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Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a 1984 portfolio featuring the eponymous poem by John Ashbery, with eight images by his artist friends, layers allusion and inspiration in a cycle that parallels its circular format. Ashbery wrote his celebrated 1973 poem in response to Francesco Parmigianino’s 1523-24 painting of the same name, a virtuoso self-portrait made bizarre by its precise depiction of a morphed reality. The portfolio cover, a stainless steel movie canister set with a convex mirror, offers us the chance to see ourselves in this way.
Ashbery’s long poem explores the self as it exists in a moment of time, the way an artist strives to capture specific identity through a portrait. While in the ekphrastic tradition of poetry inspired by visual art, Ashbery’s lines speak for both the artist and the poet, moving fluidly between these individual voices and a third that may represent common experience. Throughout the poem, he returns to concepts of the soul and time, memory and the present, the mirror and the dream, searching out surface versus depth, circle versus sphere. An art critic for many years, Ashbery reveals his experience with Parmigianino’s painting both in original and reproduction, makes reference to art historians’ comments on the painting, and notes the museum as a place of encounter, where time once again imposes its limits.
Ashbery describes the prints of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published by the Arion Press, as: “taking the poem away from itself and amplifying it in ways I had never anticipated.” These images seem to reinforce or play upon recurring themes in the poem and are here displayed to echo with the lines of text below. Richard Avedon’s photographic portrait catches Ashbery in an unplanned moment, once present, now memory. Larry Rivers pictures the writer at work, with the typed fragment of another poem by Ashbery. Willem de Kooning’s mirrored and deteriorated clock face evokes time and its dissipation. Weaving the visual through the lingual in intimate ways, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror collaboratively illuminates the self, highlighting the vagaries of its individual moments of existence.
Curated by Elaine Mehalakes, Kemper Curator of Academic Programs, this exhibition is made possible through generous support from the Marjorie Schechter Bronfman ’38 and Gerald Bronfman Endowment for Works on Paper.