LAY LADY DAY!

“Lady Day got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies….”[i]

holiday
Sid Grossman,
“Portrait of Billie Holiday”
Gelatin silver print, 1948,
13 3/16” x 10 11/16”
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC.

Her real name was Eleanora Fagan Gough, born in Philadelphia in 1915.  She spent most of her childhood in Baltimore raised by relatives.  She took the name ‘Billie’ in honor of her favorite actress Billie Dove and the name ‘Holiday’ from Clarence Holiday, her probable father.  Her only training as a teenager was singing along with phonograph records at her aunt’s house.  She was discovered by John Hammond and made her first recording with Benny Goodman in 1933.

Billie Holiday would later record and work with Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie, Artie Shaw and Lester Young.  Many of her contemporaries noted that she made each and every song her own, took them to unheard of heights and depths, bursting into the open air.

Her memory has been celebrated in the song “Angel of Harlem” by the rock band U2 and by the American sculptor Mark di Suvero in a monumental piece “For Lady Day” in south Chicago and perhaps most poignantly by the New York School poet Frank O’Hara upon reading of her death in 1959.

“The Day Lady Died”

“It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off
the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”[ii]

holiday2
Mark di Suvero
“For Lady Day”
1968-1969
30’ x 18’
Railroad tank car, I-beams and cable
Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park
Governor’s State University,
University Park, Illinois

Finally, in describing this piece in tribute to Billie Holiday and the emergence of a new sculptural space, the critic Peter Schjeldahl has obsered:  “The colosal ‘drawing in space’ with assembled elements—a specialty of the Manilow park, whose ‘For Lady Day’ by Mark di Suvero is a masterpiece of the mode—burst the boundaries of the traditional gallery and garden display and entered the open air.”[iii]

 


[i] U2; “Angel of Harlem,” Rattle and Hum; audio recording 422-842 299-2; Island Records; New York, New York; 1988.

[ii] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1964 & 2014; p. 21.

[iii] Manilow, Lewis, et al; The Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park; Governors State University Foundation; University Park, Illinois; 1987.  (Including the essay “A Park for the Prairie God” by Peter Schjeldahl); p. 11.

WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER

ohara1
Alice Neel
“Frank O’Hara”
Oil on canvas
1960
34” x 16 1/8”
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC.

He started out manning the front desk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York right after finishing up graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1951.  He soon became an Assistant Curator and later an Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture.

He would often take off for lunch and scribble notes in the park while he ate a sandwich, or he would walk around the block, stop in at the Ollivetti Shop pretending to test out the latest typewriter and type out 10 or 15 lines on a sheet of paper and then return to his office.  “Lunch Poems” he would later call them.[i]

Although his degrees were in creative writing, Frank O’Hara had a keen eye and a contagious smile and soon met many of the other younger painters and poets in New York.  Amongst his new circle of friends and associates were Grace Hartigan, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter, Michael Goldberg, Alfred Leslie and Joan Mitchell.  He would often collaborate with several of these painters, especially Larry Rivers, Michael Goldberg, and Grace Hartigan.  One important example of this was the series of Hartigan’s paintings and O’Hara’s poems titled “Oranges” exhibited and published through Tibor de Nagy in 1953.[ii]

ohara2
Grace Hartigan
“Oranges No. 1”
1952
Oil on paper
44 1/4” x 33 1/2”
Poetry and Rare Books Collection
State University of New York
Buffalo, New York

 

“WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER”
“I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why?  I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.  Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting.  I drop in.
‘Sit down and have a drink’ he
says.  I drink:  we drink.  I look
up. ‘You have SARDINES in it.’
‘Yes, it needed something there.’
‘Oh.’  I go and the days go by
and I drop in again.  The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by.  I drop in.  The painting is
finished.  ‘Where’s the SARDINES?’
All that’s left is just
letters.  ‘It was too much,’ Mike says.

But me?  One day I am thinking of
a color:  orange.  I write a line
about orange.  Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page.  There shoud be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life.  Days go by.  It is even in
prose, I am a real poet.  My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet.  It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES.  And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.”[iii]

ohara3
Michael Goldberg
“Sardines”
1955
Oil and adhesive tape on canvas
80 3/4” x 66”
National Museum of American Art
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

 


[i] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 2014.

[ii] Perloff, Marjorie; Frank O’Hara:  Poet among Painters; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1998, pp. 76-77.

[iii] Allen, Donald, ed.; The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London; 1995; pp. 261-262.