The Beat Era is best known for its poets and dynamic poetry readings in New York and San Francisco that was home for hipster icons returning from the war who lived, wrote and painted in cheap lofts and congregated in smokey clubs and coffeehouses after dark to discuss politics and art. Thirty-five plus years after the publication of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road," the beats are still a historical sideshow, studied in hagiographic detail by specialists but ignored at little peril. Scholarship about them tends to take the form of literary criticism, biography, or background material for studies of the events of the sixties. Almost for sure, there is very little mention of the wealth of painting that was done at the time. After having nearly a quarter century to get used to it, people still don't like abstract art. Without exception go to any museum and figures and landscapes are drawing the crowds: a pretty Dutch housewife caught in a fall of light, a French garden atomized in paint. Abstract paintings of the 60s, go more or less unnoticed, absorbed, if they are at all, as a kind of scenic ambiance.
Why? Does abstractions look too easy, too decorative, too "not there" ? Are its great subjects --utopian vision, psychic turbulence, material gorgeousness --too slow acting or elusive for the fast-paced spectator sport museumgoing has become? The question came to mind on a recent afternoom at a local Bay Area museum of art. In one gallery, a survey of works by a figurative painter was doing brisk business. In anoher, a small group of sixties paintings played to an empty house.
Paintings of the sixties isn't well known (though those who know it revere it). And painting of the period --at least at first glance -- look off the mark, unrefined, out of touch and therefore, uneventful. Most of them consist on a large scale, moreorless on a monochromatic field. Their colors are rich but few; nearly half are entirely black and white.
Part of an inside joke was that you never talked about painting unless you were with a fellow painter. Indeed, there was much talk among painters about the Batman Gallery and the Gallery 6 of the '50s and '60s where painters such as Bruce Conners whom people thought had a fabulous eye for "junk" in the tradition of the 19th century still life specialist John Haberle, who would paint a broken comb, a pair of scissors, some ticket stubs and a cigar butt with all the love and patience in the world. Conners' favorite material was nylon stockings which in his hands became cobwebs thin and transparent behind which a dismembered part of a doll, torn photographs, bits of custoume jewelry, feathers, fragments of mirror, and so on and on. Paint, sprayed black or white over these agglomerations, helped to solidify them and add an air of mystery. The effects of these works and many similar ones that became something of interests to all artists, on whole is some magic grotto, full of things that have been put out under enchantment and left years to the bats and spiders, but sill alive and waiting to be revivified.
Most painters, however, took these efforts for what they were, another way to organize the visual elements. They did not speak of them in terms of the directions in which painting was working towards. It was like, once or twice you might have heard jazz musicians talking about their own work, and it's so technical and so inside and they were so interested in facets of what they did...you were not going to be able to follow it. The same was true of painters. They were just ripe for that kind of intensity: sensing, a kind of hard, serious knuckled in feeling about these works. Many of them didn't seem to care what they did then because tomorrow you might not be alive.
There is the mythic belief that there is no lasting image of what was done then except for a few works produced by people like Bruce Conners, Wally Hedrick, George Herms and Jay DeFeo, which may not be entiely true. This work was indeed part of the scene. And, it is also true that a few writers have commented about these ideas that they were "wacky, odd, fantastic moments," while others felt, "there was an awful lot of Abstract Expressionism that was done as therapy, and that it was, finally, just getting all that cancer sludge out of the system." This the writers thought was the trouble with the movement in painting during the 1960s.
For better or worse, North Beach was another meeting place for the writer and the artists. They went to the same parties. They got drunk together. They were friends. They weren't close friends, because painters -finally- were a community separate from the writers. But there was mutual regard. It was nice. It doesn't at all exist now. When they meet now over the years they chat. But it is always wistful. They would like to really get into some conversations, but they just don't seem quite to be there. It's just different now. Everything is different now.
All over the country from 1940 through to 1960 artists became associated with abstract expressioinism: not only in New York, but in Chicago, Boston and on the West Coast. It was in the air, so to speak, the influence of such legendary mythmakers such as Pollock and de Kooning. By the 1960s it was a huge wave a kind of freedom about working. But while the action in the Bay Area, according to local historians, was largely centered around the California School of Fine Arts, outside the confines of the school, a number of paintings were being produced that were deep down as romantic and painterly paintings as were done but had bypasssed local interest worthy of some attention.
But the gates slammed hard on these painters, It was one thing to harbor strange ideas; it was another to say it, in the language of painting. Still they perpetuated a kind of tribal faith in the continued existence of an avant-garde long after the minimum conditions for the survival of an avant-garde had been obliterated.
This may have been because Picasso was such a dominate force in the artworld, although, by then, there was a clear cut and generally accepted definition of the Abstract Expressionist movement, which was still swirling through the world of art by 1960. It was not due to the fact that, as some chroniclers erroneously believed, that critics such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg had too much influence over the artists. The whole affair was dominated by the kind of zealous ambition normally associated with missionary work. To most painters then art was an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take risks.
The word "Beat" has collected many different and sometimes inconsistent meanings which is not unusual for a word that has only been with us for a little more than 3 decades. New meanings are often held up aginst the past, measured against a previous age. Those times were not always less complicated or less optmistic than is true today. But what is different about the era is that it was the high point of the belief in the moral and technological authority of the artist that made a difference; in what people said and did. Art could be made of almost anything and everything: witness the art of Africa and Oceania. Art has always reacted to the social conditioins under which it is produced. Some have taken this to mean that anything that happens is the right thing. Of course this has led to a spate of dip and smear paintings that, hung next to one another on the wall of some dimly lighted beer joint, which may have given a pleasing over-all impression, but it was not what genuine artists sought in their works.
"The constructive powers of the human mind are no more artificial than the formative actions of plants or bees," said Allen Watts, "so that from the standpoint of Zen it is no contradition to say that artistic technique is discipline in spontaneity and spontaneity in discipline." The going idea was that everyone was severely critical of the individualistic artist who produced for a market that upheld the values of the dominant class while deluding himself that he was in fact independent. Painting that "grows" from within the artist is what makes for the happy accident. The artist's only obligation, according to Schapiro, was to demolish the illusion of freedom and individualism by allying himself with the proletariat in revolutionary action. As in jazz, the "lucky" accidents happen only to the artist who has made himself, through trained skills, the kind of a person to whom such accidents can happen. Critical analysis of the artist's relation to the masses was essential so that the artist could become aware of his position. Pure individualism was to be rejected. It was the last time people actually believed that everything about art really worked: poetry, jazz and image-making.
To think that a painting, or a song would simply change everything in the world: government, big business, and the idea of America, was a fairly naive notion and although perhaps part of the process of gettting over the Great Depression, or the deprivations of World War II, unemployment for minorities; even the economic factors shaped by the lack of cultural opportunity in a land of plenty, was an idea that took hold in the 60s environment. Attitudes of race prejudice, like other commonly held attitudes, are nourished and supported by environmental support and thereby lead to a change in attitudes. One of he major supportes to race prejudice is discrimination itself and the results of discrimination. Hence, action that prevents discrimination will lead to a reduction of racial prejudice.
Similarily, American avant-garde art was now recognized a great deal of psychological research had demonstrated that a person's attitudes are largely shaped by experience and factors in his internationally. Yet, some felt there was an emptiness in Ameircan life that needed to be filled. Many people believed it could be done by art. You might die tomorrow. You were either right now, or you were not at all and that was all that mattered. But even though there was the tendency - even without Picasso- for paintings to cost more and more and more, and artists then weren't comfortable with marketing, it was obvious that this group of artists brought many conflicts, complications, subtleties and differences to the art world. After all paainting is the last snactuary of magic. Thats why people -writers, metaphysicians, philosophers --have to come to painting. There wasn't one of the modern writers, be it Dos Passoss, Cocteau or Henry Miller who was not conversant with painting. Hence, marketing art seemed the lowest and foulest and the filthiest and most obscene of all the arts. The direction was towards expressing yourself and towards the formal aspects of painting, as opposed to saying endless things that were empty of content.
Nonetheless, the fact that there was Picasso made it possible to sell things for vastly more than they were worth. Picasso aided this process.
The subculture of the Fifties didn't know what it was as its energy rippled out beyond the modish jadedness and touristic coffeehouses. Colonies of artists hung out in the Greenwich Village, Venice Beach and North Beach because there they were onto something outside of the omnivorous mass media and the popular pulp horror and amusement of the miscellaneous literati crowd, despite the alarms sounded by the press and the intellectuals. Even at its zenith there were never so many beats, perhaps a few thousand at the peak, not nearly so many as there were actual and aspiring rockers and, eventually hippies. Most of the artists of the Beat Era were inconspicuous; indeed, that was part of the point of being an artist, whether that meant self-consciously beaten or beattitude. Most of them dressed simply, "In an ordinary working-class manner, distinctive only to middle-class eyes," (Polsky). Only a minority wore the notorious beads as badges of identity. Probably fewer than 10 percent, perhaps 150 or so in the entire country, exhibited in galleries at all.
Andy Warhol, too, had a huge amount to do with wrecking the ball game.
The changes in painters were subtle and almost immeasurable. Norman Mailer recalls, " Painters were happy if they could sell a canvas for 35 or 40 bucks. They were all living off each other in an honest, easy way. They were friends. If one of them had five bucks, then they'd all go out and eat a meal and get drunk on that five bucks. Cheap food, cheap wine, whatever. They certainly were not doing it for money. They knew what they wanted to do. They were living their lives. There was a certain implicit 'sacrifice' in the kind of life they had chosen." Groping for a sense of the zeitgeist has been an intellectual stock-in-trade since the ancient Greek thinkers, who discovered they were living in history. The Greeks learned that if they could name the immediate past, they could locate themselves in relation to it; they could perhaps comprehend and certainly criticize it. And, so they did.
So, a handful of Beat writers and painters spread the news, retailing legends which both repelled and attracted the great washed. American crisis of spirit, as was thought, required not just new thinking but right action. They felt cramped by the postwar bargains of homes and mortgages, steady jobs, organized suffering; they wanted to hang out, get away, find spiritual bedrock. Each person had some new idea of what he might be involved with in and often found that he was involved in himself in a way that he had never been before. In dead earnest they wanted to grab hold in some way. They aimed to live their art and cheered the jazz tendency to be continually avant-garde, deliberately speeding, constantly changing. Jazz was both moving out into the mainstream and moving on into untracked territory. The painters were there to paint. The great changes all seemed to have happened in the 1960s.
In California there was a mixture of black and white musicians who popularized the music. All the young musicians black and white, were caught up in the excitement generated by Parker and Gillespie. On either coasts the music was embraced quickly because people recognized Parker had metamorphosized melodies and rendered standard structures unrecognizable: a brand of superiority that lifted bop above its smoky context of clubs and sweet tunes. Parker, in his original melodies, was responding to internal and autonomous cues in the music, not representing an exterior reality; it was not subservient to an outside world it was trying to represent, but pursuing lines of pure musical development. Thus, anyone with ears knew that a transformation on poplore material was taking place, their delusion was of a Yeatsian "out of nowhere" purity.
Among the painters who purused their arts nearly everybody paints or plays some kind of an instrument, if only bongo drums or the recorder. And everybody wrote poetry. Painting is likely to mean anything from a student sketchbook full of pencil and pen drawing (often with a poem on the same theme) to twelve-foot canvases in oils or common house paints. There is an abundance of anonymous space and plain wall surfaces in modern American building. Perhaps this creates a vaccum which painters instinctively endeavor to fill.
Painters paint paintings and musicians play music. As a results, there were many apartment walls resounding with jazz and sometimes even the floors and doors covered with murals. Even though immediate communication with the large audience may not have been possible in all cases, "...it was a period of exploration as much as anything else," according to Jean Varda. This kind of feeling was infectious. It didn't matter to most of them if you didn't size your canvas too well, either. Nobody cared if the painting lasted until tomorrow because NOW was the most important thing. Today and the experience of painting were the most important things. So, people poured everything they had into it. They wante to discover what painting could mean for them with a tremendous feeling of urgency.
What they were saying to a ready-made audience that paid little attention to the way they said it, was: " A wind blows the virus of change and you get the disease." What the painter sees in paintings they make can only be experienced, it cannot be conveyed in words. Zen tradition has it that the Buddha transmitted awakening to his chief disciple Mahakasyapa by holding up a flower and remaining silent.
Everybody was always drawing everybody else, at readings and at parties, even though it might not be exhibited, the activity served its purpose just the same. It was a widely accepted notion among painters that it did not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. Painters asserted that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why they professed spiritual kinship with "primitives" and archaic art.
In more professional circles the problem that tries the soul and often makes and unmakes loves an friendships is the problem of whether to school one's talent or not to school it, to improvise or to play and structure, to "chart" or "just blow." The poets had their own style and ways of working out transcriptions of their ideals. In keeping with their refusal to separate art from life, technologies. Ginsberg reconnected Christopher Smart's long loping line; Kerouac typed his novel-length manuscripts on long, continuous rolls of paper feeding non-stop into his typewriter over strenuous days and weeks; William Bouroughs scissored apart his manuscripts to slice up rational order. Their methods were extrapolated from the spontanetites of Rimbaud, the late Yeats and many Surrealists paainters, but the greatest influence was jazz.
Here again Zen Buddhism is an influence, even among those who have been affected by it indirectly, at second and third hand. The jazz musician may not know that his practice was close to that of Chinese music and the painter may not have known that his insistence on spontaneity is akin to Zen practice in the arts, but both act upon assumptions that are basically similar. Chief among these assumptions is that the creative process is not an assualt upon the materials of the art, a conquest, but an unfolding, a growth from within, as a tree grows.
"Art is like a living tree," Arthur Richer said, "one must come up from the roots in order to branch out and become individual." To sustain an interest in unfocused color areas, melting forms that catch glimmers of light and bring suggetions sharply before our eyes, important in themselves because they were part of the process of "discovery" the painters had to know something about space and the organization of space. It is interesting to compare the aggitated surface of most of their canvases with the smooth and soft properties of flesh, cloth or bone as the subjects becomes more identifiable with different materials at the same time. Indeed that process was undergoing many drastic changes even while it was being spawned during the Kennedy Missile Crises; the systematic bombing of Vietnam; the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, Alabama, as well as the hippies and other cultural movers and shakers of the Sixties, who felt the federal government will not do the job.
But the process that an image undergoes during its evolution is part of its visual language as in any game, leading to faintly imagined relationships across many groups of artists and ideas within groups. It is not based on logical correlates, not on some continual essence running through them. They are, instead, like the spinning of a thread --an activity persons perform on reality, for better or worse.
Still for such a small some of people the underground was a vast retreat to networks of enclaves in the various studios of artists like Carlye McBeath, Ted Jones, Harvey Cropper and Walter Williams in New York; Eric Nord's Party pads, the Gas House in Venice, Shelley's Manhole, or The Jazz Workshop, The Jazz Celler and Mike's Pool Hall in North Beach. All of them related to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaungh, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Jerry Mulligen, Frank Sinatra and a host of others. In New York most of the musicians were drawn from people working on the Street (52nd between 6th and 7th), in California it was players who might be in town with a traveling band.
Yet, it was those who would attend live jam sessions, the random sessions after hours in artists' studio lofts, that drew devotees to the most fierce and memorable experiements in harmonies and rhythms that lifted one with beauty and joy; it marked the difference between what was old and new in the music and never captured in recordings. And, the jazz stars and the young musicians had a very close relationship with paintings. Bird's crowd appreciated him as a pure artist, and tried to understand him in that way, he stood during his moment in relative contrast to other musicians. He was himself a painter of sorts. Thinking his music was autonomous, he had few titles for his compositions, which were numbers to him and to the Dial studio people: "Klastoveesedstene" was D-1112, for instance.
Actually, Birds practice was much the same as Jackson Pollack's Indeed, very often they were one and the same. The two never met and were not friends. Pollock, who for an interval in 1948 resorted to exhibiting his painting and signing his works refused to name them at any time. That task fell to his wife Lee Krasner, or to friends, although Pollock himself later said that the color of an eggplant in his garden or his fascination with night sounds or creepycrawlies in the grass --or the energy in jazz itself --was what he was painting (Potter 141; du Plessix and Gray 51).
The new technology made information available so much faster than audiences could develop and exhaust forms as they had always done, but at an unprecedented speed. This speed meant that the old process of European validation of American popular art could occur more quickly. Kerouac's image of the road was in truth caught up in the excitment of the new ideas generated by Parker and Gillespie. He recognized all the qualities it had maintained from the previous jazz styles that he had been brought up on and loved so much: rhythmic propulsion and the happy-sad duality of the blues that infused so much of the music even when it wasn't couched directly in the 12-bar form. If one could make the connection between the chord structures of the standard songs on which the original bop compositions were based and combine these new themes to change both the popular visual imagery of experience and what they could bring to painting, it helped in appreciating the new improvisations previously inherent in jazz.
Perhaps even more importantly, one could abandon radical politics while remaining subversive on questions of culture and society.
Seeing themselves as victims, young artists turned to change those duping patterns of the country; they were not lost in the amorphous American aspiration to make it big, although they could have chosen to be almost anything else and chose to be artitst. All they wanted all day long was to deal with their artform, and their biggest kick in life they got from the response of their friends. But they also turned to that black part of the nation and thus of themselves which had longest borne and coped with victimization. In fact, mostly unaware but all across America, whites had absorded Black culture long before the fifties. Music and sculpture and dance, speech and writing and lore, religioin and food and costume -- black life had touched every corner of American life, had long been a part of white life. The paradox that had propped up the shabby house of American racism, however, was the pre-fifties tenet that such ethnic cultures were somehow separable. This fiction was one of the most victimizing beliefs for Americans of all races. It inhibited the powerful even from contemplating any aspect of black ethic, because by definition they were not allowed to recognize it. Bird's composition "Now is the Time" (1946) anticipated the moment when mainstream people began more frequently than usual to see themselves as dupes of their inherited ways of being in the world.
(Editorial Insert: include here descriptions of various paintings produced, c. 1960, Jay deFeo, etc.)
The Beats were adept at turning established values against the society that enshrined them. They unplugged from the standard circuit of family, job; and good behavior in order to overthrow sexual taboos, to commit uncivil disobedience against what they saw as the deathly pallor of middle-class culture. They followed a traditional romantic and bohemian route. Whenever the scene got dull or entangling, as sooner or later it always did, they took off from New York to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Big Sur, Berkeley, Denver and Mexico, or, on special occasions, Tangiers and Timbuctu.
The new artists of San Francisco in the 1960s struck a different chord from the apolitical thinking detected in the ideology of Barnett Newman, or Gottlieb-Rothko manifesto (1930s) that took the form of a rejection of "history," which could already be seen in surrealist and modernist practice if taken out of context. They defined their position in terms that were not merely stylistic but social as well. The uses of various techniques inherited from Cubism and Synthetic Cubism demonstrates what these artists owed to European painting in the likes of Picasso, Braque, Cezanne, Matisse, or, even the Dadaists. The creative bearing of such elements of creation as the mistake, the accident, the spontaneous, the incomplete, and even the absent became a vehicle upon which to build what had not been previously exploited. But it was improvisational themes dedicated to the rejection of popular culture that led them to a self-examination as artists which resulted in fundamental conclusions about the sources of their art and their reasons for painting.
Faced with an incomprehensible and corrupt world, painting must commune directly with the fundamental forces. The artist-as-shaman uncovers these forces by delving into his own imagination and then transcribes them as simply as possible, and with the maximum possible impact, using archaic symbols which possess universal significance. The period is crucial to this story because it was then that artists and critics were busy revising their positions and redefining their relations with institutions, social groups, political parties, the tradition of painting, that turned things around. They had been burdened by the previous generation of arguements based on the importance of "individualism" preached by Meyer Shapiro and Robert Motherwell. They did not, however, mistrust the unconscious, exuberance and naive sensibility because it was terrifically stimulating. It gave them a lot of courage and confidence. Moreover, it made them examine why they reacted to certain things the way they did; why that troubled them: analysing habits. It was an effort to find out what painting could be without merely repeating what it had already accomplished and quite well by the European painters.
On the contrary, in 1960, painters in North Beach faced serious problems. Encouraged by the old guarde they wanted the spectator to see the world their way but this had not produced a mythology and at once the pressure on artists was to find a place for their work in the art market to be recognized. This was not to happen and was more than enough to be dealt with in measured words. True, some were socialists but the revolutionary socialist forces had failed in the thirties. This failure cut the artist off from the proletariat, and since he was already cut off from his own class (the bourgeoisie), the creator found himself, alienated, in no-man's-land. At the same time, many more were interested in aspects of Existentialism in relation to painting but hadn't figured out just what the connections were exactly, so in some cases they had to start inventing relations between Existentialist thought and the processes of pyschology and art in general.
Long before the beats, San Franicisco and Greenwich Village had well-established traditoins of cultural expermentation. There were a few people still on the scene in those days who had perhaps been part of the Anarchist movement, or either they had identified at one time or another with the IWW in the old days of the great Eastern mill strikes, but oddly with their own particular interpretation of the Wobbly Preamble of yore had left the movement and become virulent anti-Bolsheviks. Those who had stayed in like to think of themselves as "Progressives" leaders of the vanguard in culture as well as politics. All of us however, unlike the Proletarians of the Thirites, were interested in upholding and defending the rights and standards of the arts against the pretensions of the pompous and ignorant bureaucracy, which is, probably by definition, characteristic of all Bolshevism. They believed it was up to the artist to judge whether a work of art was revolutionary or not. In fact, they believed that in most cases only the artist had any clear idea of what revolutionary means in the arts, however they marked their ballots.
Up until this time, except for a few cantankerous followers of the Socialist movement, everybody in the radical art movement got along pretty well together. Socialists, Anarchists and Communists shared general causes in which they all believed, came to one another's defense when in trouble with the law and all piled in and worked like demons in big mass efforts and spontaneous movements such as the rights of the Castro revolution in Cuba to determine its own destiny - which they had the sense to recognize was bigger than their own sectarian differences. While the American labor movement was in the shambles, its leaders discovered that they were being swept away in a maelstrom flowing from a world with which they were little concerned. The remarkable thing is that, with almost no exeptions, all of them continued for many years to defend Russia and what they called "the gains of the Revolution." Yet, among them there is little doubt that they blamed the Red Dictators for the historical consequences thought to be directly traceable to their decisions and designs.
What haunted this generation was not the spector of Communism but the force and mood of McCarthyism. People who have a superabundance of love to give, and offer it carelessly and without demands, of course attract the lovelost. In the course of the decade there gathered about the most extraordinary collection of mainmed and terrified people, a bottom to the world of the dispossessed that were ever known up until then. Diseased and unemployable petty criminals, terminal alcoholics, illiterate cranks, and plain overexcited incompetents came and went. They fed each other, listened to each others woes, and commiserated with one another. There was no so-called principled position, but for sure it was thought such people were the living embodiment of the true judgement of the human situation.
The Decade of Bebop, Beatniks and Painting, page 2