Today, an art exhibit explains collaboration. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Charles Schultz delighted us
all for years with his Charlie Brown comic
strip. In a TV interview, not long before he died,
Schultz said, "I never accept suggestions from
people." Coming from that delightfully humble man,
the remark was a jolt. But turn it about in your
mind, and it begins to make sense.
The Charlie Brown strip was so successful
just because it was intensely personal. The tension
and flow of themes among Charlie, Lucy, Snoopy, and
the rest were the flux of Schultz's own
meditations. An outsider could just as well have
assisted Schultz by telling him to be taller or to
grow red hair.
A new art exhibit now helps me to understand what I
might call "The Charlie Brown Collaboration
Problem." The title of the exhibit catalog is
Jane Hammond, The John Ashbery Collaboration:
1993-2001. When Pulitzer-prize-winning poet
John Ashbery explains the meaning of the word
"collaboration" here, you might think he's mocking
it. He tells how artist Jane Hammond asked him,
simply, for a list of titles of possible pictures.
In about four minutes I had made a tour of a
walled-off room somewhere in my subconscious and
returned with a clutch of "titles" which were
actually labels of curios in my own
Ashbery uses the expression musée
imaginaire for his museum of the imagination
-- for the jumble of ideas we turn to whenever we
set out to create anything. The musée
imaginaire serves artist, poet, and cartoonist
Hammond forms surreal collages to match Ashbery's
titles. For the title Wonderful You, she
forms an unsettling diptych with a fairly
attractive woman's face appearing on a little girl,
a savage dancer, Joan of Arc, Jesus, Santa Claus,
and a skeleton. It is a fine commentary on romantic
love as an infection of the mind.
Another title is Surrounded by Buddies.
This time a man stares into a mechanical box, which
generates cubes. Each cube contains a salacious
scene of his own devising. And we're back to
collaboration. The artist and the poet say watch
out for the warmth of easy friendship, for we use
it to deceive ourselves. Collaboration has to be
sterner stuff than being "surrounded by buddies."
More titles: Long-Haired Avatar,
Irregular Plural, Midwife to Gargoyles.
Fill in your own images and you, too, become part
of their collaboration. For you and I do touch one
another -- just never quite the way we mean to. No
one said to Schultz, "How about a dog who thinks
he's fighting the Red Baron?" But Schultz listened
to his world. Hammond took that one step further
and said to Ashbery, "You write titles; I'll let
them work on my subconscious."
Collaboration lies behind any creative work. It's
simply that process in which you and I learn to
listen to each other. We allow one another to open
the door to that vast musée
imaginaire that we all possess -- and struggle
to utilize fully.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Jane Hammond, The John Ashbery Collaboration,
1993-2001. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland Center for
Contemporary Art, 2001. I am grateful to Kim Howard
of the Blaffer Gallery for providing this source.
You may see these pictures at the "Jane Hammond,
The John Ashbery Collaboration, 1993-2002" exhibit
at the Blaffer Gallery, the art museum of the
University of Houston, September 28 through
November 24, 2002.
Wonderful You #2,
by Jane Hammond (from
the collection of the artist)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.