The Rare Books & Special Collections department at the University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library has become one of my mainstays for offbeat, educational art exhibitions. Last week it opened yet another of its excellent shows, "An Astonished Eye: The Art of Kenneth Patchen," the largest-ever exhibition of the graphic art of this relatively obscure, pioneering painter-poet. Held in celebration of the centennial of Patchen's birth, the show presents more than 200 painted books, silk-screen broadsides, picture-poems, paintings, photographs, and inscribed first editions.
Kenneth Patchen was a fascinating, sadly off-the-radar, prolific blip in literary and aesthetic history. As usual with these exhibits, the viewer could spend hours absorbed in a fascinating, worthy-of-celebrating life, explored not only in object but through insightful commentary by the curators. Opening night of the exhibit was accompanied by the first in this year's Neilly Lecture Series, with a talk offered by fine art photographer, fine press printer, and keeper of Patchen's legacy, Jonathan Clark, who provided a window into a life of hardship, creativity, resourcefulness, and crucially central philosophic human issues.
Clark's lecture, "Extending the Medium of Words: The Graphic Art of Kenneth Patchen," was a tribute to Patchen not by a cold collector of his works, but by a person who knew him well - Clark was exposed to the work of the poet by his teacher father. Clark visited the stranger, unaware of his bedridden state, and when initially unable to access the poet, struck up a friendship with Patchen's wife and muse, Miriam, sharing conversation for months on the porch before Patchen finally invited him indoors.
Patchen died during Clark's first year in college, but Clark continued his friendship with Miriam and helped negotiate the sale of the Patchen archive to University of California at Santa Cruz special collections, and saved work from flood damage in 1998 while restoring the house for Miriam.
Though first and foremost a poet, Patchen adopted the idea of the "total artist, extending his creative process to include printing, book binding, and design," says exhibit curator Richard Peek, director of Rare Books & Special Collections at the University of Rochester. In text as well as image, Patchen's work was infused with a "strong moral voice driven by a wild imagination," Peek says.
Published from the 1930's until his death in 1972, Patchen has been "labeled as Romantic, Proletarian, Socialist, Surrealist, Dadaist, and Beat, but his life's work ultimately defies categorization," says Peek, which is one of the reasons academia has not focused on him. Of dozens of books, his anti-war anti-novel "The Journal of Albion Moonlight" is considered an important work of experimental literature.
The 1941 work begins as a diary documenting an allegorical journey through a nightmarish landscape, but quickly disintegrates into chaos, with multiple voices taking on individual typographical forms, marginal stories, lists, and a man hanging from a rope of letters. William Blake influenced Patchen deeply, as is evident in the integral imagery found in the book. The complex typography was printed in letterpress by Patchen himself, and his own handwriting appears on page 159, "as if his own emotions can no longer be contained by mechanical type," says Clark. Patchen's work also shows influence of E. E. Cummings, Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp, and Joan Miro, among others.
The Great Depression broke Patchen's family into destitution and "marked his outlook," says Clark. At age 14, he had a sonnet published in New York Times, but spent his young adulthood riding the rails looking for odd jobs to survive, was arrested and beaten, and spent a terrifying week in a Georgia jail accused of murder due to mistaken identity. His life story crisscrosses the nation, chasing opportunity and health - his degenerative back problems were sustained at age 26 when he tried to lift a car that locked bumpers in an accident. The injury plagued him for the rest of his life.
Patchen's first book, "Before the Brave," was published in 1936, the poems "a bit like Joe Hill meets Percy Shelley," says Clark. It was filled with themes of pacifism and social justice, and earned Patchen a Guggenheim fellowship. Graphic artwork debuted in his second book, the 1939 "First Will and Testament," with two drawings on a single page. This work won critical attention from William Carlos Williams and Henry Miller.
"The Dark Kingdom" featured design and typography by Patchen, and was the first of nine painted book editions. Confined to bed, the poet painted on 75 covers, each one of a kind, and offered them for a premium collector's price. "The painted books, which began as a marketing device, soon became a major creative outlet for Patchen," says Clark, and an upwards of 700 to 1000 total were created.
The tone of later works shifted from complete darkness to comparatively whimsical, with matching imagery, though his "outrage at injustice never diminished," says Clark. One work features a feather-haired figure standing on an anthropomorphized scrap of ground, and reads: "The best hope is that one of these days the ground will get disgusted enough just to walk away - leaving people with nothing more to stand on than what they have so bloody well stood for up to now."
After a 1950 operation on his back and a doctor-recommended move to San Francisco, Patchen began to perform poetry live with jazz accompaniment, touring widely but briefly with Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Andre Previn, Ally Ferguson, and Alan Neil. Patchen's drifty free-verse voice is languid but persistent over jangly, meandering jazz, recorded in clubs before another bungled surgery led to greater trouble with his back, condemning him to bed once more. His final years were spent relatively isolated as he further developed his picture-poem experiments. "This Room, This Battlefield" is an autobiographical work covered in cramped text, a perfect visual for his condition. Patchen died in 1972, at age 60, in poverty and with obscurity encroaching.
The slim audience for poetry is a tricky enough problem to navigate during an author's lifetime, more so after death when a poet is not favored by academia. Though Patchen's work is difficult to categorize, and controversial in its anarchist themes, his works remain personal, immediate, exhibiting a universal-ness close to the end of his life. Tones of anger, protest, humor, and contemplation resolved into a compassionate identification with all things. His own suffering birthed a sense of mystery and wonder about existence. Some works are lofty, others state it simply: "In the long run/this is a race where everybody ends up/in a tie, sorta."
One if my favorite works in the show, a broadside in all neon colors, with a large figure holding flowers and a bird, states what seemingly always needs to be said: "I shall proclaim this international shut your big fat flapping mouth week." I think I would have liked this guy a great deal.
"An Astonished Eye: The Art of Kenneth Patchen"
Through January 5
Rare Books & Special Collections, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester River Campus
Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
275-4477 | rochester.edu