Elise AsherAmerican, 1914-2004
Elise Asher, a poet and painter who lived in New York and Provincetown was the wife of poet Stanley Kunitz.Elise Asher, a Village bohemian whose friends included the Abstract Expressionist painters Philip Guston, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko. Elise Asher and Stanley Kunitz married and moved in together on Twelfth Street in Manhattan. The painters gave Kunitz the community he’d missed during his rural exile: “They all were living down in the Village and, on their way to the Cedar Tavern—where they met quite regularly—when they passed our house they would throw pebbles or sand against our windows, like a greeting.” Kunitz was a great cook; he prepared all his and Elise’s meals—and loved to entertain.Practically every other week, they threw a party for the gang, and a lot of dancing went on, and singing.
The Kunitzes’ current Twelfth Street apartment, where they moved in the seventies was full of artifacts of the time: a thick pink-and-red Guston oil painting inscribed with verses from Kunitz’s “Vita Nuova”; a Robert Motherwell collage entitled “Provincetown: Stanley’s View”; one of Kline’s first paintings to use color, which Kunitz received when he admired it on the floor of Kline’s studio.Elise matched the décor: she liked to wear a red Indian gown with paisleys stitched in white thread, red socks, Birkenstocks, lipstick, and little plastic barrettes.
Elise Asher was born in Chicago. She was educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, Boston College, Bradford Academy and Simmons School of Social Work. She began writing poetry at an early age and moved to New York in 1947 where she began to also paint seriously. In 1953 she had her first solo painting show at Tanager Gallery in New York and published her first book of poetry, "The Meandering Absolute," in 1955. That book was re-edited, added to and reissued in 2000 under the title "The Night Train." She also published "The Visionary Gleam," a book which joined her writings with her artwork and also incorporated the writings of other poets she admired including that of her husband, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, Stanley Kunitz. Through the years she also published her work in many journals such as the Partisan Review.
Her paintings were well received and she was very involved in the women’s art movement. Her work was shown in more than two dozen solo shows in New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Richmond, Wellfleet and Provincetown. Locally, in 1992 the Provincetown Art Association and Museum held a solo show and in 2000 the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) held a large retrospective curated by Varujan Boghosian. She also took part in numerous group shows and her work is held in almost 20 public collections including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Some of the images have a Surrealist air: a car on a lonely road is blanketed by a spiderweb; a giant wristwatch arches over both like a bridge. Others are drawn from childhood memories of people and houses long gone. ''Content to Lie Down With Family Ghosts'' is one of a series based on Mr. Kunitz's poem ''The Long Boat,'' about someone suddenly adrift at sea who finds himself relinquishing ''conscience, ambition, and all that caring,'' letting himself go ''as if he didn't know/he loved the earth so much/he wanted to stay for ever.''
Ms. Asher's respose to the words is a beautiful, earth-loving painting: a little Milton Averyish, a little Morris Gravesian, but with a grave, haunted air of psychological mystery that is entirely her own, and has affinities with work by older artists like the late Anne Poor, and younger artists like Amy Sillman. A more complete sense of Ms. Asher's range as an artist and writer can be found in her 1994 book ''The Visionary Gleams'' (Sheep Meadow Press), which is well worth a look. Like much of this valuable artist's work, it's idiosyncratic, tender and tough.
At the time of her 2000 exhibit at FAWC, Ms. Asher talked to the Banner about her life, the cross country train trips she and her siblings made each year to visit New Mexico, the sleeping porch of her youth that she says was haunted by an owl and one sensed the way she mixed the mythic with the mundane to create her writings and paintings. Her daughter Babette Becker says her mother’s work was "inventive and visionary" and added that the paintings were often based on literary references."She had three or four major periods of painting and created from a real blending of the two arts," her daughter said. "She was communicating the mystery of human experience."
She is described by her daughter as not being a public person despite having many friends. She was formerly married to painter Nanno de Groot before marrying Kunitz in 1957. She and Kunitz shared a common passion for their arts. In her later years painting became too physical for her and she gave it up, instead writing at a small card table, relying on her poetry to speak to the world. She is described as quirky and possessing a wry sense of humor and a penchant for both visual and written puns. Despite her humor, she was intent on writing down the important matters of life. In her Banner interview in 2000, she said, "You’re breathing words…When you think of it, it’s marvelous. It keeps you alive. … Somebody has to witness what you are doing, otherwise it doesn’t exist."
Stanely Kunitz, Elise’s husband published his second collection, “Passport to the War.” The book was mostly well reviewed, but it disappeared fast. The outstanding poem of the collection, “Father and Son,” picked up the lost-father motif.Kunitz described pursuing his father through the twilight fields of suburban Worcester, imagining how to make up for all the lost time, how to “bridge the chasm in a casual tone,” when, suddenly, “At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted / Their arms, ‘Father!’ I cried, ‘Return! You know / The way. I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes; / No trace, I promise, will remain. Instruct / Your son, whirling between two wars, / In the Gemara of your gentleness.’ ” This was before Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” and Plath’s “Daddy,” when direct address of a parent was still a surprising poetic strategy.This poetry combined with the abstract expressionism of the late fifties and early sixties are quite evident in this painting titled “Father and Son”.The painting shows the remarkable passion the two had for the arts.