If anyone doubted Walt Whitman's continuing hallowed place in the American cultural pantheon, they'd need only take in the sheer scope of the tributes being paid in honor of his 200th birthday this year. In New York City alone, the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library, and the Grolier Club have each examined the exalted 19th Century American poet's work from a uniquely different, but equally engaging point of view.
The latter exhibition, Poet of the Body: New York's Walt Whitman, closed in July. But its energetic curator, Karen Karbiener—a premier Whitman scholar and professor at NYU—is still admirably hard at work preserving the considerable legacy of the man whom she not at all hyperbolically calls "America's greatest poet." But for her, one project in particular is possessed of a foremost sense of urgency.
"I am the President of a 501(c)(3) called the Walt Whitman Initiative," she enthusiastically relates, "and it’s our focus to keep people celebrating him and to keep protecting his cultural legacy. That's where the campaign to landmark his house comes in. It’s something we’ve been working on for a long time."
Whitman, she enlightens, lived in more than 30 different places in New York City, the consequence of his membership in a lamentably dysfunctional family, with an alcoholic father at its head. The only one of those homes still standing is the Whitmans' simple, working class house at 99 Ryerson Street in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood. Lacking distinguishing architectural features, however, the city's Landmarks Preservation Committee has been reluctant to step in.
Which brings it around to painter John Ransom Phillips, whose breathtaking artistic tribute to Whitman will be on exhibit at the BlackBook Presents gallery in DUMBO, Brooklyn, under the title Robust American Love, from August 22 to September 5. It is a poignant, and very fitting title, considering its subject was one of the first out homosexual public figures in America. And, more directly explanatory, it was also a line from the provocative “Calamus” cluster of Leaves of Grass.
The artworks themselves are vivid, evocative illustrations, each based on a particularly affective or illuminating Whitman quote. The words become recontextualized, and vividly emboldened—as if Phillips has opened up little windows onto the poet's artistic and personal essences.
Karbiener makes the specific point about Whitman being a genuine revolutionary, "both in his style and subject matter. He wrote honestly and openly of love and a range of sexual expression before the body was considered a fit subject for poetry—even before the word ‘homosexual’ was in common parlance." His is also a very American story, although she emphasizes that he had in a sense astutely reclaimed patriotism as a passionate, open-armed embrace, demonstrated with the body as much as mind and heart. Considering how dubiously patriotism is defined in America in 2019, those are indeed still quite revolutionary notions.
"If you asked Whitman what it meant to be American," she ponders, "to define what he thought America was...[he would have said] it was the greatest lover in the world."
The exhibition has an equally transcendent subtitle—Avid Visions by Walt Whitman and John Ransom Phillips—and is divided into three groupings. The first is simply called Robust American Love, and with its bold red frames, pronounces love in all its forms as an act of national and personal pride.
The second, In Paths Untrodden, is framed in blue and explores much more intimate spaces, including the poet’s thoughts on desire, shame, and loss. Whitman was finding his way via his words, and Phillips poignantly illustrates that journey.
"The third section, Fluid as Nature, has purple frames," Karbiener explains, "presents love that defies definitions and transcends boundaries—within ourselves, between people or beyond traditional human relationships."
"So taken together," she concludes, "it's love being illuminated from three very different angles."
The individual artworks themselves are like illustrated quotations, Phillips apparently possessing of a particular gift for finding the most inspirational quotes among so many of Whitman’s. Once discovered, he set about abstractly, or semi-representationally amplifying their meaning—and, of course, giving them a wholly new chronological context.
"The most rewarding experience I have ever received," Phillips enthuses, "was when in the poem The Sleepers, Walt invites us to go from bedside to bedside and to sleep with other sleepers each in turn. Then to dream in our dreams all the dreams of these dreamers. So if I want someone to take away something from the show, take Walt with them. Take me."
It's more than felicitous that these two talents have been joined for the purpose of further honoring the legacy of the one who is no longer here to speak for himself—and that the tireless Karbiener should be the one championing them both. She has already had one great success: the street corner Whitman's Brooklyn home is on was just renamed Walt Whitman Way. But the fight to preserve the house itself carries on.
“Whitman completed the first edition of Leaves of Grass within walking distance of BlackBook, at 99 Ryerson Street,” she asserts. “John is dedicated to ensuring that Whitman remains a living presence in his beloved Brooklyn.”
Robust American Love will be at BlackBook Presents, 20 John Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn, August 22 - September 5. At the exhibition opening event on August 27 (6-8pm), Phillips will announce his full support of the Whitman Initiative’s efforts to landmark 99 Ryerson; part of the proceeds of sales will be contributed to this campaign.