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Collage Poems from Spare Parts

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Copyright 1966 by Charles Henri Ford

From a New York Times review (6/25/99) of an exhibit of
Ford's poster poems at the Ubu Gallery

File the "Poem Posters" of Charles Henri Ford, which he made on an offset lithographic press in Athens in 1964-65, under the heading Ideas in the Air. . . .

At first glance, their acid colors, spliced-together typefaces and pop culture images suggest that Mr. Ford might have been operating under the influence of Andy Warhol. After all, the stunningly blond Jayne Mansfield is a frequent motif.

But that's a subject of some debate. By the mid-1960's, Mr. Ford, who was born in 1910, had been a familiar figure in both Paris and New York for some time and in particular was part of the New York poetry world, which included eventual Warhol stalwarts like Gerard Malanga. The influence probably flowed both ways.

Mr. Ford's accomplishments . . . bear repeating. In 1929, while still living in Colubus, Miss., he founded a short-lived little magazine called "Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms," which introduced the work of Erskine Caldwell, James T. Farrell, Paul Bowles and Edouard Roditi. His next achievement was a book called "The Young and Evil," a camp classic depicting the Bohemian homosexual underground of Greenwich Village, written with Parker Tyler. Published in France in 1933 and banned in the United States, it was once described by Gertrude Stein as "the novel that beat the Beat generation by a generation."

Most famously, in 1941 Mr. Ford started "View," the first American magazine of avant-garde art and literature. Intended as a poet's magazine, it took full advantage of the European Surrealists roosting in New York during the war. It was known for its brilliant covers . . . designed by artists like Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson and Man Ray. Its contents included the first translations of Camus and Genet and the first monograph on Marcel Duchamp.

So by the time Pop Art rolled around, Mr. Ford was well acquainted, through the branches of Surrealism, with automatic writing and appropriated imagery. In addition, the "Poem Posters" built on his experience with publishing, graphic design and printing. They were made up as Mr. Ford went along; piecing together verse made from words cut out of magazines (like a kidnapper's ransom note) and adding pertinent images. They were often unique images, as Mr. Ford worked closely with his printer, Vassily Papachrysanthou, changing inks and adding screens.

Earthy, elegant and alternating sexual references with advertising come-ons, the "Poem Posters" were a particularly visual and outrageous form of concrete poetry. Phallus silhouettes abound, and Mr. Ford cast himself as Narcissus, W.H. Auden as Dracula and Mr. Malanga as Orpheus. Their dense, loquacious surfaces might be described as forming a bridge between Rauschenberg and Warhol, but they also presage the talking images of Barbara Kruger . This is one of several reasons they look and read fresher than ever.

Copyright 1999 by The New York Times

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