Poem Paintings

Frank O’Hara’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as his poetry and art criticism, made him central to the New York School. What he called his “I do this I do that” poems often featured glimpses of his adored New York City or anecdotes about friends, most of whom were themselves poets or painters. His verse recounted conversational tones and flickered with casualness and spontaneity.

Back Table at the Five Spot: Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, and Grace Hartigan

O’Hara’s association with the painters Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns, also leaders of the New York School, became a source of inspiration for his highly original poetry. He attempted to produce with words the effects these artists had created on canvas. In certain instances, he collaborated with the painters to make “poem-paintings,” paintings with word texts.


The two friends inspired one another and created collaborative works during the early days when the art scene and literary circle eventually to be known as the New York School were still in their formative stages. Perhaps the most interesting pieces from the time involving her ties to a friend can be seen in the series of paintings titled Oranges, which Hartigan created in collaboration with O’Hara. Grace Hartigan recently provided the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University Library with this personal account of her collaboration with Frank O’Hara on the Oranges series:

To the New York avant-garde in the late 40s and early 50s, fame or historical significance seemed impossible. As a result, the collaborations between painters and poets were casual and spontaneous. For example, one day in 1952, Frank O’Hara and I were talking about Apollinaire and his relationship to the Cubists. I said, “I’d like to do something with your poems, but I don’t want to do only one.” Frank said, “How about twelve? I have a dozen poems called ‘Oranges.’?” I painted twelve oils on paper, at times writing the whole poem, other times just a line or two. All the images related to each poem.

Below is one of the poems from the Oranges series, Oranges: 12 Pastorals:


Black crows in the burnt mauve grass, as intimate as rotting rice, snot

on a white linen field.

Picture to yourselves Tess amidst the thorny hay, her new-born shredded by the ravenous cutter-bar, and there were only probably vague lavender flowers blooming in the next field.

O pastures dotted with excremental discs, wheeling in interplanetary green, your brown eyes stare down ‘Our innocence, the brimstone odor of your stars sneers at our horoscope!

When she has thrown herself to the brook and you see her floating by, the village Ophelia, recall that she loved none but the everyday lotus, and slept with none but the bull on the hill.

Mercy, mercy, drown her, rain!

Hartigan’s painting for Orange: 12 Pastorals

– Jonathan Lugo

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