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Brice Brown



          Creeper dangles against rock-face.
          Pointed roofs bear witness.
          The whole cast of characters is imaginary
          now, but up ahead, in shadow, the past waits.
                                        —from “Still Life with Strangers,”
                                        Hotel Lautréamont by John Ashbery

John Ashbery divides his time between an apartment in Manhattan and a house in rural New York. On the surface, this rather mundane biographical detail does not appear exciting, or even particularly interesting––except perhaps to the devoted Ashberian scholar or rabid fan attempting to log the very minutiae of the poet’s life in their journal. In fact, Ashbery’s urbanrural existence is rather well known, and his country house has even been documented in various home-design magazines. But hiding within this seemingly innocuous piece of information is the notion that Ashbery might have structured his residences so they behave less like dwellings in the more recognizable sense and more like two distinct, yet entirely co-dependent, creative laboratories. Or, to use a term coined by Ashbery’s partner, David Kermani, “created spaces.”
          Ashbery has said he reads in one location and writes in the other. While most likely an exaggeration, this statement nevertheless gets at the true umbilical nature of these two places. In a very concrete way, each residence was carefully chosen by Ashbery to satisfy the specific requirements—both logistical and nostalgic—needed to facilitate the various aspects of his creative output. As a result, his residences have evolved their own kind of organic life, chock full of paintings and drawings, furniture, pottery, glass, toys and ephemera of all kinds.
          The notion of an artist fabricating their environment in order to better encourage the muse’s juices is not a new one. But the domestic concept informing Ashbery’s two homes is a more complex and nuanced affair, and is similar in scope to Balthus’ Chateau de Chassy, Frederick Church’s Olana, or Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Charleston Farmhouse. His homes are as engaging and vital as the poems he writes. And of the two, his country home is of particular interest, and can be viewed not only for its interesting historical architecture, but as a vast well of inspiration for the production of his poems, and even as one of his most fully realized works of art.           The house was designed by Michael O’Connor for the family of John F. X. Brennen, and was built in 1894. Its architecture reflects the Colonial Revival style, a type of hybrid mating earlier colonial elements with contemporaneous design flourishes. Ownership of the house passed down through generations of the Brennen family, so that at the time Ashbery purchased it in 1978, many of the period architectural details were still in very good condition. In a sense, Ashbery didn’t buy the house so much as inherit it and its history—and quite a few pieces of its furniture, too, which are still in use throughout the house. He assumed a role similar to caretaker, and the care Ashbery has taken in maintaining the integrity of the gorgeous architectural bones and decorative details translates into an intimate, comforting interior. It is here where Ashbery maneuvers the objects he has collected over the years—his “whole cast of characters”— into excited vignettes, transmuting brick, mortar and wood into composition and narrative.
          Ashbery’s method of writing has been compared to the lowering of a bucket into the constantly flowing river of words, images, associations and sounds inside his head; what this distended bucket captures forms the grist for his poems. An extension of this metaphor turns Ashbery’s country house into the river itself. The interiors are a domestic version of the endless database flowing in his mind, producing a compilation of stimulation and memory. Regarding his poetry, Ashbery once stated that there is no subject

BRICE BROWN exhibits his paintings at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York, where he will have a one-person show in September 2008. His exhibition Selling The Sound Of My Voice, done in collaboration with composer Alan Shockley, was held at vertexList gallery in Brooklyn, New York, in the Fall of 2007. As a writer and art critic, he is a regular contributor to The New York Sun. He has also written numerous essays for exhibition catalogues. For more info go to

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