Collaboration in art has been a topic of much interest for the past three decades, and it can still excite discussion and disagreement. Many people--including a lot of artists--prefer to think of the artist as a lonely hero, creating in pure and powerful isolation. Others favor a less exalted role for the artist; they want artistic work to be part of the continuum of social interactions, and perceive collaboration between and among artists as second in value only to collaboration between artists and "the community." One problem with this viewpoint is that aesthetic problems with the resulting works tend to be dismissed because of the "value" of the collaboration.
And really, what does it mean for artists to collaborate? Is every decision made by consensus, or do the collaborators take turns? Can a great work of art be pieced together from the workings of separate creative minds? Variety we can be sure of, especially when the collaborators work in different media, or even different branches of the arts. But can artistic unity be achieved through collaboration?
These are some of the questions that an intriguing exhibition at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro raises and attempts to answer. In Company: Robert Creeley's Collaborations surveys the poet's work with many visual artists over a span of 40 years. Creeley, who has won major poetry prizes, including the Bollingen Prize in 1999, and who is currently a chaired professor at SUNY-Buffalo, has worked with numerous visual artists to pair poems and images since the 1950s. The resulting works are remarkably different from each other. As a group, they banish the idea that perhaps the artists illustrated the poems. Without reading extrinsic texts, you cannot know who did what first, but you get a strong sense of play, of interaction between the poet and the artists, in nearly all the examples on display. The show, almost casually, reveals the shifts in formal concerns in both poetry and the visual arts over four decades without belaboring the point.
The exhibition was curated by Elizabeth Licata and organized by the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University; Licata and Amy Cappellazzo, formerly of the Weatherspoon, co-edited the well-illustrated catalog, which is distributed by UNC Press. The catalog contains a history of Creeley's collaborations (and some wonderful old photographs by Jonathan Williams), interviews with the collaborators about the process, and a long essay by poet and critic John Yau, as well as a CD-ROM with more pictures, photographs and poems. I would recommend this catalog to anyone with a serious interest in the subject. It supplies a lot of interesting material to augment the exhibition, and somehow it is easier to think about the intimate entwining of word and image in artists' books while holding a book than it is while gazing around the vast reaches of the enormous Weatherspoon gallery. It is a coolly handsome gallery, well scaled for large contemporary art--but these books and moderately sized prints would fare better in smaller rooms, where you could more easily enjoy the intimacy of poem and drawing.
Those who've been reading my columns for a long time will be waiting for me to start carrying on about having to read the artwork. I have often complained about so-called visual artists loading down their images with words, and I'm sure I'll do so again when I find images that are too weak to explain themselves being shored up with poorly written diatribes. But what we've got here is something different.
To begin with, the writing is poetry. Not text or discourse or criticism or manifesto. And not just OK, pretty good poetry, either, but words that make you feel like you've been undressed down past your skin. To me, even the most abstract or idea-filled of Creeley's poems have this intimate, even erotic quality. Reading his work is not a chore.
Then there are the images. Considered separately, without relation to the poems, I find nearly all of them interesting, and some of them ambiguous, compelling and seductive, even beautiful. But in the pairings, both words and pictures gain. Some of the poems seen in the exhibition in collaborative publications were familiar to me. Pulling out my old Creeley paperbacks and finding them there, I was struck by the wan emptiness of the un-imaged pages.
Equally, I found many of the images in the gallery so much the richer for their association with the poems. The Francesco Clemente images, and the Georg Baselitz prints, particularly, are, if not explained, made less opaque by the poems' insights. The Baselitz images bloom like bright poppies on the wall, poppies falling through space as time rushes away in Creeley's lines.
Among the most satisfying pairs to me are those Creeley made with John Chamberlain for a book called Famous Last Words. Chamberlain is known as a sculptor whose massive work is made from autobody parts and chrome bumpers--very macho, I've always thought. But these lithographs are beautiful, like wordless songs, kind of jazzy. And Creeley's words on the facing pages are so jaunty. Here's "Late:"
Looks like chunks
will be it
tonight, a bite-sized
lunch of love,
and lots of it,
The works range from funny, playful pieces like this one and the charming series of pages made with Archie Rand, to the struggles with big questions like age and time and death, as in the Baselitz pieces. In them (except perhaps for the book done with Marisol images, which doesn't seem like a collaboration at all), Creeley's love of looking and the artists' love of thinking is obvious. While we still may not know exactly what an artistic collaboration comprises, it is clear that it must involve the kind of exchange and sharing that we sense here. These poems and pictures are like lovers, each complete in itself. Their union is conditional, contingent, but in their coupling they generate a joyous aesthetic unity.
Robert Creeley will read Wednesday, March 8, 7:30 p.m. at the Weatherspoon.