The other week I had the privilege of spending time with the work of two of my favourite contemporary artists. First was a trip through the most recent abstracts of Gerhard Richter at the Marian Goodman Gallery; second was a reading at New York University by John Ashbery from his two most recent single volumes, A Worldly Country and Planisphere. I am still thinking about the experience. About those cloudlets and globular fissures.

I fell in love with Richter’s overpainted photographs a couple of years ago. Though not a part of this most recent exhibit, they are collected in a recent volume by Hatje Cantz (2009), and many of them can be viewed online here. For over twenty years, Richter has been applying heavy, often neon-coloured oils to hundreds upon hundreds of family photos—sometimes in great swaths, sometimes in mere spackles.

“If color signifies anything,” said the art critic Dave Hickey, “it always signifies, as well, a respite from language and history.” In these works the photographic images of history, nature, etc. remain largely intact. What’s most surprising, in my view (and qualified, perhaps, by Hickey’s “If”) about the oils laid upon them isn’t what they signify, but how they inhabit existing photographic compositions so comfortably—in spite of their often garish glow, or how they may also signify a tear or a sunset, a nuclear bomb or a disintegrating disease, some kind of impending love or menace. Whatever gesture the paint makes, it is still, on a fundamental level, suspended in the nostalgic, narrative time of the photograph. I think his overpainted photographs show us something—which may be obvious to many, but which I still sometimes resist—about the way the contemporary sensibility accommodates the topography of the abstract as tangibly as any realized image—any mountain or field, any aunt so-and-so holding the baby.

This leads me to Ashbery, who is still writing some of our literature’s most interesting overpainted photographs. In Planisphere there is, for instance, a gloss of the Leonard Maltin Film Guide “They Knew What They Wanted.” There’s also this little dab over, one could argue, Ginsberg’s “America”:

They were living in America for the pleasure of it all.

They were living in America as well as can be expected.

They were living in America as one grows passionately

Out of a love affair they were living there every day.

Later on the poem states: “They were living in America as a tissue paper is to a comb.” So much for Ginsberg’s “queer shoulder to the wheel.” But Ashbery is, in so many ways, as close to the contemporary wheel (or the “series of tubes”) as it gets. If the image of tissue paper to a comb seems a little flimsy, well, it is. But it’s also vulnerable, violent—a big, beautiful mess of torn-paper clouds over whatever one cares to recall or imagine. Richter and Ashbery continue to add that secondary layer. Continue to recall and imagine.

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Nick Thran is the author of one poetry collection, Every Inadequate Name (Insomniac Press, 2006). A second collection, Earworm, will appear in 2011 with Nightwood Editions. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.