Unceasing Museums: Alice Notley’s “Modern Americans in Their Place at Chicago Art Institute” / Nick Sturm

Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950
© 2018 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This essay is a response to Alice Notley’s “Modern Americans in Their Place at Chicago Art Institute: An Article” which originally appeared in
Brilliant Corners in 1975. ASAP/J has published Notley’s essay for the first time since its original appearance here.


Alice Notley’s early poetry is marked by a precise attention to visual art. Painters, painterly gestures, and arrangements of color appear throughout her early work in the 1970s. “I felt acutely sensitive to color at the time,” 1 says Notley, who “visit[ed] museums unceasingly”2 during those years. In the poem “Thriller” from Alice Ordered Me To Be Made (1976), Notley writes, “It’s blue and gold, and I / tell you every poem / I see, it’s jade and / contralto,” aligning a rich, almost synesthetic sensitivity to color with the presence of the female voice.3

It is surprising, then, that Notley’s affiliations with visual art and artists, as well as her poetry’s emergence from a self-education with visual aesthetics, have so far gone mostly unacknowledged in recent criticism of her work. When Notley moved from Chicago to New York City in 1976, she was already deeply associated with first- and second-generation New York School writers whose work often involves an exchange with painterly aesthetics. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Notley was active in the interdisciplinary art world; she participated in Rudy Burckhardt films, worked closely with the painter George Schneeman,4 and created her own watercolors, collages, and fans. Notley’s visual art has twice been shown in galleries, including in an exhibit at MoMA PS1 in 1980. “Of the relationship between her poems and her collages,” the PS1 press release states, “Alice Notley has noticed that the two are similar and that each causes the other to flower.”5

Descriptions of Notley’s work from her time in Chicago, where she lived with poet Ted Berrigan and their sons between 1972 and 1976, repeatedly turn to visual art as a means of framing her poetry’s formal effects. In a 1974 issue of Out There dedicated to Notley’s poetry, Neil Hackman observes that “Alice’s poems are verbal paintings…it’s all right there for one to ‘see.’”6 In the same issue, Andrei Codrescu points out Notley’s painterly “play with light,” how her accumulation of self “composes itself in a process, brings its definition together by light, color and imagination.”7 Reviewing her work, Art Lange notes that Notley’s attention is “ostensibly Cubist (in viewing the same element from more than one angle simultaneously)” while also positioning her work in terms of photography, describing how Notley’s poems “can be seen as photographs of her existence, exquisitely poised and structured with each object situated in the precise place which will allow it to give off its proper ‘light’ (or ‘energy’).”8 CHICAGO, the mimeograph magazine that Notley edited, also benefited from her painterly attention; Notley explains that she formatted the magazine’s layout “to put enough space around everything, like in an art gallery.”9

In addition to an interest in art, Notley’s poetry from the 1970s and early 1980s records a deep absorption into the crises of gender and subjectivity. As a young woman and mother, Notley found no visible precedent for how to begin writing her life. How to participate with and generate space, both literally and aesthetically, and how to simply exist as a woman artist (denied a poetic lineage because of her gender) were central concerns for Notley. Negotiating with the anxiety and frustration of this choicelessness, Notley turned to poets whose work reflected or amplified the impossibility of choosing a style. Or, to put it another way, she became interested in poets whose work offered alternative routes into the practice of writing. Notley describes how she “went in through” poets such as Philip Whalen and William Carlos Williams, whose work “used a more broken surface. That was not to make a particularly female thing, but, on the other hand, that was a door in.”10 Notley’s attention to the “broken surface” in Williams recalls the investment of other poets in the visual arts, from the commitment to a painterly aesthetic in Williams’s modernist take on Post-Impressionism to Frank O’Hara’s aesthetic and curatorial championing of the Abstract Expressionists. Notley would share similar devotions—from “Saint Cézanne”11 to Joan Mitchell—and integrate aesthetic concepts and practices from visual artists into the space of her own work. As Notley states, “my poetry has always been tactile to me and spatial in a way that corresponds to painting.”12

In Chicago in the early 1970s, one way for Notley to study this correspondence was by regularly visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, a practice she writes about in her essay “Modern Americans in Their Place at the Chicago Art Institute: An Article,” published in 1975 in the first issue of a small magazine in Chicago, Brilliant Corners: A Magazine of the Arts, edited by Art Lange. This essay is reproduced in ASAP/J for the first time since its original publication. The Art Institute of Chicago became an important space outside of the home for Notley during this period, especially as caring for her young children drew upon most of her time. She explains that she felt acutely that she “was in danger—I saw it that way—of not becoming a poet.”13 The Art Institute offered Notley a place to think and write. In a class at Naropa University in 1978, Notley discusses the issue of “making a space in your day for writing” and explains her writing process at the Art Institute:

I became enamored of the Chicago Art Institute and I was in the ongoing, always ongoing process of educating myself about painting, which I think everyone should be doing…. So, I had gotten myself a membership and I would go to the Art Institute once a week and I had this routine where I would go around and look at the paintings, now I’d go to the coffee shop and have a cup of coffee, now I’d go look at the paintings some more and then I’d go to the library. And they had a really terrific library…. It had these terrific brown wood tables and these lamps with green lamp shades, really pretty colored green. You sat down at the table, you had your own little lamp you could turn on…. And there were lots of book on the shelves and I would pick up a book or magazine, an art magazine, and I would thumb through it and immediately start writing a poem. It was like magic. And I would go home and type it up. I would write a poem every week that way. So you can make for yourself a magic space or a place where you write. Ideally everyone needs their own room, like Virginia Woolf says.14

A dynamic process of accumulating imagery and language while viewing, reading, and writing, this ritual of self-education shows Notley’s porous, vibrant movement through a range of spaces and sources. Informed by her emergent sense of a critical aesthetic feminism linked to Virginia Woolf’s literary first-wave feminism, a critical “membership” that parallels her museum membership, the poems that came out of these visits to the Art Institute—including “Translation of a Chinese Tribute to Jade” and “Your Dailiness”—are some of Notley’s most powerful early works. In the midst of a Chicago poetry scene where Notley was being lauded as “our Muse and Queen” by a group of younger poets at the same time that she was encountering a litany of aesthetic and cultural repressions that told her, quite literally, “to lighten up,” Notley’s practice of writing in the Art Institute takes on a radical feminist character apart from simple notions of ekphrastic writing.15 Applauded as a poet, though in explicitly gendered terms, Notley was very much aware of the various artistic, social, and institutional positions in Chicago in which she lived and moved. Her work speaks to the intricate subtlety in Woolf’s awareness in A Room Of One’s Own of “how unpleasant it is to be locked out” but also “how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.”16

Notley approaches this nexus of art, self-education, gender, and tradition in her essay “Modern Americans in Their Place at Chicago Art Institute.” The Art Institute of Chicago became the site where Notley would refine her own aesthetic interests, where she would invoke an idiosyncratic personal lineage of artists through which her poems could be read. “Modern Americans” is a record of the ways in which Notley integrated these affiliations into her work, but it is not as if she went to the Art Institute intending to venerate the relationship between painting and poetry. “I wanted to know as much as I could about the major art of my time,” Notley says, but “I wasn’t really interested in writing about art as the New York School poets had been; I always felt that those poets had worshipped the visual arts too much, at the expense of poetry (which always comes last in the arts), and I wasn’t about to do that myself.”17 Forsaking art world worship and aesthetic purity for a feminist swerve through and out of a painterly aesthetic, Notley’s essay, though a description of her time in the Art Institute, is thoroughly about her poetry.


Arshile Gorky, The Artist’s Mother, 1926 or 1936
© 2018 The Arshile Gorky Foundation / The Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

With its bleeding title, open field spacing, and graceful wayward movements, the essay operates with the sonic textures and associational rhythms of Notley’s poems to produce that bright, dreamy vividness that is a hallmark of Notley’s critical voice. The essay concludes with the poem “In the Art Institute Library,” which also appears in the poetry collection Alice Ordered Me To Be Made (1976), and is an example of her commitment to unfixing her work from stable, singular notions of genre. A mixture of day journal, gallery review, poem, and a primer on her writing practice, this brief but intricate and expansive essay tracks Notley’s interest in paintings by Juan Gris, Willem de Kooning, Alex Katz, and Arshile Gorky and describes her devotions to visual art as a way of establishing a practice of writing. The essay is singular in Notley’s career for its vivid comingling of painting, writing, and gendered concerns.

The essay begins with a generational prescription. It is “to be read by people too young to have museum claustrophobia.” From its opening sentence, the essay is attentive to the potential closures of space, autonomy, and access.18 By portraying the Art Institute simultaneously as an ontological and an aesthetic threat, a place to overcome tradition with desire (to “get all damp and glowing with color and light in front of a famous masterpiece”), and a space that is as physically and socially comfortable as it is vexed (one might enjoy “access” to air conditioning and a coffee shop but find the goods “unattainable” while young female visitors are reduced to sexualized “nymphets”), the Art Institute is as much a reprieve from gendered repressions as it is a microcosm of them.19 This duality is, unsurprisingly, reproduced in the “masterpieces” housed in the museum; of the twenty-seven artists Notley mentions in the essay, only three—Joan Mitchell, Georgia O’Keefe, and Mary Cassatt—are women. However, Notley is less interested in accounting for this structural inequality than she is in finding “the magic space or place where you write” within these artists’ work. “[P]ainting was teaching me what a word like ‘tipsy’ could do to the flat,” Notley writes of Gris’s Post-Impressionist experiments with surface; his paintings inspired Notley to “wonder at the intimacy between more or less screwball idea and fullblown beauty. Systems and all light.”20 Her tone is breezy and casual, but also astutely clear.

Though Notley does not directly address the gendered inequality of the art at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is not indifferent to it. Like her later hybrid essay-lectures “Doctor Williams’ Heiresses” and “Poetry of Everyday Life: Notes,” “Modern Americans” hovers critically and ambivalently between male-centered discourses of poetics, art history, and narrative. “I hang out at the Chicago Art Institute—since 1972 I guess,” Notley writes, “when pregnant I would come panting home from a visit with the paintings and announce to my husband ‘The history of art is hilarious’ or ‘I finally realized today that it must be as great to be Vuillard as de Kooning.’ He would look up just a smidgeon wider-eyed then resume reading the latest Travis McGee.”21 Notley’s aesthetic insights here are as sharp as they are playful. She joyfully undercuts a belief in artistic progress while realigning an aesthetic trajectory from Post-Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism. Berrigan, however, is slyly unconvinced. Playing the disinterested, pulp fiction-reading husband, Berrigan is the pop culture foil to Notley’s passionate reordering of high cultural codes. The joke, of course, is that they are hard at work in their shared aesthetic; both poets are devoted to genre, kitsch, and comics alongside high art. When Notley wryly asks of the abstract paintings hanging around Andy Warhol’s massive Mao, “Would the other paintings survive it?” she eschews the masculine skirmishes between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art for the sake of describing them all together in “their own space.”22 Addressing modernist painters as adoring intimates (“You // are loving me, Gorky”) and paintings as living entities (“I am a mere simpleton. Excavation is a real person”), Notley gradually undoes the authority of aesthetic hierarchies and linear histories, remaking the museum into a site of drift and pleasure. “[T]he whole museum could have been built just for it for our happiness,” says Notley about Alex Katz’s Vincent and Tony, “Katz I think wants to kiss many people long and hard, not an incomprehensible desire.”23

As Notley wanders through the museum over the course of at least two days, she describes a partial renovation of the Art Institute in 1974 that moved portions of the twentieth-century American paintings to a new exhibition space. The renovations instigate a narrative for Notley; the almost magical reordering of these paintings provides a new way for the poet to understand the fluid, contingent arrangements in her writing process. While Notley catalogues the intimate reciprocity she has built with dozens of paintings, much of the essay finds her attention yoked to Excavation,  de Kooning’s “midcentury masterpiece,” a painting acquired in 1952 after its showing in the Art Institute’s 60th Annual American Exhibit. Following its acquisition, De Kooning’s Excavation was villainized by Chicago anti-modernists for being a “monstrous” painting. “We doubt,” one critic speculated, “whether there are many Chicagoans who would like to see more and bigger de Koonings and his ilk hanging in the permanent collection.”24

Twenty years later, Notley would be that Chicagoan, writing in “Modern Americans”: “I didn’t know it but I was mainly doing a number with Excavation by de Kooning, sort of knocking at the door all the time; and incidentally having a Gorky itch in the rear right-hand area of my brain. I WANTED IN.”25 Well aware of de Kooning’s aesthetic apprenticeship with Gorky’s bold, colorful lyricism and dreamy movement between figuration and abstraction, Notley is again scanning a lineage, “knocking at the door all the time” as a way of familiarizing herself with a tradition and “getting into” a process. Less interested in understanding the painting than in experiencing its reciprocal sway with her own body and attention, she describes one day suddenly “fall[ing] right into the excavation.”26 Notley narrates this experience in related terms in the poem “Your Dailiness”:

                                                                                       I’m told
by letter my grandfather Will has died. I cry

comfortably, as comfortably as this year for Picasso
they were both in their nineties. I go to the museum
to pay homage to the Picassos (Chicago) and for the
first time, in a year of trying, I miraculously really
see EXCAVATION by deKooning
bypass the Picassos, some angel’s around, is it Picasso?
Once I dreamed him exactly, corporeally, but young
(from photos) in a house of ghosts “What nonsense!”27

Patterned by a shared loss, Notley’s miraculous “fall” into the painting is a personal, intensely mystical description of study, in which light, color, and scale gain value in an equivalent emotional architecture. The contingency etched in this moment of suddenly seeing Excavation allows a Cubist simultaneity of presences to appear, as Notley’s grandfather and Picasso merge into an experience of grace and haunting. The poem’s sourcing is expansive, formed out of personal letters, dreams, photographs, and paintings, a permeation of sources that displays Notley’s disregard for compartmentalization of the arts and categorization of experiences. Notley reorders the space of the museum, enlivening its holdings. The gallery is as spiritual as it is aesthetic.

A sense of irreverence resides in Notley’s ecstatic, critical drift through the museum. “Go up and touch David Smith’s Cubi VII, when no guard’s looking,” she suggests, “and find out how small and grand you are.”28 This experience of the sublime abandons stable notions of beauty and transcendence in favor of participation and transformation. Looking at Gorky’s The Artist’s Mother, one of the few representations of women that Notley encounters, incites this participatory sublime: “I saw the drawing 1936 of his mother, my muse, last week and absorbed it in my whole physique. She has marvelously flowered intestinal shapes about her left ear, to mention the idiosyncratic because I cannot survive the sublime sublimely.”29 Vividly attentive, Notley’s sublime carries nothing of the monumental or the epiphanic. Rather, what is sublime is the experience of recognizing how the figure becomes part of Notley’s own strength. The painting is what makes her capable of surviving.

Juan Gris, Abstraction (Guitar and Glass), 1913
Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Fund

Notley plays with the relationship between joy and the sublime, and pleasures high and low, throughout the essay, at one point recommending “if you really want to give a guard a nervous breakdown try opening a 19th C bureau drawer (some do open; and a little man jumps out and zaps you with a serious rays gun).”30 This imaginary ray gun-toting comic character who emerges from a piece of furniture to interfere with our expectations is reminiscent of Jack Spicer’s Martian, the tongue-in-cheek stand-in for Spicer’s theory of dictation from the Outside. Spicer’s belief that “[l]anguage is part of the furniture in the room” is also animated here—in the form of the nineteenth-century bureau—in which “furniture” refers to the activated and latent materials from which the poem is sourced.31As Spicer has it: “Words are things which just happen to be in your head instead of someone else’s head, just like memories are, various other pieces of furniture in this room that this Martian has to put the clues in.”32 Notley, who writes from word lists, accumulated language, and other source material, shares Spicer’s vocabulary as she describes her writing process in the museum library:

I’d dredge up about three phrases from my head and I’d kind of throw them on the page and then I would do this sort of action scene. Those phrases or words would become this furniture and then I would start throwing in more furniture. And if there was a table I’d do something like put a vase on the table and then put some flowers in the vase and then I would hope that I could dwell in the poem that was that room at the end of it.33

Not only does Notley’s description resonate with Spicer’s theory of the Outside, but her sense of creating an “action scene” also invokes the aesthetic processes of Abstract Expressionists and their action paintings. Furthermore, when Notley’s linguistic furniture becomes literal, the still-life that she constructs of the table and vase is reminiscent of Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist The Vase of Tulips or Gris’s Cubist Abstraction (Guitar and Glass). Notley’s multiplicity of references is intentional; she is not beholden to embodying any of these aesthetic positions. Like the overlapping planes in Gris’s paintings that defamiliarize one’s viewing and the extrapoetic sources for Spicer’s lectures that resist definition, Notley’s references merge into one another, making them as ordinary as they are mesmerizing. Notley is like the painter Lily Briscoe of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, who, contemplating her unfinished painting, imagines her vision of art: “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”34

The poem that ends Notley’s essay, “In the Art Institute Library,” embodies this intersection of the ordinary and the ecstatic around the questions of membership and belonging. Set in the Art Institute’s Ryerson Library, the poem describes a second person “you” surrounded by fellow female library patrons—a sleeping nun and statue of Venus—whose contrasting spiritual associations are merged in Notley’s lyric description. Among these mystical gender hierarchies and the library’s elegant décor, Notley is stunned by the appearance of “a beautiful / black man” as she walks up the library stairs. Recalling Woolf’s meeting with “a man’s figure [who] rose to intercept me” on her walk to the library, as well as the “black gown” of the “deprecating… gentleman” who ultimately bars her entrance in A Room of One’s Own, Notley’s confrontation calls into question her status as a sanctified patron in this educational setting. Even though “he doesn’t / take you in hand,” Notley writes, the poem immediately turns to a frantic reaffirmation of membership: “your / card you’re a member / turquoise and golden red, for example.”35 Here, membership is simultaneously a status to be proven via official documentation and, perhaps more meaningfully, an aesthetic affiliation with color. However, while the male characters prohibiting Woolf from the library in Room are the agents of patriarchal tradition, the figures Notley encounters have, like herself, been prohibited from getting “in” to spaces of cultural representation that grant them agency. Together in the Art Institute library rather than locked out like Woolf, the black man on the stairs, the “shameless / snoring” nun, Venus statue, and Notley share degrees of inequity and discrimination. Though marginalized, they now occupy the library vis-à-vis the renewed aesthetic membership that cuts across gender and race.

Later in the poem, the intricacies of joining and remaking cultural and aesthetic traditions becomes a near-other worldly ascension where “membership…rises up around her.” This mystical concept of membership relates to the Woolfian interrogation of gendered spaces and access that is embodied in Notley’s experiences at the Art Institute. As the works of American painters are shuffled mysteriously through the museum, their arrival “in their place” in the new exhibition space corresponds to Notley’s struggle to articulate a place of aesthetic autonomy. The idea of having room in which to work runs through many of Notley’s early poems and crystalizes in “Modern Americans” as a question of membership. Reversed from a traditional hierarchical granting of access, membership becomes a communion or gathering within the self. Rather than an opportunity for inclusivity or belonging, the gathering that emerges from Notley’s participation in art redefines membership as a process of learning and presence, the ability to be oneself as irreducibly or incompletely as necessary among the works and lineages of others.

Whether as a member of a family, a member of the Art Institute (and its library writing spaces), or as a member of a poetic school (and its traditions), Notley still must remind herself: “you’re a member,” as she works through various aesthetic traditions without being bound by their accompanying ideologies. The desire to get into a tradition is not, Notley suggests, about the need to belong to a pantheon of untouchable, god-like artists. Rather, membership is mutable and evasive, appearing mysteriously among scenes of devotion, humor, and care. In Notley’s later essay “The Poetics of Disobedience,” this undoing of membership becomes “the necessity of noncompliance with pressures, dictates, atmospheres of, variously, poetic factions, society at large, my own past practices as well.”36 The reciprocal, accumulative process of sourcing and writing that occurs in the museum library is the activation of this membership, a process colored by the magic and refusal that precede it. Notley’s call to presence at the end of the essay—“make for your own the Art Institute of Chicago” —is an invitation to be inducted into one’s own lineage of idiosyncratic aesthetic membership.



  1. Alice Notley, email message to author, February 26, 2016.
  2. Alice Notley, biographical statement in Brilliant Corners no. 8 (Winter 1978).
  3. Notley, “Thriller,” Alice Ordered Me To Be Made (Chicago: The Yellow Press, 1976), 40.
  4. See Notley’s interview with George Schneeman in Waltzing Matilda, republished from Brilliant Corners no. 8 (Winter 1978) with Notley’s review, “The Art of George Schneeman.”
  5. Alice Notley, “Press Release for PS1 show,” papers in MoMA PS1 Collection, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, NY.
  6. Neil Hackman, “Alice’s Poems,” Out There no. 4 (1974), iv.
  7. Andre Codrescu, “Alice Notley,” Out There no. 4 (1974), i-ii.
  8. Art Lange, review of Red Wagon, by Ted Berrigan, and Alice Ordered Me To Be Made, by Alice Notley, Chicago Review 28 no. 4 (Spring 1977), 161-63.
  9. Stephanie Anderson, “Stephanie Anderson With Alice Notley,” theconversant.org, May 13, 2016, http://theconversant.org/?p=5891.
  10. Notley, “In conversation with Rachel Blau DuPlessis and class” (class lecture), Temple University, February 20, 2001, 5:10, https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Notley/Notley-Alice_Discussion-DuPlessis_Temple_PA_2-20-2001.mp3.
  11. Notley, “Great Interiors, Wines and Spirits of the World,” Out There no. 4 (1974), 47.
  12. Notley, email message to author, February 26, 2016.
  13. Anderson, “Stephanie Anderson With Alice Notley.”
  14. Notley, “Visiting Poetics Academy: Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley” (class lecture), Naropa University, May 31, 1978, 17:37, Naropa Poetics Archive, http://cdm16621.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16621coll1/id/1570/rec/6
  15. Notley, “In conversation with Rachel Blau DuPlessis and class” (class lecture), Temple University, February 20, 2001, 25:42, https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Notley/Notley-Alice_Discussion-DuPlessis_Temple_PA_2-20-2001.mp3
  16. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1957), 24.
  17. Notley, email message to author, February 26, 2016.
  18. Notley, “Modern Americans in Their Place at Chicago Art Institute: An Article,” Brilliant Corners: A Magazine of the Arts no. 1 (1975).
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Eleanor Jewett, “Exhibit Juror Tells View of Art in Chicago,” Chicago Tribune, April 14, 1952.
  25. Notley, “Modern Americans in Their Place at Chicago Art Institute: An Article.”
  26. Ibid.
  27. Notley, “Your Dailiness,” For Frank O’Hara’s Birthday (Cambridge: Street Editions, 1976).
  28. Notley, “Modern Americans in Their Place at Chicago Art Institute: An Article.”
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Jack Spicer, The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer ed. Peter Gizzi (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 9.
  32. Ibid, 29.
  33. Notley, “Visiting Poetics Academy: Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley” (class lecture), Naropa University, May 31, 1978, 20:22, Naropa Poetics Archive, http://cdm16621.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16621coll1/id/1570/rec/6
  34. Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989), 202.
  35. Notley, “Modern Americans in Their Place at Chicago Art Institute: An Article.”
  36. Alice Notley, “The Poetics of Disobedience,” Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, ed. Anne Waldman (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), 91.