“Life is hell, all is well.” That cryptic ditty, incorporated as text into a painting from the 1960s, characterizes the watercolors that A.R. Ammons (1926-2001) made in the years that followed. Cosmic pessimism conflated with personal optimism reflects the fundamentalist faith of his native rural North Carolina. The end is near… I am saved. It also reflects an approach to the world that responds to terrible calamities with an eager search for knowledge. That science-like orientation to the humanities was common in American universities back when Ammons began his long academic career in 1964. He may have considered the circumstances of his own life to be hellish, though many would likely find them enviable. He was a prolific creative whose talent in modern poetry won him many awards, eventually leading to the Goldwin Smith Professorship of Poetry at Cornell University, a sinecure which he held for thirty-four years until his 1998 retirement.
This cheerful, and fundamentally conservative, attitude is expressed by the thrilling variety of aesthetic satisfaction found in the twenty watercolors on the wall. Ammons mastered techniques like masking and wet-on-wet to produce works that dance on the edge of possibility—driven by a ferocious impulse that appears limited to the years between 1977 and 1979, when these works were made. He accompanied this creative outburst with a brief artist’s statement, “Changing Things,” as plainspoken as his poetry. It concludes with: “How fortunate we are that art allows us to transform blistering feelings into the brilliance, the sweep and curve, the dash and astonishment (along with the cool definition, judgment, and knowledge) of still completed things.”
This show makes for an interesting comparison with the Amy Sillman exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago last summer. Both professional academics had a thorough, if loose, analytic approach to their own psychology. Sillman’s abstract paintings felt locked into a narrower range of expression. Ammons presents a greater and more sensual biodiversity of the imagination. Yet Sillman also had a few large pieces that addressed major social problems outside the well-groomed world of the college campus. “Life is Hell,” Ammons might retort. So what’s the point?
The point of his work is joy. To borrow a phrase from his poetry, they are a “bucketful of radiant toys”—translucent layers that have been ripped like paper or shattered like glass, yet ever re-emerging with balance, wonder and beauty—and all the pitiless emotion of a rainforest. (Chris Miller)
“A.R. Ammons: Watercolors” on view at The Poetry Foundation, 61 West Superior, through April 30.