Dear Reader,

On Jane Hammond’s Collaboration with John Ashbery


Here are a few selections from Jane Hammond’s overloaded bookshelves:

The Introduction to                               The Young Folks’ Encyclopedia

Solids Phrenology                                  of Common Things

A Practice Guide to Your Head           The Encyclopedia of Needlework

Houdini on Magic                                  The Polar and Tropical Worlds

The Hiawatha Primer Lands               Zig-Zag Journeys in the Classical

Games of American Indians                Storage Batteries Simplified

Everybody’s Marionette Book             Grow Your Own Fruit

Swimming the American Crawl                          


Fresh from the antiquarian book fair, a beautifully printed series on Japanese culture—from Bunraku to Sumo spills out of a package onto the floor. Hammond’s collection includes plenty of art books, of course: Indian Court Painting, Kurt Schwitters, Jess, Life with Picasso, Mimbres Pottery. Monographs on Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo are prominent, too. More representative, however, are Hammond’s twenty books on beekeeping, though this topic might seem irrelevant to being a painter in Manhattan. The bee books are exemplary of the many titles on Hammond’s shelves that exude “bookish capacity,” the air of being ready to convey definitive knowledge and offer authoritative instruction on any elected topic-taxidermy, say. It’s a dated conceit, this compact authoritativeness, so there are many dark cloth bindings that glitter with gold lettering. Such ornamentation befits that golden age of popular publishing that erupted in the nineteenth century with the serialized novel and reached its zenith during the 1950s with series for young folk, for girls, for boys, for everybody. The most succinct expression of bookish capacity is the encyclopedia, and Hammond’s library abounds with the single-volume sort. The dearth of new paperbacks and shiny dust jackets is a sign that the era that Hammond’s library celebrates is over. Less cocksure, today’s nonfiction book is an authored text limited and shaped by social, political, and cultural forces that are all subject to question and critique. In the meantime, the encyclopedia has been eclipsed by the Internet–a wonderful tool, incidentally, for buying old books.

The heaps of books Hammond owns have little to do with historical or contemporary art per se, but a lot do with her own art. The collaboration with poet John Ashbery that is the subject of this exhibition only underscores the fact that Jane Hammond’s encyclopedic, poetic, capacious, Postmodern paintings are very much about books and reading.

Take Long-Haired Avatar (1995), with its typical construction: a collage of disparate images painted in oil on top of another collage made of images printed on paper and stuck to the canvas. In terms of first impressions, the painted part of the picture is strong and graphic (a quick read) compared to the printed matter, which is barely legible, almost painterly (a slow read). The figure at the center of the composition, with tresses flowing, clues us to the source of this composition: Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (c. 1485). As expected (given this origin), a long-locked attendant rushes in from the right. But to the left, instead of the entwined male and female manifestations of wind and breeze that wafted Venus to shore there is a gigantic hennaed hand emerging from a tornado of white paint.

This disruptive hand actually fits harmoniously with the welter of images of cosmologies, apparitions, and associations that ricochet off the words in the work’s title, the images in Botticelli’s painting, and each other. It helps to know that the word avatar, meaning a remarkably complete manifestation of a person or idea, comes from Hindu legend. (And, incidentally, the image of the hand comes from a booklet of henna designs that a friend of the artist brought back from India.) The avatara is one of the incarnations of Vishnu in animal or human form in each of the great cycles of time. The rabbit puppet popping into view holding a wire globe with a bird inside might be a variation on this there. Further research discovers that the little candle perched on the edge of the goddess’s clamshell may signify a paternal phallus: Venus was conceived when her father’s severed genitals were tossed into the sea. Did I mention that Venus is wearing an Iroquois mask? Still, what is she an avatar of? Is she the very embodiment of the artist, whose longish hair is also blond? Or perhaps of one of Picasso’s ferocious Demoiselles D’Avignon-yet another nude behind a tribal mask? Or maybe all of the above: goddess, artist, whore? You see where these readings are leading: everywhere at once and nowhere in particular, but always deeper into the painting, which has all the pictorial depth of a stage set. Indeed, a row of little stages is lined up accordion-fashion along the bottom edge of the canvas. Out of the flatness of Hammond’s painted proscenium a magician’s hand thrusts; a deck of cards tumbles from inside his sleeve. Never withholding, Hammond shows that her work is nothing but artifice, a fiction full of tricks and games. Indeed, she’s quite generous in revealing her strategies, which brings us back to the books on her shelves.

The images in Hammond’s art look like illustrations clipped from the books she collects, and indeed these do provide source material for her art-that book about Houdini, for instance. But more than this, Hammond’s books create the same illusion that her paintings create and undermine. One gets the idea from her picture-glutted canvases that they contain every known thing, from avatars to zeppelins. But just the opposite is true. Hammond came to art in the early 1970s, having attended a liberal arts college where she studied sculpture and science and honed her sense for structures and systems. Yet in that heyday of minimal and conceptual art, her eye was for the pictorial. How to reconcile these internal and external forces? Hammond’s solution, based on over a decade of work, was to set herself rules within which she could make paintings: two sizes of canvas, six colors, and 276 images to choose from and combine. The images are numbered and the numbers, cited in strings, provided Hammond with a way of titling these works.

Hammond’s resourcefulness is reminiscent of that of Lady Murasaki Shikibu, another woman who retaliated against a restrictive (and masculine) clime with imaginative invention. To battle the boredom of her life in the royal Japanese court, Lady Murasaki wrote her first novel circa 1010. The Tale of Genji gave Shikibu something to write; Jane Hammond’s rules give her something to paint.

Hammond arrived at her system in step with the arrival of postmodernism, and it is in keeping with that movement’s tenets. Postmodernism made reading the appropriate form of engagement for those strategies that informed the new art of the 1980s: appropriation, mediation of signs, the deconstruction of pictures as texts. This new art included, by the way, a noticeable increase in painting. Hammond’s use of appropriation (all 276 of her images are reproductions) certainly contributes to the making of a lexicon in which each image functions like a word. And also like words, the meanings of these images mutate depending on what surrounds them. But compared to the postmodernism of, for instance, David Salle, Hammond offers a generous alternative. Instead of using pictorial quotes to cancel out the possibility of making something new (thus flagging the emptiness of all visual signs, including words), Hammond’s work embraces the artist’s capacity for making meaning, or meanings, even if they are fugitive or absurd. Following Hammond’s constructive approach, if you find yourself lost in the forest of signs, why not practice a little woodcraft? (See Woodcraft-on Hammond’s shelf.)

Although many of the titles of the works in this exhibition sound as if they were copied off the spines of the books in Jane Hammond’s library, they were all produced according to another rule: she invited poet John Ashbery to compose a list of titles for her to paint. Hammond has long-standing relationships with several poets who, like Ashbery, have also written extensively on the visual arts. Her intrigue with poetry began with the villanelle, a French form that she learned about at a reading by the poet and art writer John Yau (the two were later married for a number of years). It is easy to imagine the appeal that this rhyming structure, based on an intricate pattern of repeating lines, would have for Hammond, who was just beginning to make paintings based on the repetition of elements. Another complex structure preoccupies Hammond in the book collaboration she is now working on with the poet Raphael Rubinstein. Rubinstein is an editor at Art in America magazine and an aficionado of the French Oulipo movement of poets, which in the 1960s began to explore a literature of arbitrary constraints. Georges Perec, one of its founders, wrote an entire novel without using the letter “e.” One of Rubinstein’s poems for his collaboration with Hammond is written in a form of his own devising: eight stanzas of eight lines of eight words with eight letters. Pronouns are off-limits, and … you begin to grasp the difficulty.

Ashbery, one of the leading figures in the New York School of poets that emerged during the 1950s, was for many years a contributing art critic for the Paris Tribune and the editor of ArtNews. In a brief introduction for a 1990 exhibition of Hammond’s art, he appreciated those qualities in her paintings that “leave us with … the sense of a ritual performed, of a change signaled, of exchanges of various kinds including sexual and alchemical ones, of a page being turned.” But even barring all this background, and going simply by the forty-four titles Ashbery presented to Hammond in June 1993, the attraction is evident. Like Hammond, Ashbery’s medium is collage. Put your ear to a few of his titles and you hear the slices of everyday speech and found phraseology in The National Cigar Dormitory, Dumb Show, The Friendly Sea, Prevents Furring, and No One Can Win at the Hurricane Bar. In one of the paintings born from this collaboration, Pumpkin Soup II, Hammond has lovingly joined Ashbery’s portrait with hers; their faces are framed on the credenza, a pair of doting parents.

Collage, one of the defining techniques of Modernism, goes hand in hand with books. James Joyce’s Ulysses would not be a modern classic without all the texts collaged into it from quotidian life. The artist Joseph Cornell’s library was so significant that when the National Museum of American Art inherited the contents of his studio, they took all his books, too. Early Modernism includes several collage collaborations between artists and writers, precedents for the work by Ashbery and Hammond. Two in particular will enhance our reading. First, a Russian example: In 1923, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky presented his friend, the artist Aleksandr Rodchenko, with a poem to illustrate. Titled Pro Eto, or “About This,” the poem was an incantation, an attempt by Mayakovsky to hold on to the disruption and havoc of his love for Lili Brik before it subsided into comfortable habit. Its imagery jumped from telephone to troglodyte, from domesticity’s mare to ice floe, in a stream-of-consciousness style that seemed specially minted for the technique of photocollage that Rodchenko was then practicing. By cutting, splicing, and gluing down everyday images, images of things that could never come together in reality, the artist manifested that shock which the poet longed to savor (and which for these members of the Russian avant-garde also signified the exciting rupture of revolution). The shock is greatest at those non-seamless moments when different kinds of reproductions collide and one becomes aware of all the corpses of photographs, of magazines, of advertisements, that have been dismembered and discarded to make this one image.

What’s interesting about Pro Eto is its relationship to photography, another modern medium and one that haunts not only Jane Hammond’s collages but all collage. Soon after completing his collaboration with Mayakovsky, Rodchenko bought a camera and learned photography, primarily for purposes of enlarging and reduction. It was a short step to taking his own pictures. Hammond’s work has its own practical relationship to photography. Not one to be hacking up her library, she relies on photocopying, projectors, and other photographic means. Concerns over archival issues—which are bound to be immediate for anyone who relies on a picture archive for their work—have led her to develop a technique for making color reproductions that will not be subject to the inherent vices of commercial printing. Hammond’s use of collage is also conceptually related to photography-doubly so. For what do photographers do when they look through the lenses of their cameras? They edit and crop; they cut pictures out of the world at large, just like an artist working in collage. Thus, while the photographic nature of collage once prompted modernist Rodchenko to go out and create new pictures, it now keeps postmodernist Hammond busily reproducing and creating fresh readings of the pictures she already has.

Perhaps it comes with working from a pool of 276 images, or from her processes of reproduction, but Hammond’s collage does not have the shock and schism of Rodchenko’s. Searching art history for an early sensibility similar to hers, my hand lingers over a row of Max Ernst’s collage books, including A Hundred Headless Woman (1927–29). Based entirely on engravings, Ernst’s work also has a kind of seamlessness, but I find it slightly hysterical and too nightmarish to make a good comparison to Hammond’s work, so I reach for What a Life! instead. This 1911 collage collaboration between two British satirists, the verbal E. V. Lucas and the visual George Morrow, is a fictional biography based on pictures clipped from a mail-order catalog and collaged into illustrations. As printed matter from the great era of popular publishing, the images are dead ringers for the kind Jane Hammond uses in her work. In praise of this material, the authors’ preface intones: “As adventures are to the adventurous, so is romance to the romantic. One man searching the pages of Whiteley’s General Catalogue will find only facts and prices; another will find what we think we have found a deeply-moving human drama.” Indeed, when the anonymous subject of the book claims to have known “slightly Sir Algernon Slack, the millionaire, whose peculiarity it was never to carry an umbrella,” and the accompanying picture shows a figure in deep-sea diving suit, complete with diving bell, this reader is moved (to laughter).

My copy of What a Life! is a 1975 reprint with a foreword by none other than John Ashbery, who asserts, “What a Life! is a very funny book and deserves a niche in the pantheon of British nonsense. It also has a certain place in the history of modern art … ” Terry Gilliam’s collage animation for Monty Python’s Flying Circus could be counted among its progeny. In its own day, the book was possibly known to Dadaists, including Ernst. By 1936, it had earned itself a place in The Museum of Modern Art’s Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism exhibition in New York. The Surrealists would have been charmed and charged by the attack What a Life! made on bourgeois reality using nothing but scissors, junk mail, and humor. The fact that it took the form of a book would have made it especially appealing, for Surrealism, originally a literary movement, has always been as much about poetry as about painting. This means that no matter how arcane or absurd, silly or strange, abstract or inarticulate a given text might be-be it words or a picture—the reader is compelled to make some sense of it. Proving this logic-defying principle sparked the Surrealists in their pursuit of chance encounters, games, collaborations, and collage; what better way to catch up with the workings of the unconscious mind or, better still, the ineffable?

There is much of Surrealism-its traditions, its activities, its aesthetic, its laughter-to be found in the works of both Jane Hammond and John Ashbery. But in this discussion’s terms, it’s the literalness of Surrealism-the surrealist compulsion to make things legible no matter how fantastic–that makes the Ashbery-Hammond collage collaboration tick.

From the list of forty-four titles Ashbery scripted for her, Hammond has been able to make more of some than others. For example, to date she has yet to turn Contra-Zed into a single painting, but she’s made at least one work for almost every other title, including two Pumpkin Soups, three Sore Models, and five Irregular Plurals. Hammond says she never anticipated that her vow to see the list through to the end-to make each of Ashbery’s tides legible in her own visual terms–would occupy eight years of her life. In the meantime, she has broken (or evolved) most of the rules she first set for herself. Her original, limited kit of colors has grown to a fully-fledged palette of every hue and shade. The language of her painting has grown increasingly complex and present for its own sake: The Mush Stage (2001) features a beautifully icy passage of abstraction. The introduction of the printed paper collage elements (reproducing hosts of new images) lends the 276-picture lexicon greater nuance. And the overall matrix of media, pictorial space, pictures, and background have become more densely intermingled. It’s as if all the thinking that has gone into Ashbery’s forty-four titles simply keeps increasing the artist’s capacity for reading them on different levels or in different ways. When we encounter a hennaed hand plucking at the void in Irregular Plural #5, we already know it to be an avatar. To understand what an avatar of is, however, we must surrender our former understanding to an entirely new context. This one has to do with pairs of images that are the same but different: another hand in the picture floats on a little television screen. Other things that seem to want to go together here are the heads of two bald men (Picasso and Ghandi), the phrases “Egyptian Water Box” and “Siberian Chain Escape,” a wish-bone and a wish-bone-shaped length of rope. Framed by an open book, none of the elements of these pairs is literally on the same page. At the same time the painting (and title) insist that we read them together and adjust our sense of meaning accordingly. Oh, absolutely, these are irregular plurals.

The Ashbery list did bring about one spontaneous change in Hammond’s work. Whereas for years she had used exactly two shapes of canvas-a square and a rectangle-Sore Models I (1993) is a diptych painted on two supports shaped like a pair of feet. After this, there seems to have been no turning back. Shaped canvases appear the rule, not the exception, within the Ashbery group, which also features a number of multi-part pictures. There are paintings shaped like maps, like houses, like plates, like games, like open books. And though we commonly think of closed books as being squares and rectangles, like conventional paintings, this hasn’t always been the case. Not all texts are uniform lines of print that read from left to right. There are scrolls and tablets, snakes and ladders, even human bodies to contend with in the history of reading and books. Peter Greenaway’s film The Pillow Book, named after a great work of early Japanese literature, tells the story of a contemporary female author who turns her lover’s living body into a written page. The manuscript drives her publisher to distraction; he has the young man flayed and turns the printed skin into a book-a terribly unique edition. Hammond, for a new print she is making outside the Ashbery collaboration, becomes a page in her own lexicon. A selection of her icons appears stamped onto her nude body, digitally photographed from behind. The almost life-sized sheet of Gampi paper on which the image is printed may be tissue-thin, but its fibers show it to be as strong and supple as skin. And in the Ashbery project, the slightly irregular cut of the edges of one of the 20 elements in the painting Do Husbands Matter? references vellum, the leather material of choice for manuscript illumination.

From their very outline, Hammond’s shaped canvases reinforce the iconic nature of her paintings and her works’ desire to be read pictorially. Such talk of symbols and symbolism smacks of medieval times, but it’s the notion of the icon that ultimately takes Hammond’s use of the collage technique most firmly into the present, and possibly beyond. Computers have put a fresh spin on the established conventions of reading. Icons prompt ways of visually enhancing our reading with new fonts, formats, images, colors. We scroll up and down through screens of text; we cut and paste with abandon. Think of Hammond as having downloaded her 276 images into a database; suddenly, her painting system becomes a program for processing an ever-expanding web of information.

Having almost run through the John Ashbery collaboration, Hammond is sure to generate many new applications for her collage and, with them, many new readings.


(I would like to thank Geoffrey Batchen for reading this manuscript and for his expert input.)