Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror
  by:  Francesco Parmagianino ( circa 1523 )

Was this really the first self portrait by an artist gazing into a mirror?

That is the impression one has when reading John Ashbery’s amazing poem about the portrait above. The 16th century Italian painter Francesco Parmigianino is the creative mind ( and hand ) behind this famous painting found in the collection of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Austria. Ashbery’s poem is a reflection on a painting which is in itself a painting about reflection with all the subtle and major distortions that one might find in convexity.

Reading Ashbery’s poem “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” one finds that the subject is a whole little world full of surface and substance.  This past Thursday I had the chance to shake the hand of the poet, and sit among a crowd listening to him read in the Memorial Art Gallery auditorium.  Ashbery resembles an old Ted Kennedy ambling onstage after his introduction as one of the world’s most honored living poets.

Not only did we have the fortune to hear Ashbery read selections  from his anthology but we also came to learn that he is originally from Rochester, and that when he was young he had taken art classes at the Memorial Art Gallery.  Ashbery made a remark about the poet William Carlos Williams who also wanted to be a painter but found it much easier to carry around manuscripts than a bunch of wet canvases.

It was no coincidence that Ashbery came to Rochester this week:  in the Lockhart Gallery there is a show dedicated to his poem “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” which features eight artists who were asked to contribute images to a portfolio all dressed up for presentation in black circular frames.  Marjorie Searl had a dream of putting this show together, and she made a terrific effort to present a stimulating dialog between the literary and visual art worlds.

So here we have a poem about a painting, and painters who made prints around the themes in the poem. Naturally, there are many portraits among the eight prints, though none of them are the masterpiece that Francesco created that inspired this whole affair.  The portrait by Elaine DeKooning was interesting ( someone said that the younger Ashbery looked like the actor Stacey Keach), also the Richard Avedon photo was terrific, and the painter Larry Rivers created a work that somehow conveyed the proper literary context showing Ashbery at his portable typewriter.

I should also note that Ashbery operated for years as an art critic, and one should buy a copy of his book published first in the late 1980’s titled “Reported Sightings” – it makes a great read if you are especially interested in digging into the New York City art milieu that he covered between 1957-1987.

John Ashbery is also associated with many artists who exhibited at the Tibor DeNagy Gallery in Manhattan.  The gallery had refreshing shows of a new kind of representational art at a time when the heights of abstract expressionism were upon us.  I made many visits to shows and openings at that gallery during the years that Ashbery was art critic for New York Magazine, so I could say that I have been directly influenced by this corner of the artworld.

I should also note with sadness the passing of a local artist who was associated with the Tibor DeNagy Gallery, and that was my friend and colleague at R.I.T. – Stephanie Kirschen Cole.  I was so impressed one day in Washington D.C. to come across her large artwork in the Hirschorn Museum on the mall.
Stephanie will be missed and her art will be remembered.

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