“He tended to write about things that he liked with enthusiasm,” affirms Epstein. O’Hara, he says, believed that both bad art and bad poetry would slip into oblivion without his help. If his detractors complained that the reviews were too flowery and devoid of academic rigor, one of today’s most lauded and influential critics, The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, followed O’Hara’s lead. Indeed, Schjeldahl, too, began his career as a poet, citing O’Hara and John Ashbery as major influences. As critic Roger Kimball once asserted in The New Criterion, “In many respects, Mr. Schjeldahl’s style is a demotic and more dour version of Frank O’Hara’s, the poet-critic upon whom he has most conspicuously modeled himself.”
O’Hara’s early, absurd death contributed to his outsize legacy. In 1966, O’Hara suffered a fatal accident when a dune buggy hit him on Fire Island. His death at age 40 initiated an outpouring of mournful appreciation for the poet. Schjeldahl, who’d fallen in with O’Hara’s set, wrote an obituary for The Village Voice
, titled “Frank O’Hara: He Made Things & People Sacred.” A 1993 biography by Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara
, recounts how after the funeral, painter
remarked, “he was our Apollinaire,” comparing O’Hara to the French poet who befriended
and the Surrealists.
Contemporary artists and curators continue to invoke O’Hara’s legend. Sculptor
often references O’Hara in his work, going so far as to suggest that one of his sculptures
is a stand-in for the man. In 2014, he curated an exhibition at Bortolami
with a title derived from O’Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky” (namely the lines “Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern”). This March, a satellite exhibition affiliated with the Spring/Break Art Show exhibited only artworks that somehow related to the name (or concept) of “Frank.” It wasn’t complete, of course, without a
portrait of O’Hara.
In 1968, MoMA published In Memory of My Feelings, a book of 30 O’Hara poems accompanied by illustrations by the poet’s artist acquaintances, including Freilicher and Guston. In a review for ARTnews, poet John Ashbery explicitly pronounced his friend’s great influence. “O’Hara’s personality was a subtle but pervasive force on the New York art scene,” he wrote. “If the Museum and the artists who have illustrated this book are what they are today, it is at least partly because O’Hara was one of the first to think they were that.”