbled line, at best a delight in its rhyme of the Latinate word to the leafy image.
A surprise were the four-paneled graphic narratives, a 1968 series called “Language Panels,” which I had not seen on exhibition before. Like the Dreamtoons of Jesse Reklaw now in the archives of slowwave.com, these comic-strip four-squares offer surreal landscapes and characters speaking lines we can’t quite believe. In Ripley’s images, often, they’re not even speaking English. The panels, writes Crase, “bloom with the reflex affection of naming the world in different tongues.” There can be no doubt, despite Russian, Polish, Czech, or possibly extraterrestial dialogue, that these panels are narratives. In one, Crase reports, describing the two lower panels,
Dwight drew a missile in the shape of a nose cone that appears over a desert basin populated by stonelike plants. The plants, clearly frightened, seem to curse in an unknown language (there are angry symbols in their word balloons), while the missile cruises toward them towing a banner that reads, in Russian, “We are Friends.”
The two top panels are a stained-glass Queen of Heaven with her Child sitting beneath a banner with the Coca-Cola logo, and a Gibralteresque island cliff that seems to have been grafittoed with the slogan “Carta Blanca.” Ripley’s satire has, alas, outlasted the Cold War, speaking to our current problems with corporate globalization. He was far ahead of his time in technique as well, his combinations of word and image predicting similar strategies by Larry Rivers and Joe Brainard, among others, not to mention the genre of poetry comics, an artform becoming more important every year. (Check the links and posts on Bianca Stone’s website, for example.)
Don’t miss the opportunity to see the details and colors of these rare originals for yourself, now through March 10, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Ave, New York.
Rosanne Wasserman’s poems have appeared widely in anthologies and journals, including Best American Poetry. She has published articles on John Ashbery, Pierre Martory, James Schuyler, and Ruth Stone in American Poetry and Rain Taxi Review. With Eugene Richie, she is editing John Ashbery’s selected translations. Her poetry books include The Lacemakers, No Archive on Earth, and Other Selves, as well as Psyche & Amor and Place du Carousel, collaborations with Eugene, with whom she runs the Groundwater Press in Hudson and Port Washington, New York.