Death Triumphs (Frank O'Hara Lives)

TV's Mad Men are reading Frank O'Hara, and now the Hammer Museum's current show, "Oranges and Sardines," alludes in both title and theme to one of O'Hara's poems, "Why I Am Not a Painter." This isn't even the only O'Hara-themed art show in Los Angeles in the past decade. The first was MOCA's 1999 "In Memory of My Feelings."
I guess I should supply, for those who don't do poetry, the Cliff Notes version: Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) was a "New York School" poet (the term includes John Ashbery, if that helps) who also worked at the Museum of Modern Art, becoming an assistant curator. O'Hara knew everyone, he was gay, he drank too much, and he died in a freak accident on Fire Island, when he was run over by a jeep. His most famous poem (not his best) is about Lana Turner collapsing a Hollywood party.

"Why I Am Not a Painter" chronicles the creation of the painting Sardines by Michael ("Mike") Goldberg, a lesser-known Abstract Expressionist. The point of the poem is that the things that inspire a poet or artist are not always evident in the final work. Goldberg did a painting "of" sardines that depicts no sardines. It is thus entirely fitting that Goldberg's painting is not in the Hammer show. In case you're wondering, here's what it looks like. It's in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
At the Hammer, curator Gary Garrels invited six contemporary abstract painters select works that have inspired them. It's not a typical group show so much as six "artist curates" shows. There are just one or two pieces by each of the featured painters. I am not as crazy about Mark Grotjahn as just about everyone else is these days, but I liked his selection the best (Mondrian, McLaughlin, Reinhardt, Kusama, Levine, Cadere). The whole show a delight, with major blue-chip loans and, best of all, fascinating artists you've never heard of and want to know more about.

Incidentally, Mad Men isn't the first TV show to discover O'Hara. Back in its "Tiffany Network" days, CBS had a show called Creative America. A 1963 installment had Ossie Davis reading "Why I Am Not a Painter" next to the Goldberg painting! The universe of cable channels notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine anything quite like that today. (Poetry on television? Poetry about an abstract painting???)
Ultimately, the charm of "Oranges and Sardines" is drawing connections that were never intended. There's no need to stop at the show's exit. The Hammer's concurrent "Gouge: The Modern Woodcut" features Artemio Rodriguez's 12-foot-wide reinvention of Bruegel's Triumph of Death. I couldn't help thinking how much Bruegel/Rodriguez's gallows humor resonated with the absurd tragedy of O'Hara's death. And don't miss Rodriguez's prescient (2007) take on gouging banks and deadbeat borrowers.