'I make these collages and write'
Alice Notley's visual art
Alice Notley’s one and only exhibition of her visual art in the United States was in 1980 at MoMA PS1. The press release, written by Notley, notes that her collages are made “of paper (potential trash) from the poet/artist’s life, pieces of illustrations from favorite cheap books, sidewalk discoveries, and things she could see on the floor, from her chair, and was too lazy to throw away.” Notley’s nonchalance toward her materials should not be mistaken for a lack of aesthetic intensity. Like her visionary poetry, which she has written and published continuously for over fifty years, Notley’s visual art is defined by intricate layers of presence and association as well as common themes: light, femininity, and irreducibility. “Of the relationship between her poems and her collages,” she writes in the PS1 press release, “Alice Notley has noticed that the two are similar and that each causes the other to flower.”
Despite limited access to Notley’s artwork (most of it is owned by friends or stored in archives at the University of California San Diego and the University of Connecticut), attentive readers of her poetry will notice an ongoing commitment to painting and visual aesthetics in her writing. The reciprocity between visual and textual mediums has been central to Notley’s poetry since at least Alice Ordered Me To Be Made (Yellow Press, 1976) and continues to be part of her work. As Diana Arterian notes about in her important essay on Notley’s artwork, “For decades, Notley has learned and cultivated how to make her own universe from found things,” charting a lineage that links Notley’s collaged fans to the fan-based visual-text work of Stéphane Mallarmé and to Notley’s well-known feminist epics, like The Descent of Alette. A recently republished essay by Notley from 1975, “Modern Americans in Their Place at the Chicago Art Institute: An Article,” follows her keen self-education as a young poet looking at art. “[P]ainting was teaching me what a word like ‘tipsy’ could do to the flat,” she writes. Works by Arshile Gorky, Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning are described by Notley in surprising, insightful terms. About Alex Katz’s Vincent and Tony (1969), Notley writes, “Katz I think wants to kiss many people long and hard, not an incomprehensible desire.” Like John Ashbery — but with even more of a shimmering twist of intimate perception — Notley shows us how to see visual art as poets.
Looking through Notley’s collages, collaged fans, watercolors, portraits, masks, assemblages, and book covers in the archive, it is astounding that some curator or gallery has not approached Notley about doing a retrospective. An edited volume of Notley’s visual art should follow, akin to recent books on Ashbery and Helen Adam’s collages. Intricate and mysterious, seeing her visual art exposes one to the incredible breadth of Notley’s life as a poet. It is meaningful that so much of her visual work dates from the 1970s and ʼ80s, the two decades when Notley’s first seventeen books were published, all of which are out of print and difficult to find. Perhaps such a retrospective would not only lead to greater interest in her visual art but also to a return to the early poetry that is yet to be widely read and celebrated. Fortunately, the Special Collections and Archives at UC San Diego recently released a digital collection of nearly one hundred of Notley’s artworks, providing public access to the largest array of Notley’s visual art since her 1980 PS1 show.
2 Nursery Rhymes, Alice Notley Papers, Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut. Copyright Alice Notley. Used with permission. Click to view a larger version of this image.
In her visual art, Notley’s subjects include flowers; household items; male poets like Jack Kerouac and Robert Creeley; music; a range of images of girls and women, including paper doll clothes and faces, women from advertisements, and clippings from pornographic magazines; jewels and jewelry; ships; and birds. Nearly all the collages are added to with watercolors, gold and silver paint, and pastels; encrusted with lace or glitter; feature a human figure; and include a range of text. The writing is sometimes already part of the material that Notley collages with, though she also adds cut-up pieces of her typewritten poems or torn words and phrases in her own handwriting. However, one doesn’t have the sense that they’re reading a poem by Notley when viewing these works. Language is another part of the substance of the collage, as solid and multifarious as any other material. It is as if, among the pieces of the collage, sounds are spreading out. Notley’s earliest collages, most of which are housed in the Alice Notley Papers at the University of Connecticut, tend to be more language-focused and minimalistic than later works, often featuring different assemblages of words, phrases, and images on construction paper, such as 2 Nursery Rhymes. “I made a tremendous number of [collages] in Chicago” in the early to mid-1970s, Notley notes. “For months it was the only thing I did. … I was working out things for myself about forms and composition and physical reality, as much as for my poetry as for making visual art.”
Special To-day: Pot Cheese, Alice Notley Papers, MSS 319, Special Collections and Archives, UC San Diego. Click to view a larger version of this image.
Most of Notley’s artworks are discrete pieces — a paper fan collaged with tarot cards, a collage in gold foil featuring an image from an early ’90s French teen sitcom with “Fuck gold come in my heart” repeatedly handwritten across it, a small wooden pedestal sculpture adorned with fake pearls and chainmail resembling a Medieval relic. In 1980, however, Notley made a series of erotic collages that juxtapose photographs of nude women from pornographic magazines on six-and-a-half-by-eleven inch placards that announce diner-style daily food specials. This Special To-day series — the phrase that repeats at the top of each placard — includes dozens of individual collages, sometimes with the models’ faces cut out and replaced with illustrations of young girls. One for “Rice Pudding” features a woman, legs spread and breasts exposed, whose head Notley has replaced with the slightly oversized head of a girlish doll that appears lifted from a quaint children’s book. Staring back at the viewer, the doll’s exaggerated childhood features and wide-eyed expression seems to comment on the head’s juxtaposition to its own explicitly eroticized body. Another announces “Broiled Flounder” with a nude woman, seemingly in ecstasy, sunning beneath the text. The word “SAUCE” grazes the woman’s breast. Scraps of ripped paper and the cut-up bodies of other women are stacked around her. Collages like Pot Cheese, Hot Pastrami, and Clam Broth also appear in the series, which is satirical and humorous but also sad and abject, sometimes close to grief. Notley references the Special To-day collages in her poem “Hematite Heirloom Lives On (Maybe December 1980)” in the book Mysteries of Small Houses (1998), suggesting their connections to gender, sexuality, and loss:
I may be making erotic art near the red telephone
that connects Ted to his mother dying of cancer
I cut out photos of nude women and place them on food signs
Chicken Pot Pie. Why — because I want to save
the women in the photos, so make them humor-filled or
truly connected to the fountainhead of sex as I imagine it.
The women don’t
approve the men do I ignore them but this is minor I want
to be there to describe the harmony between the facts
that I make these collages and write ‘Waltzing Matilda’
that and the red phone to Peg.
As Notley suggests, the Special To-day series is a recuperative aesthetic project that reinscribes new forms of sexual autonomy. The collages emphasize women’s bodies as objects of consumption — overtly so in their appearance on “food signs” — in such a way that the incongruity of the altered images and text uncouple the nude women from their original pornographic context. Disserved in mysterious and strange erotic alignments, adjectives like “hot,” “delicious,” and “pure,” which appear on many of the food placards, become free-floating language. They are funny and forceful works that, like Notley’s poems in Waltzing Matilda (1981), are full of the tensions of motherhood, love, sexuality, and domesticity within an energized aesthetic life. The short “Only Poem” from Waltzing Matilda accompanies the Special To-day collages well. It reads in full: “I just hate dinner / & everything. I / hate it. And so / I hate everything.” Notley’s refusal to “like it” is a determination to live.
Verb Rose, Alice Notley Papers, MSS 319, Special Collections and Archives, UC San Diego. Click to view a larger version of this image.
In the largest collages, which are about twenty-four by thirty-six inches, Notley creates the effect of multiple smaller canvases being joined together. These collages are immersive and more immediately personal than the other pieces. In Verb Rose, likely made in mid-1970s, faintly painted photobooth images of the poet Ted Berrigan, Notley’s first husband, and a pastel image of a man and woman gazing into each other’s eyes orbit a fractured red paper flower among thick hand-torn shards of brown and tan construction paper (Notley’s “potential trash”). There is a tension between assembled right angles, rough and curved shapes, and the attentively annotated surface, which is covered in cut-out swatches of text and dappled pastel lines. Below the central flower, the titular “Verb Rose,” a small fragment of text reads “colors are vicious.” This viciousness also defines the distinctive sonic landscapes of Notley’s early poetry. Verb Rose distinctly resonates with the poems in Alice Ordered Me To Be Made where the conditions of color and sound intermix in a collaged play of syllables and associations, such as “Winter Enclosures” where “I kiss the vermillion specter / and harmonic minor and veracious snow / of the fixed scale giving some piece / of apparatus / kiss / wisdom tooth, witchball … / will you please kiss me.” Exuding intimacy and overfull of associative pleasure, the effect is warm, fierce, and dreamlike.
Cross, Alice Notley Papers, MSS 319, Special Collections and Archives, UC San Diego. Click to view a larger version of this image.
Another large collage, Cross (1980), is dense with images of flowers and other natural materials, as well as illustrations of construction that echo Notley’s own process of collaged making, such as a man arranging building materials and a utility knife appearing to cut into a strip of blue. Taken as a whole, the collage appears maplike, as if the pieces of a continent are being rearranged in a mythic geography. In the upper left of the canvas, a large galleon ship with full sails appears to move into the black and red border of the nebulous flower at the center of the canvas. Collaged around the flower’s outline are bunches of grapes, logs, fragments of inverted handwritten text, an obscured staircase, small flowers, and an illustration of the aurora borealis. The waves of expanding color in the aurora borealis match the two sets of roses below it, all of which is echoed in the blooming shape that dominates the middle of the canvas. Red, pink, blue, yellow, purple, and black permeate the entire piece, including splashes of watercolors that Notley has used throughout. The image is ethereal and billowing. Though not physically large, one finds themself completely immersed in the collage’s matrix of shape, color, and momentum.
One of the reasons a book or gallery show of Notley’s artwork would be so meaningful is the cumulative affect of her collages, fans, and watercolors. There are narratives embedded across the range of her work, whether in the flowers that permeate nearly every piece, the uncompromising attention to gender and sexuality, or the personal network of symbols that one sees emerging in tandem with her poetry. For example, the galleon ship in Cross recalls the opening lines of the first poem in Notley’s first book, 165 Meeting House Lane, “I dreamed of a clipper ship / Gold on blue THE CHASEY ALICE,” in which the quick, elegant ship becomes an embodiment of Notley’s own swift lyric presence. Images of ships recur throughout Notley’s writing, often with a reverence or intimacy that ties them back to these early lines. Ships also repeat in Notley’s fans and collages, like in Auto Supplies, likely made the same time as the Special To-day series. Here a black-and-white image of a clipper ship entirely covers the “O” in the phrase “AUTO SUPPLIES.” On top of the ship, a ring of blue glitter replicates the letter like a bright, ghostly displacement of language with color. This collage takes on more significance when one knows that Notley’s family owned and managed the Needles Auto Supply store in Needles, California, a fact that is scattered throughout Notley’s writings. A further layer of biographical depth is suggested by the faces of two men who appear at the bottom of the collage, perhaps representative of Notley’s father and brother, and a woman who is looking toward them from the corner below the ship, perhaps herself or Notley’s mother. There is great depth and sadness in the relationship between these images, suggesting layers of loss, grief, and distance. These kinds of biographical allusions are embedded throughout Notley’s artworks, sometimes in direct ways, like the appearance of a childhood photograph of Notley in the folds of a collaged fan or, in another fan, the inclusion of Notley’s “Needles Boat Racing Club” membership card, dated December 31, 1962, from when she was seventeen years old. In these collages and many others, “Alice” is always very much present. Taken together, her artwork documents her life before, in, and through poetry.
Auto Supplies, Alice Notley Papers, MSS 319, Special Collections and Archives, UC San Diego. Click to view a larger version of this image.
In a short essay accompanying a portfolio of her collaged fans in the September 2019 issue of Poetry magazine, Notley writes, “I started making collages because other poets were and they weren’t that good at it, really.” This is true. Other poets associated with the New York School occasionally made beautiful and funny collages or collaborated with visual artists like George Schneeman and Joe Brainard, both close friends with Notley. Experimenting across genres and mediums is at the heart of New York School aesthetics. However, Notley’s artwork — through its idiosyncratic grace and because it has continued to accumulate over a lifetime — is unparalleled among poets of her generation. As she recently told me, “I’ve continued to do it over time in such a way that people want to look at the collages and talk about them now, right now, and as I write this letter to you … I realize that this was always going to happen and it is right.”
General Sheridan Blue, Alice Notley Papers, MSS 319, Special Collections and Archives, UC San Diego. Click to view a larger version of this image.
It is also right that Notley’s visual artwork should now be seen in conversation with her poetry, a widening of attention that not only allows for a more nuanced understanding of Notley as a singular figure within the lineages of the New York School but, as her essay about visiting the Art Institute of Chicago makes clear, that also emphasizes her writing’s deep engagements with extraliterary sources. In Notley’s larger works, one is reminded of both Schneeman’s collages with his interlocking iconography of bodies and surfaces and of Robert Rauschenberg’s Overcast series, though with more rough color and fragmentation than the former and without the latter’s media-saturated imagery. In her smaller works, like General Sheridan Blue and Chinese Medicine and A Young Lady, there are resonances with some works of Brainard but also earlier twentieth century avant-garde work, such as paintings by George Braque and collages by Kurt Schwitters. These associations are only peripheral. Notley’s visual artwork is organic and operatic. As in her poetry, she has no allegiances.
Chinese Medicine and A Young Lady, Alice Notley Papers, MSS 319, Special Collections and Archives, UC San Diego. Click to view a larger version of this image.
3. Nick Sturm, “Unceasing Museums: Alice Notley’s ‘Modern Americans In Their Place at Chicago Art Institute,’” ASAP/J, March 12, 2019.
4. Diana Arterian, “‘Spirit Flows From Pieces’: Alice Notley’s Collage Art,” The Poetry Foundation, August 30, 2019. See also Interim 23, no. 1 and 2 (2005), ed. Claudia Keelan, which is completely devoted to Notley’s work and includes an interview between Notley and Keelan, “A Conversation: Claudia Keelan and Alice Notley,” that focuses on Notley’s artwork.
5. See John Ashbery: They Knew What They Wanted: Poems & Collages, ed. Mary Polizzotti (New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2018), and The Collages of Helen Adam,ed. Alison Fraser (Colorado Springs, CO and Victoria, TX: Further Other Book Works and Cuneiform Press, 2017).
6. These seventeen books are represented by about only 130 pages in Notley’s Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006), which also happens to feature a collage cover by Notley.
7. For more on Notley’s early collages at UConn, including 2 Nursery Rhymes, see my essay “‘Thinking with my hands’ in the Archive: Second Generation New York School Gems” published at The University of Connecticut’s Archives and Special Collections Blog, January, 19, 2019.