I knew John Ashbery before I met him, by which I mean that I subsequently realized that I’d adopted in my teens and early twenties more or less the same tastes and attitudes as John had a generation earlier.
I actually first came across John’s name as the translator of an essay on Raymond Roussel, the French protosurrealist writer who felt from early childhood that he was predestined for greatness, to the extent that he thought he had been born with a star on his forehead.
Being an art critic is for the most part a low-paying job. It is particularly insecure if you do not have a position at a university. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was far worse than it is now. In an informative interview with the English poet and literary critic Mark Ford, Ashbery talked about the financial side of being an art critic living in Paris:
In Jasper Johns’s “Painting Bitten by a Man,” the artist has bitten a hunk out of his painting, leaving behind teeth marks. The action of the bite transforms into an image to be seen, an image that relates to nothing else on the field of gray encaustic. The bite conjures the presence of the artist at work and a flash of spleen. The gesture of the bite keeps receding back into its intrinsic muteness, suggesting the frustration of a desire to communicate verbally.
“Crowd Conditions” (click here to read) appears near the end of Ashbery’s 2000 book Your Name Here. As the title indicates, this is a book centrally, if playfully and earnestly, concerned with “you,” the mercurial second-person, singular and sometimes plural, pronoun. Your Name Here invites the reader to title it after her or himself, but this turns out to be a partial tease, since we are invited in, but never given full grammatical purchase.