Ashbery’s poetry increasingly adopted a collaged aesthetic, commingling art-historical imagery with kitschy Americana and pop-cultural explorations of identity. “His poems are famously difficult because they go to four different places at one time,” Bessa observed. “That clash prompted an idea of the concept.” During a sojourn in Paris, Ashbery labored on his 1962 collection of poems, The Tennis Court Oath. The book is “beyond comprehension,” Bessa said, “because he was collaging a lot of different sources.” Ashbery’s poetry is generally elliptical, with references cut-and-pasted from film, pop culture, literature, and art history. The lines of the 2009 poem “They Knew What They Wanted,” for instance, are entirely composed of movie titles beginning with the word “they.”
Ashbery’s collage work is equally enigmatic. In a 1972 work, Cushing’s Island, a magazine image of a man in a suit, his tongue out, leaps over breaking waves pictured on a regional postcard inscribed “White Head, Cushings Island, Portland Harbor.” The dramatic, silly scene is framed not by a setting sun or rising moon, but by a stained-glass rose window that crests above the craggy cliffs.
A more politically suggestive postcard piece from the same year, Muzzle, features a muzzled cartoon puppy looking adorably forlorn, tied up with a rope leash. The pup sits right on the edge of the Hudson River, nearly eclipsing the Statue of Liberty behind him. A large crescent moon embedded with a quaint winter scene floats in the blue sky. The small collage is highly suggestive, as well as ambiguous. Does the dog represent an immigrant, perhaps leaving the old world and its wintry cabins behind? Is he a representation of the American people, muzzled by political indifference or corruption?