Greenwich Village, New York, circa 1951. Every night, at a rundown tavern with a magnificent bar called the Cedar Tavern, an extraordinary group of painters, writers, poets, and hangers-on arrive to drink, argue, tell jokes, fight, start affairs, and bang out a powerful new aesthetic. Their style is playful, irreverent, tradition-shattering, and brilliant. Out of these friendships, and these conversations, will come the works of art and poetry that will define New York City as the capital of world culture--abstract expressionism and the New York School of Poetry.
A richly detailed portrait of one of the great movements in American arts and letters, The Last Avant Garde covers the years 1948-1966 and focuses on four fast friends--the poets Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. Lehman brings to vivid life the extraordinary creative ferment of the time and place, the relationship of great friendship to great art, and the powerful influence that a group of visual artists--especially Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and Fairfield Porter--had on the literary efforts of the New York School. The book will be both a definitive and lively view of a quintessentially American aesthetic and an exploration of the dynamics of creativity.
Anyone who thinks that avant-garde movements can flourish only in Left Bank cafés would do well to read David Lehman's superb new book. Lehman, an editor, essayist, and poet, zeroes in on four extraordinary poets--John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler--who were friends, rivals, sometime collaborators, and passionate appreciators of each other's work from the late 1940s through the mid 1960s. This "remarkable gang of four" was, in Lehman's opinion, not only a true avant-garde--collective creators of new, subversive, nonmainstream art--but also "the last authentic avant-garde movement that we have had in American poetry." It's an ambitious thesis, but Lehman pulls it off in a narrative compounded of cultural history, biography, literary analysis, and great gossip.
Most fascinating are Lehman's insights into the inspiration that the poets found in the lives and works of contemporary painters--waggering abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and the gentler figurative painters Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, and Jane Freilicher, who came after them. As Ashbery put it, "The artists liked us and bought us drinks and we ... felt that they ... were free to be free in their painting in a way that most people felt was impossible for poetry." But each poet made it possible in his own way--Ashbery through surreal word collages, Koch through the pursuit of happiness in verse, O'Hara in witty telephonic stream of consciousness, and Schuyler by treating his feelings as objects. Lehman calls his book a study of "the bliss of being alive and young at a moment of maximum creative ferment," and that bliss fairly shimmers on the page. The Last Avant-Garde, a remarkable hybrid, succeeds in being both critically acute and luminously exciting. --David Laskin