‘An elegant dance’ between poetry and art: Robert Perkins’s ‘The Written Image’

Thursday 24th May sees the opening of Robert Perkins: The Written Image at Benjamin Spademan Rare Books, the first of a two-part exhibition of the American artist’s 45-year collaboration with poets.

From Seamus Heaney to Allen Ginsberg, Perkins has worked with the best of the best when it comes to the world of poetry. In fact, his journey began back in the 1970’s when he was a student at Harvard University and took poet, Elizabeth Bishop’s creative writing seminar. Perkins explains that when he told Bishop that he’d always wanted to be an artist, she wrote out a copy of her poem The Fish and asked him to illustrate it.

This assignment launched The Written Image, which Perkins describes as ‘self-portraits of the poet in the moment.’ To begin a work, he takes the poet’s hand-written text and then melds it with his own imagery, thus constructing a visual representation around the words.

Robert Perkins, Jon Galassi, Knot, 2000 © Robert Perkins. Courtesy the Artist and Benjamin Spademan Rare Books. Photo by Louie Fasciolo

Each work in the series is entirely unique. The artist uses various mediums to get the message of the poems across. Not literal representations of the poetry, Perkins’s body of work moves seamlessly betwixt word and image. It is, in the words of poet and art critic Ilka Scobie, ‘an elegant dance between poetry’s immaterial words and the grounded practice of his mark making.’

We had the honour of speaking with Perkins ahead of his exhibition opening about his practice and what lies ahead for this very special creative.

ArtAttack: How incredible to think of all the world renowned poets with whom you have collaborated on your work. Do you have a particularly favourite collaboration and if so can you tell us why?

Robert Perkins: I do have a favourite piece, two actually, the first is with Octavio Paz because he was so enthusiastic about the project and he wrote so large…. The piece is 6 x 4 feet! The second is the collaboration with Seamus Heaney on St Kevin and the Blackbird. It just turned out so well. 

Robert Perkins, Octavio Paz, fragment from Towbridge Street, 1972 © Robert Perkins. Courtesy the Artist and Benjamin Spademan Rare Books. Photo by Louie Fasciolo
Robert Perkins, Seamus Heaney, St. Kevin and the Blackbird, 2000:2017 © Robert Perkins. Courtesy the Artist and Benjamin Spademan Rare Books. Photo by Louie Fasciolo

AA: When did you first decide that you wanted to be an artist?

RP: I was pretty young. I always created things but not until my 19th year when I spent it on the men’s locked ward of a mental hospital did I begin making images. Strangely, this was the same ward Robet Lowell spent time on. After leaving there I claimed my freedom to make art…whatever I xxxxxx wanted. As far as my family went, and the larger world, I was considered damaged goods. Oddly, there was immense freedom in that, although it took a long time to appreciate it.

AA: Have you never been tempted to explore making other work outside of your Written Image series?

RP: Yes I have and I do. For anyone who is interested visit my website at Robertfperkins.com. For 20 years I made documentary films for Channel 4, odd, intimate journeys in a canoe down rivers around the world. That was before reality TV and the bean counters took over.

AA: What are you most looking forward to when it comes to showing this series in London?

RP: I would like interested people to know it’s there. I am unknown as an artist in the UK and the work is not your normal run of the mill ‘art.’ Two strikes against me when it comes  to gaining attention. 

Here’s my mantra: ‘Living by the rules is another way of hoping that the future will be like the past.’ This is from your countryman, Adam Phillips, from his wonderful small book, Darwin’s Worms.

AA: When did your fascination with poetry begin?

RP: Hard to say. Before I was verbal. I am dyslexic so words were tough but once I learned eventually to read, poetry fascinated me because what did not make much sense to others made perfect sense to me. For example, this line from Emily Dickinson: ‘You cannot fold a flood.’ Fabulous, isn’t it?

AA: Do you have a favourite poem and/or poet?

RP: Currently, David Whyte because he is such an outsider to the poetry ‘scene.’ He strives for the mystical in our non-contemplative age. Flora Adcock. Louise Gluck. Henri Cole. Jean Valentine. 

AA: Do you intend to continue the Written Image series after these exhibitions?

RP: Yes. I am flying to Rome in early June to meet two fabulous Italian poets, Patrizia Cavalli and Valerio Magrelli.

My ultimate dream would be to work with Nobel Laureate poets as they step off the stage in Sweden. And why not? Bringing poems out from the covers of books is what I do.

AA: Who would be the poet, dead or alive, with whom you’ve not worked yet and would most like to?

RP: I would love to have spent time with Cavafy. Or Rilke, if I were in the mood. Sappho. 

Portrait of Robert Perkins at Benjamin Spademan Rare Books, 2017. Photo: Antiquarian Photographer, Louie Fasciolo

Robert Perkins: The Written Image will be on view at Benjamin Spademan Rare Books from 25th May until 23rd June, 2017; 14 Mason’s Yard, London, SW1 Y6BU; Open Monday – Friday 10am – 5:30pm; Admission: FREE