Room by Room
It took John Ashbery over a decade to decorate the twelve rooms of the Hudson house. During these years, Ashbery and David Kermani spent many weekends hunting in antique shops throughout upstate New York and moving furniture from room to room as he found new pieces. By the early 1990s, the house felt complete, though Ashbery continued to play with the arrangement of smaller collections and the placement of some objects and paintings.
Victorian houses were traditionally designed to stage a grand entrance or exit. Owners demanded large and impressive center halls and often decorated them lavishly, for the room was the one private space that all social classes were guaranteed to see.
John Ashbery’s center hall, which he sometimes also called the front hall, both aspires to and parodies this model. The beautiful architecturally designed interior—rich wooden beams, high ceilings, elaborate fireplace, dim overhead lights and a mirror—creates a dark, gloomy and enveloping mood.
Ashbery added small touches to enhance this feeling, including a regal umbrella stand and an open sewing table used to display a plate by the door, elaborate candelabras flanking a clock on the mantel (recalling exactly the mantelpiece display his grandparents created in the entrance to their Rochester home), handsome Chinese Chippendale furniture with a Moorish coffee table, two Chinese ginger jar lamps, and a collection of Hiroshige and Hokusai images on the walls. This worldly compendium of things in the small space produces an immediate impression; a visitor feels a little overwhelmed and impressed to be in the presence of this clearly well-traveled home owner.
There is a sense of mystery too, for even before taking in the hall, the visitor has seen something truly unexpected. The very first sight inside the house as the inner door opens—because of the angle of entry—is actually the bright, violent painting of an assassination scene above the couch in the music room. This brief and shocking spectacle, which contrasts sharply with the warmth and cozy darkness of the center hall, leaves a lingering sensation.
Designed to impress a first-time guest, the music room is the brightest and most sophisticated space in the house. It has high ceilings, an elegant chandelier, a grand piano and three separate seating areas. The works of art that hang on the refined but sumptuous wallpaper (officially designed for a ceiling but chosen by Ashbery for the walls) are significant works of art by Susan Daykin, Lynn Davis, Jean Helion, Willem de Kooning, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter and Trevor Winkfield.
This intimate, shadowy sitting room to the right of the center hall seats four. Large, comfortable upholstered chairs draped with antimacassars take up most of the small space. Yet the display of ceramics, the modest collection of Piranesi and Edward Lear prints, and several whimsically overgrown plants remind one of other places and other times, perhaps a romantic stop in Italy one evening during a European grand tour some time long ago.
At the center of the room is the elaborate carved wooden table and chairs that were made for the home in 1894 and have never been moved. John Ashbery and David Kermani used this table during the 1980s and 1990s frequently for dinners. In 2007, Ashbery began to make new collages for the first time since the 1970s; his first collage show was held at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 2008. Since then, the table has always been used for collage-making.
The room is often quite dark. In the afternoons, however, especially in summers, the windows let in a remarkably soft and lovely light. Ashbery’s cut glass and blue glass collection look especially pretty by the window when the light plays through them.
The built-in cabinets are full of dishes, many of which Ashbery inherited from his parents and grandparents or bought to add to these incomplete collections. On the mantel between the two cabinets Ashbery displayed pieces from some of his favorite collections: double helix brass candlesticks, ceramic trompe l’oeil vegetables, and select pieces of pottery and glassware.
If there is a theme in this room, however, it is fruit. The big cut glass bowl contains fake fruit. There is a large still life of fruit on the wall. In the cabinets, many of the dishes have fruit designs that were a wedding gift to Ashbery’s parents, who ran the Ashbery fruit farm.
This small, handsome and dimly lit passageway between the dining room and the kitchen provides an attractive space to drink and talk. In fact, the combination of a collection of gin and wine bottles next to the pretty copper sink and the black rotary phone (with pen and pad) in the corner makes it possible to drink and talk at the same time, even if alone.
There is something both festive and melancholy about this room. In the cabinets, colorful fiesta ware dishes show through the glass doors. On the shelf below these, Ashbery displays his collection of eight daffy duck glasses (amassed over thirty years).
The images on the walls, all involving food or drink, however, tell a lonelier story: unknown men and women; a basket of peaches; Archie Rand’s “Bombay Gin”; Rudy Burckhardt’s “Jumbo Malted”; Joe Shannon’s portrait of art critic Walter Hopps holding a drink; and a Paris menu from the 1920s.
For the first few years that John Ashbery lived in the house, he used a yellow kitchen table and chairs that the owner had left there. “A Prison All the Same” (Shadow Train, 1981) begins by mentioning it: “Spoken over a yellow kitchen table (just the ticket / For these recycling minded times).”
In the late 1980s, Ashbery partially renovated the kitchen, adding the tin ceiling and vintage hanging lights, and painting the walls yellow (in a style and finish he copied from a restaurant in New York City). After spotting a wooden table and chairs he liked at a casual restaurant in Housatonic and discovering where they were made nearby, he ordered some. When they finally arrived months later, he recycled the yellow kitchen table and chairs (to be used as an office table) and moved them to the basement.
The kitchen also contains several collections of pieces Ashbery found (and was given) over many years: a small series of cookie jars on top of the refrigerator, yellow bowls displayed on a baker’s stand, copper fish molds inspired by those he saw in Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings on all the walls, vintage signs (many he remembered from advertisements on barns and in magazines during childhood), and a large collection of cookbooks and cooking equipment in one pantry and everyday dishware in the other.
A gallery of Hiroshige prints lines the wall. The stained-glass window above the landing separates the lower and upper front staircases.
The second floor center hall serves several rather practical purposes at once, and yet it is also a uniquely personal space.
Its clearest role is to provide entries and exists to nearly every other room in the house. This requirement means eight doors and two staircases are visible from the center of the small space. Another purpose is to furnish a second central place to talk on the phone (the first is in the Butler’s Pantry downstairs). There is a phone, fax, rolodex, and address book on a round table and an armchair on which to sit and use them.
Despite these practical necessities, a few easy to overlook items give the room its own sentimental yet sober character. The blue armchair, in fact, was one Chet Ashbery usually sat in on evenings in the Sodus farmhouse in the 1930s and 1940s. An inexpensive Popeye trash can tucked under the table is an homage to Ashbery’s beloved cartoon character. A photograph on the side table commemorates an August, 1940 day when Ashbery and his childhood friends Carol Rupert and Mary Wellington performed “The Princess and the Robber Chief” for a Pultneyville audience. The grass cloth walls, more visible here than in the downstairs center hall, reference the Victorian and European-influenced decorative tastes of his great uncle Paul Holling (1872-1957), who owned several homes in Pultneyville which Ashbery admired as a child.
The images on the center hall walls, perhaps inspired by Holling’s attention to translating his European tastes into a distinctly American life, are also a mixture of the two: so, for example, R.B. Kitaj’s ”French portraits” hangs on one wall, a 1915 photograph (one of the earliest) of a train on another, and a classic view of the “Castle of Chillon,” near Montreaux, Switzerland (from his grandparents’ 1926 trip there) is on still another.
The sitting room, also sometimes referred to as the television room, is the most personal and comfortable upstairs room. (It is also the only room in the house with a TV.) Although the room is smaller than some of the others, it includes more places to sit and put down a drink: two couches, two chairs, and two coffee tables.
All the art in this room was created by friends. Works on the wall are by James Bishop, Nell Blaine, Elaine de Kooning, Anne Dunn, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher, Jean Helion, Rodrigo Moynihan, John Wells and Trevor Winkfield. A portrait of Ashbery by his friend R.B. Kitaj leans against the fireplace on the floor. All the books in the room are by poets.
Other things in the room contribute to its feeling of intimacy: the collection of Staffordshire figurines on the mantel piece, many (like the dogs, for example) collected because he remembered ones like it in his grandparents’ home; the collection of miniature houses; the shelves of miniature shoes, a collection started with one owned by his grandmother and further inspired by a present from the poet James Tate; David Kermani’s bronzed baby shoes; and Henry Lawrence’s (Ashbery’s maternal grandfather) college fraternity vest, hanging on a doorknob since 2009.
On the door to the study, Ashbery attached the iron parrot doorknocker that was originally on the door of his grandfather’s study in Rochester. At the age of thirteen in the spring of 1941, just as his grandparents were about to sell their Rochester home, Ashbery took the parrot as a souvenir, attaching it to his bedroom at his grandparents’ summer house in Pultneyville and eventually moving it to Hudson in the 1980s.
For the first decade or so that Ashbery lived in the house, this room was used for guests. Two twin beds from David Kermani’s childhood home provided a place for friends to sleep. (Those beds were later moved to the attic guestroom.) Ashbery installed three walls of built-in bookshelves to hold part of his collection of about three-thousand books and brought a long wooden table from New York to use as a computer desk. A dictionary stand, CD player, Ashbery’s unusual collection of classical music and two large armchairs make this an especially good room in which to read or listen to music.
The yellow room is big, bright and eclectic. There is a set of faux bamboo furniture (bed and dresser), which Ashbery bought in Rochester for (nearly) a song in the 1980s just before it became a popular and expensive antique. In the 1990s, he was pleased to see an almost identical set in a room at Gracie Mansion.
Hanging on the William Morris flower-patterned wallpaper are not only reproductions by French painters–Greuze, Corot and Bonheur–that Ashbery recalled seeing at his grandparents’ Pultneyville home, but also a Jean Helion painting (which in 2014 replaced a Fairfield Porter portrait that Ashbery temporarily loaned to an institution), a Joe Brainard flower collage and a very early James Bishop gouache, probably from the late 1950s. A small Jane Freilicher early 1960s abstract painting shares mantel piece space with Joyce Kozloff’s painting of Daffy Duck, a present to Ashbery in honor of his iconic Houseboat Days (1977) poem about the “malevolent mallard.”
One mantel holds a collection of colorful end-of-day glass; other shelves hold further examples of his ceramics collection–a Weller vase and a Rookwood candleholder–alongside a few favorite gewgaws.
The resulting mixture of periods and styles, originals and copies, mature collections and childhood favorites makes this room one of the most enigmatic and interesting in the house.
At the center of this room is John Ashbery’s brass bed. That space–where he slept, relaxed with newspapers and sometimes also read and wrote–looks out at a room full of very personal things. In a sense, however, this room is no more intimate than many of the others in the house, which also contain paintings by friends, photographs from his childhood, and references–in books, decorative objects, and other images–to the homes, cultural figures, and artists he liked most. Still, there is much to learn about Ashbery, both personally and artistically, from the things he kept and looked at in his bedroom.
He chose this room as his bedroom (for he could have picked any of the other three other upstairs rooms) because of its proximity to the outdoors; there is a door to a small upstairs porch overlooking the garden, which he liked to use in the summer. The images that line the walls are often by friends–Anne Dunn, Jane Freilicher, Red Grooms, Jean Helion and Neil Welliver among them–but also depict places and ideas that mattered. For example, Freilicher painted Queen Anne cherries as a birthday present, a fruit which grew both on the Ashbery farm and on Anne Dunn’s French estate where he spent a great deal of time in the early 1960s. On the wall next to his bed is another birthday present: Philip Bornath’s depiction of the Pultneyville house Ashbery’s grandparents owned on Lake Ontario. There are also two posters, one of a “Grand Theatre” puppet backdrop and one of a color chart (each color illustrated in one natural and one man-made example), that Ashbery found in the late 1960s in a wonderful store on the Rue Dauphine in Paris.
The number of things in this room that matter both personally and poetically are too numerous to name in this introduction. It is the space that contains the largest number of icons of any room in the house.
One of the regular features in John Ashbery’s childhood diaries are his descriptions of taking a bath, and so it is perhaps not surprising that he would be drawn to a home with such a beautiful bathroom. The high ceilings, original claw-foot tub and architectural details make this one of the most impressively designed rooms in the house.
A number of poems, perhaps quite a few more than one might expect, reference things in the bathroom and straightforwardly mention one’s use of them: bathtubs, toilets, sinks, mirrors and razors especially. A Vermont Notebook (1975), Ashbery’s text and image collaboration with Joe Brainard, includes a one-page drawing of a toilet.
Filmmaker Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room (2015) includes the 3-minute short, “How To Take a Bath,” which Ashbery, a longtime admirer of Maddin’s films, wrote. See this remarkable collaboration by clicking on the bathtub icon (and view more about their artistic collaboration in the kitchen).
Iconic views and well-known personalities line the wall of the narrow, winding and dimly lit back staircase that links the kitchen and the upstairs center hall. None of these images are valuable; John Ashbery purchased most for under ten dollars at various antique stores, adding even more to the crowded walls over many years. While their placement in this passageway makes them difficult to see and therefore to pay much attention to, all were chosen by Ashbery for particular reasons that reveal his tastes and memories.
See close-ups of each image and hear Ashbery and David Kermani discuss the provenance of images by clicking on the back staircase icon in the kitchen.
The “Bay Room,” conceived of in the original blueprints as a “Sewing Room,” is above the center hall and looks out over the green. One of the brightest and smallest spaces in the house, it includes Ashbery’s grandfather’s handsome desk and connects the upstairs sitting room to the Yellow Room.