My story starts with Robinson Crusoe and ends with a martini. Like Raymond Roussell, I’ll try to write between the two. In 1989 I had my first NYC one-person show at Exit Art which featured 18 paintings—a big show. My good friend Trevor Winkfield brought John Ashbery to the show and reported back to me that John was enthusiastic about the paintings. Without this favor from Trevor, the whole story never gets off the ground.
I needed a catalogue essay for a show in Sweden and John agreed to write it. To date, it is still something I treasure—as John compared me to Robinson Crusoe—seeing in him another person with diverse goals, restricted means and imaginative aptitudes applied toward that differential. John sent Ragnar Stromberg –his Swedish translator to my Gothenburg opening. The whole thing felt felicitous and easy and real.
Some years later I woke up one day with an idea. As background to this let me say, I had made paintings using a lexicon of found imagery for a number of years and all the paintings had numerical titles—there wasn’t a single word attached to these paintings. I had long loved John’s poems and one of the things I admired is the bricolage of found lapidary language set into the matrix of the poem but still retaining a strong scent of its foundness, of it coming from somewhere else—cooking, television ads, the cartoons, women’s magazines, etc. And I might have seen a poem of John’s in the New Yorker that read like a list of titles—or I might be making that up.
Anyhow, this is all pre-Email so I screwed up my courage and I called John. I reminded him that I have had only numerical identifiers for my paintings, that I used found imagery from a great variety of sources and I suggested the idea of “found titles” for my paintings. That is, found to me. I suggested that he write a set of painting titles and I, afterwards, would then make the paintings for those titles. I gave him no further information, hints, instructions or thoughts about what I was looking for with these titles. In fact, I had no agenda, I wanted to be surprised.
As I recall, John mostly listened and I mostly babbled. At a certain point I said “well, why don’t you think about it and call me back if you are interested.” I felt a little embarrassed that I had even presumed that this great poet would want to spend any time creating something for me.
A week later the phone rang and it was John saying a bit mischievously, “I have your titles. I’m faxing them now.” I will never forget hanging over the fax machine, reading upside down and seeing forty-four titles spill forth: Confessions of a Fop, The Hagiography of this Moment, Midwife to Gargoyles, The Soapstone Factory, No One Can Win at the Hurricane Bar, Bread and Butter Machine, Prevents Furring, Tom Tiddler’s Ground, Sea of Troubles.
I was not excited, I was nervous, but I allayed my fear by thinking “Well, if I can’t do this no one but John and me will know I even tried.” I looked at the list for days and then one day when I was taking a walk an idea for the first painting, “Sore Models,” came into my head. When I finished it another idea came. I never had an agenda for which title I would do next or even which ones I preferred, I would just kind of look at the list from time to time like a musician would play scales and then boom a song would pop into my head. Some of the titles I left until last I now like the most.
In the end I made a painting for all of the 44 titles he created for me and I made several paintings for some titles, so that there are 64 large oil paintings in the Jane Hammond/John Ashbery Collaboration dating from 1993-2002.
In 1997 I invited John to come and see an exhibition of the Hammond/ Ashbery paintings at my gallery in Soho. The gallery stayed open late for us and the dealer, eager to meet John, waltzed up and said “I have a nice bottle of white on ice for you.” Actually, said John rolling his eyes in that Warner Bros way of his and speaking with great emphasis on the third word, “Can you freeze my martini?” Whereupon he pulled a pint glass jar full of clear liquid out of the pocket of his chinos.
Jane Hammond works in print, paint, photography, and sculpture to create a wide array of art that is often based on dreams and literature. Her work has been exhibited in New York City and in galleries and museums around the world. She lives in New York City. Read her 2002 interview with David Lehman here. Find The Complete John Ashbery Collaboration (1993-2001) by Jane Hammond here.