John Ashbery: They Knew What They Wanted does readers the great favor of letting us peer into Ashbery’s second, less known artistic career. His collages are presented alongside a selection of his poems, allowing us to see how much they have in common, to understand how each medium came to occupy a natural space in this prolific and influential artist’s creative landscape. And the book invites readers, even those who are most familiar with his poetry, to see the poems in a fresh light. Indeed, although They Knew What They Wanted collects work that spans a period of more than half a century, it feels so new that turning these pages is an experience of constant pleasurable surprise ... These unique and amusing collages are well served by this beautifully designed and produced book, which is permeated by the sense of a half-remembered, half-postulated childhood ... The publication of They Knew What They Wanted will help bring us closer to an artist whose work was what we sometimes forget poetry can be: a whole lot of fun.
Taken on their own easygoing terms, his collages re-create childlike mysteries and enchantments. Their unlikely encounters can return me to my juvenile fascination with comic-book crossover events, Superman and Spider-Man duking it out in some corporate DMZ. Ashbery hasn’t forgotten Superman, either: The iconic cover of Action Comics #1 has been transplanted to a tropical beach beneath palm trees ... Of the poems included in They Knew What They Wanted, only some are 'collage poems,' strictly speaking ... Many poems simply yoke together disparate elements, and some have no relation to collage at all ... But why look a gift Ashbery in the cotton-candy-coated kisser? My cartoonist friend wrote to me after discovering the poem 'The Songs We Know Best' in this collection that he had ordered Ashbery’s volume A Wave. I can’t think of a happier endorsement.
Ashbery’s images demonstrate the same sense of gleeful mischief that’s everywhere in his poetry, mixing fine art with advertising and comic strips and picture postcards, all of it married with the artist’s sure eye for color and mood and perspective. The result is an entire oeuvre of fantasy landscapes ... [John] Yau said to Ashbery, 'In a number of your recent collages, it’s like you are about to undertake a journey or begin a dream.' Ashbery’s reply: 'That’s how I feel much of the time.'
This beautifully rendered collection They Knew What They Wanted provides the first comprehensive overview of Ashbery’s art and poetry and offers a rich, kaleidoscopic glimpse into his life and artistic process ... Though some consider Ashbery’s work challenging, the poetry and collage within this collection highlight his playfulness and how he cultivated his own lively imagination above all else. The 70 full-color reproductions included here are surrealistic and absurdist and underscore the influence of the abstract expressionist movement on his body of work ... Though collage is sometimes derided as an art form, Ashbery’s work is an assemblage fashioned by a genius, and They Knew What They Wanted is a great tribute, an absolute treasure.
Ashbery is ever alert to the natural ironies that arise from juxtaposition, highlighting conflicting visions of the world as depicted in newspapers, magazines, classical paintings, and other sources. This book, which also features an intimate interview between Ashbery and the poet and art critic John Yau, is an enlightening complement to Ashbery’s poetry.