Release Date: June 19, 2008
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Founded more than 70 years ago, the University at Buffalo Poetry Collection was the first to archive the manuscripts and artifacts of living writers, many of them largely unknown outside their field and some of whom were considered outrageous.
Today they are famous and however wild and wooly it was when archived, this enormous trove of material written on the vanguard is "ripe" today and widely accepted as seminal to some of the most important movements and literary forms of the 20th century.
"A new fascination with the hand-produced work of writers working a half-century ago is manifested in a significant increase in the number of galleries and museums requesting us to loan literary artifacts for exhibition," says Michael D. Basinski, Ph.D., the collection curator.
This year, he adds, MOMA, the Guggenheim, Britain's National Portrait Gallery are among them
"In 2008," he says, "long after most of the writers in question are dead and buried, and in an era in which literary production is largely a digital phenomenon, more and more people want to experience what was often daring literary work written by hand or by typewriter and published in limited quantities."
They want to touch, read, smell and see the holographic manuscripts and eyeglasses James Joyce left behind in Paris when he fled to Switzerland in 1940 and the collages and handmade books produced by poet Robert Duncan's collaborator and life partner, Jess Collins (himself a seminal Beat generation conceptual artist), as well as myriad other document and artifacts, priceless and rare.
The UB collection's thousands of holdings include fine press publications, broadsides, short-run journals, posters, personal objects, photographs, first and other important editions, paintings, illustrations, literary magazines and handmade books -- some of which are unique objects of literary art or one of the few remaining copies extant.
"The Poetry Collection is not only unique, but a supporting foci of the UB 2020 strategic strength in cultures and texts," says Basinski, "and the inclusion of our materials in significant exhibitions enhances the international profile of the collection and UB.
"When Charles Abbott established the UB Poetry Collection back in 1937," Basinski says, "he certainly presumed that the material he began collecting would be of enormous importance to future generations.
"But he imagined that the collection would take at least 100 years to mature. It's been only 75 years since he said that, so we're way ahead of the game."
Basinski explains that by 'maturing,' Abbott meant that it takes some time after a new literary form or period arises before scholars become interested in the period itself or in writers or publications from that period.
But two phenomena shortened the maturation period, he says.
"One is that a new and different kind of scholarship surrounding Modernism is in full swing. It involves the work itself, the context in which it was published and its evolution from its genesis to final form," Basinski says, "and the preservation of that process and of contextual materials of literary modernists is our specialty.
"Also, scholarly work has begun in earnest on post-World War II American poetry and the art of the 1960s. Material from that period is another of the collection's major strengths."
Basinski says that as the scholarship increases, so does the impetus for galleries and museums to attend to the public interest it engenders.
He notes, for instance, four years after the death of Jess (who used only his first name professionally), a resurgence of interest in his work has led to many items by him from the Poetry Collection's Duncan archive being loaned both to Manhattan's Tibor de Nagy Gallery through July 31 and to Independent Curators International for an exhibition that will travel to galleries and museums throughout the country through March 2009.
The Guggenheim Museum of Art has requested that the UB collection loan an intriguing item for the museum's 50-year anniversary exhibition, "American Art and the East," which will run from January through May next year. The item in question is "Haiku," a tiny John Cage first edition -- it comprises no more than two measures of music -- created by the composer at Black Mountain College in the early 1950s.
The Rhode Island School of Design recently borrowed examples of contemporary visual poetry by visual poet and Web artist David Daniels for an exhibition that coincided with a lecture by poet and founder of UbuWeb, Kenneth Goldsmith, who is fascinated with narrative picture poems.
Speaking of Ubu, Museum Ludwig in Koln, Germany, is negotiating with the collection the loan of a Beat-era poster from the collection for an exhibit on Beat culture. The poster, by Harry Jacobus, originally was created for San Francisco's King Ubu Gallery, which was founded by Jacobus, Duncan and Jess in 1952 as an important venue for alternative art.
A summer exhibition at Britain's National Portrait Gallery will feature two portraits from the Poetry Collection by early Modernist British painter and author Wyndham Lewis: "Self-portrait with Pipe," and a portrait of former UB Chancellor Samuel P. Capen (1939, oil on canvas).
Lewis was the founder of the Modernism's Vorticist movement and has of late been the subject of renewed critical and biographical interest, and is now considered a major British artist and writer of the 20th century.
"In the tradition of gathering and saving the work of living artists, the Poetry Collection continues to gather poetry's sacred and the profane," Basinski says.
"Today's 'questionable' collections include mail art and zines, for example. However odd and profane they may seem, it is clearly understood that these materials will provide the scholars of the future with images of our contemporary poetry culture, just as our collection brightly illuminates the poetry culture of a half-century ago and beyond."
Scholarly interest in the artists of the 1970s and '80s has picked up as well. The Poetry Collection holds the archives of Buffalo's Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, a pioneering institution founded in 1974 by artists Charlie Clough, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has requested loans of their images and photos for its upcoming exhibition, "The Pictures Generation 1974-1984."
James L. Maynard, Ph.D., visiting assistant curator of the collection, says the better known the collection becomes, the more requests for loans it receives, which in turn will further enhance its reputation.
"Catalogue entries and word-of-mouth historically have been the way curators learned about our collections," he says, "but we want to encourage online searches to make the process much easier.
"So this summer we're redesigning the collection's Web site at http://ublib.buffalo.edu/pl/ and adding new finding aids that likely will bring additional queries and requests for loans from galleries, museums, libraries and universities here and abroad."
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.