image above via http://darrellnettles.com/main.htm
“I read a lot of poetry,” the artist Darrell Nettles tells me. “My current work is made from poems.” To be sure, there’s ample precedent of poets and painters collaborating to justify his interest in creating a visual response to poetry. The poet Frank O’Hara comes to mind right away, his enduring, everyday connection to the art world, to artists like Larry Rivers, and of course the even longer history of these collaborations in Europe.
The collaboration in those cases is direct, founded on a personal bond of some sort. O’Hara, of course, is a special case, what with his work as a curator at MoMA in the 50s and 60s. There’s even a posthumous portfolio in O’Hara’s honor, In Memory of My Feelings, which features sixty works by thirty artists who had collaborated with O’Hara, producing images to accompany his poems.
Darrell Nettles has taken a less direct approach, especially with his newest work. “At present, I am up to my eyebrows in Emily Dickinson,” he says. “I am working on a portfolio of paintings using her poems.” Dickinson is not, for one thing, alive. And if she were, her reputation doesn’t paint her as our most sociable poet.
@Liberty, courtesy of Darrell Nettles
The Dickinson project builds on his Broken Verse series, which showed at 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel in 2015. Of that series, he’s written that, “My new work is a mystery to me. In my earlier work I often experimented with symbols and language, but the recent Broken Verse paintings signal a new direction: in the past, language was often an element in my work, but in the Broken Verse paintings, language is front and center.
While painting Broken Verse, letters begin to speak to me. My eyes move around the painting, catching a glimpse of a word here and a phrase there. As my eyes grab groups of letters, I hear sounds and ideas begin to form. Groups of letters become thoughts, notes, feelings, memories and pictures. My eyes keep moving around because the painting is full of voices with many stories to tell.”
South by Southwest, via http://darrellnettles.com/south_by_southwest.htm
It’s not a great surprise that, as Nettles tells me, “The moment I mention poetry, eyes glaze over.” His work is maybe an unlikely Trojan horse, then. The palimpsest-like aspect of these pieces tempts the eye to untangle what’s layered there, to get to grips with the full range of implications – color, line, composition and, if the viewer can just reach a bit further, the composition of the poetic lines behind work. It’s possible, too, to see a playful nod to something like Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold in the layered structure of Nettles’s work, and it’s this gradual, casual accumulation of nods and asides that gives his work appeal across repeat viewings.
Charles Demuth – I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, via https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.59.1/
In writing about Frank O’Hara’s Odes, which featured prints by Michael Goldberg, Permanently by Kenneth Koch (prints by Alfred Leslie), Salute by James Schuyler (prints by Grace Hartigan), and The Poems by John Ashbery (prints by Joan Mitchell), the painter Fairfield Porter asks, “How genuine are these collaborations? For me, the most successful is the one between Ashbery and Joan Mitchell. She seems to treat her poet with sensitive understanding and respect.” All this unfolds in an old Evergreen Review if you wondered, though it may be in Porter’s collected writings on art as well. It sounds a simple goal, to treat the poet with sensitive understanding and respect, though of course there’s the difficulty of shared meaning to consider, and the vast array of hardships in finding just the right visual accompaniment to a poem. Nettles, though, seems to me to approach the task with “sensitive understanding and respect” as well, and in an age when readers of poetry are too few in number, that’s a rare quality indeed.
Spend some time with Nettles’s work, and when you’re done, pick up a book of poems. This week I’m partial to Alan Dugan, but you could do a lot worse than beginning with the spur to Nettles’s new project and grabbing Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems.
– John McIntyre 2018