"Charles Henri Ford: Printed Matter, 1929-1969," May 15-July 2, 1999, at Ubu Gallery, 16 East 78th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
The life of Charles Henri Ford -- poet, editor, filmmaker and artist -- virtually defines the word "fabulous." Born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, in a year that varies from 1909 to 1913, he visited Turkish baths with Paul Bowles in Paris, shared a house with Djuna Barnes in Tangier, took Andy Warhol to visit Joseph Cornell on Utopia Parkway in Queens, and now makes his home at the Dakota on Central Park West.
Considered by some to be the first American Surrealist poet, his books include The Garden of Disorder (1938), Sleep in a Nest of Flames (1949), Silver Crystal Coo (1968) and Emblems of Arachne (1986). In 1933, Ford collaborated with Parker Tyler to produce The Young and the Evil, a controversial novel about homosexual life that was banned in England and America -- "that foul and unspeakable book," as Edith Sitwell called it. But she was in love with the neo-romantic painter Pavel Tchelichew, Ford's companion of 24 years.
Ford began his editorial career at age 20 with Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms (later subtitled A Bisexual Bimonthly). Like Lincoln Kirstein, who edited Hound and Horn when he was a student at Harvard, despite his youth Ford did not hesitate to ask Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and other leading authors of the American expatriate avant-garde for contributions. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Stein wrote, "of all the little magazines which … have died to make verse free, perhaps the youngest and freshest was the Blues."
In the '40s, Ford edited and published View, one of the most important art magazines of this century, with issues devoted to Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and Tchelichew. Among the contributing writers were Henry Miller, William Carlos Williams, Jorge Luis Borges, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy and Allen Ginsberg.
After all that, Ford could have settled down, rested on his laurels and continued to be fabulous in a '40s way. Instead, in 1954 when he was living in Italy with Tchelichew, he began painting every day. About ten years later he produced the stunning group of "Poem Posters" now on view at Ubu, experimental offset press lithographs that mutated Surrealism into acid trip mod with results that are the absolute epitome of Pop.
Found language meeting found images, the works consist of portraits reminiscent of Warhol layered over and under collages of abstract shapes and words cut from magazines and newspapers. As the series develops, plates appear in different combinations. Text hides behind image, or image hides behind text, depending on the colors of the ink. Op art patterns and color schemes like pink and orange give the work a psychedelic '60s flavor.
One year after they were made, the "Poem Posters" were published in an artist's book, Spare Parts. All of this work was done in Athens with the printer Vassily Papachrysanthu.
The idea of collaged poetry has a noble modernist lineage. Around 1924 Tristan Tzara's Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love included instructions for cutting an article into separate words, putting the pieces in a bag, shaking the bag, and then copying the pieces in random order as they are removed. In 1936, the French Surrealist Georges Hugnet published Septième Face du Dé, a book of collages that included photographs and phrases cut from magazines. (This work, currently on view at Zabriskie Gallery, was discussed by Vicki Goldberg in the New York Times on Sunday, June 20.)
In the '50s, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin experimented with "cut-ups." "Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint," they advised, "lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted text." These techniques were extremely influential in avant-garde poetic circles at the time the "Poem Posters" were produced.
In Ford's collaged poems, advertising slogans and headlines are removed from their original context and subverted. Fallen Woman features a female figure sprawled on her back with her arms stretched out, as a hand holding a knife is poised above her body. The words "Plan now for" and "nowhere," along with other phrases, issue like flower petals from a circular central image of an unplugged drain, perhaps a reference to the victim's life draining away.
Jayne as Jayne (Violet/Blue) is filled with sexual double entendre. The iconic movie star Jayne Mansfield, covered with a wiry op pattern, is rendered in dull purple. Superimposed on this image is a blue-black collage cut into five bold shapes, including such phrases as "rigid repeater," "positions of the month," "measuring the power" and "before hycar 4021 no rubber could pass this test."
Another print, titled Irving Rosenthal as l'Epoux Abandonné, is a photographic image of the open-mouthed poet leaning back with a baby in his arms. Fitted within a large red pyramid, the poem is filled with absurd juxtapositions:
....but few kn
ow how or why now most satellites
perspire heavily for those who w
ash with personal anguish can society
do anything a small businessman
who collects rubbed out citizens
The exhibition at Ubu is subtitled "Printed Matter 1929-1969" and contains an impressive array of Ford's books, magazines and ephemera, including 24 issues of View, with covers by O'Keeffe, Léger, Masson and Tchelitchew, among others. There is even a filmed documentary of the original "Poem Posters" exhibition, which took place at Cordier & Eckstrom Gallery in May and June 1965. With Gerard Malanga (featured in the print, Gerard Malanga as Orpheus), Ford accompanied Andy Warhol when Warhol bought his first movie camera at Peerless in 1963, but this was the first film Ford himself made.
As the camera pans over details of the prints, a narrator lists the famous people attending: Leo Castelli, Virgil Thomson, Jack Smith, William Burroughs. Images of the opening party begin to merge with the posters -- Edie Sedgwick, earrings dangling, sits cross-legged and smokes on a platform in a blinding black and white dress. Jazz begins on the soundtrack, played by John Handy, and shots of people dancing turn into kaleidoscopic double images. The film was screened at the Fourth International Film Festival.
For all their Factory aura, Charles Henri Ford's "Poem Posters" do not participate in the Warholian discourse of surface and emptiness. Instead, they are suffused with a sense of metamorphosis; the freedom that comes when logic is abandoned. With these prints, the artist has plugged the Surrealist esthetic formed in the '20s and '30s into a body of work whose bold visual effect and concern with consumer culture were completely contemporary in 1964.
ELISABETH KLEY is an artist and writer who lives in New York.