Judy Newman, Eyes

“Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the politicallegislators who implement change after the fact. ”
William S. Burroughs

The John Natsoulas Gallery has a rich history and strong ties with artists from the Beat Generation and has exhibited work by Miriam Hoffman, Wally Hedrick, Hassel Smith, Seymour Locks, Manuel Neri, José Ramon Lerma, Ralph Du Casse, Charles Strong, Roy De Forest, Clayton Pinkerton, George Herms, Betty Bishop, and David Park. More specific exhibitions on the 1950’s include those of individual galleries such as the King Ubu Gallery, Six Gallery, Spatsa Gallery, Batman Gallery, and the 2005 exhibition on the Merry-Go-Round Show. All of these installments are important educational contributions to the history of the Beat Generation artists in the San Francisco area.

Many of the artists don’t consider themselves Beats or beatniks, but by virtue of hanging out and becoming a part of the scene they then, in turn, became part of the movement.A common misconception is to think art of the Beat Generation as limited solely to assemblage, ready-made, or neo-dada sculpture. However, the defining concept of the Beat Generation art is the ability to experiment—whether in art, music, dance, poetry, film, or theater.

The connecting theme through art from the Beat Generation was the element of collaboration.‑Poets, musicians, artists, filmmakers, dancers and thespians all socialized together, which made the San Francisco renaissance all that much more exciting. The Beat Generation was largely made possible by the wave of artist-oriented establishments that began to appear in San Francisco. The string of co-operative galleries, City Lights Bookstore, and even the California School of Fine Arts all had indelible connections with the success of the Beat Generation and its multi-talented artists. Without places to show work, or influential teachers and publishers, the artists would not have been able to gather the attention or the audience that they did. The locations where these collaborations took place represent the importance of café culture and the call for safe place to present one’s work. In San Francisco, the most notable places where the majority of activities happened are as follows: Black Cat Cafe, Six Gallery, The Place, City Lights Bookstore, The Cellar, Vesuvio’s Restaurant, Garibaldi Hall, the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, the Iron Pot Restaurant, Mike’s Pool Hall, Mrs. Smith’s Tea Room, Gino and Carlo’s bar, the Anxious Asp, Cassandra’s Coffee Gallery, Black Hawk Bar, the No Name Bar, Café Trieste, Sam Wo’s and Specs Bar. In New York, Beat hangouts began to appear somewhat latter than those in San Francisco, but were no less influential in providing a creative, cooperative atmosphere: Cedar Street Tavern, West End Café, San Remo Café, The Pony Stable, West 42ndStreet Bookstore, the 52ndStreet Jazz Club Scene: Nut Club, Chateau Gardens, The Famous Door. The Los Angeles hangouts were fewer in number and variety, but also set the stage for a Beat Generation in Southern California: The Grand Hotel, St. Mark’s Hotel, Cosmo Alley, Finale Jazz Club, Bird in the Basket, Camarillo State Hospital, Venice West Espresso Café, The Wind Blue Inn.

The diversity of these locations, as places where multi-media events happened, typifies the attitudes and ideals of the Beat Generation artists. The first performance art pieces and the first light shows took place at these hangouts. The student-run Six Gallery was the site of Allen Ginsberg’s infamous reading of Howlin 1955, the legendary piano destruction in 1957. The Spatsa Gallery‑and the Dilexi Gallery showed some of the first Northern California modern art on an international level.

Perhaps the quintessential Beat Happening is the notorious first reading of “Howl”, by Allen Ginsberg. Poet Michael McClure remembers the evening, and its participants, distinctly:

“In l955, Wally Hedrick asked me if I would put together a poetry reading for the Six Gallery and I agreed. Not long before this meeting with Hedrick I’d met a poet from New York at a local party honoring W. H. Auden. Allen Ginsberg and I were simpatico about many things in the art of poetry. We’d gotten together and Ginsberg had shown me letters and poems from a young unknown genius named Jack Kerouac. During one session I told Allen about the Six Gallery reading and due to my lack of time Allen volunteered to shoulder the arrangements for the event.

On October 7th, l955, five young poets and poet-philosopher Kenneth Rexroth, who was to M.C. the event, showed up at the Six Gallery. Ginsberg had met two new poet friends, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder and invited them to be in the reading. Besides Rexroth and Allen I already knew the other reader, the American surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. The October show at the Six Gallery was Crate Sculptureby Fred Martin. The pieces looked as if Martin had taken wooden fruit crates, broken them, and swathed them in muslin or some other light cloth then dipped them in plaster. The sculptures probably were exactly right and appropriate to be the setting for the six of us at the Six Gallery.

Even in those days the young Philip Whalen was a good-sized man.  Standing there on the low wooden dais with his stomach forward and a slight arch to his back, he held his pages up to his eyes as he read. Whalen showed such an insouciance and near-pedagogical indifference to the genius of his own deep scholarship that the poems seemed to break off in the air in hunks as they were spoken and hang there like visionary American cartoons. Williams was calling for the use of what he saw as the American language—our own natural everyday speech—as the language of verse. Here was Whalen who had apparently, out of nowhere, managed to master American language in his poetry and then, not stopping there, had harnessed it to his poetry and to his interest in metamorphosis, and his almost pragmatic religious and scientific understanding of the physical and historical universes—real and unreal.

Gary Snyder, slender and coyote-eyed, dressed in old levi jeans, like Whalen and Ginsberg read the first poems that I’d heard that presented Nature in a way that was wholly devoid of urban man and without a trace of the sentiment that until that time accompanied nearly all poems of nature. Snyder was as much a scholar-poet as any of the finest in the English tradition. In fact, it was already clear that we were not only hipster-outsiders and literary outlaws and anarchists and surrealists and Buddhists, we were all also scholars of nature and our own art of poetry. Phillip Lamantia had much grace in his physical presence and appearance and voice. He had decided to read, posthumously, the prose poems of his heroin-addicted friend John Hoffman. When he read these works they seemed to make themselves present in the air in orange stripes and trails of luminous colors.

Allen Ginsberg on bench

William Burroughs, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg

Exhibition at the Six Gallery

I was twenty-three years old and the youngest to read; it was the first time I had read my poetry to an audience. Listening to a surviving audiotape of the event I was surprised by my sureness and my presence. I read a poem for the deaths of one hundred killer whales that had been machine-gunned from boats by NATO service men, near the coast of Iceland. It was a poem of outrage and anguish that called upon Goya to be the tutelary witness of this mass murder, and that closed with a call to D.H. Lawrence to witness the mindless assassination of these great erotic beings whom he had addressed in his poem “Whales Weep Not.” The poem linked together Buddha’s Fire Sermon and my perceptions of physical anthropology. I was looking, as we all were, for a poetics that would go beyond the unloved art of poetry, which was at that moment the bastard stepchild of twittery academics. The poetry was then, as it is now, irretrievably and subjectively searching for liberation, for nature, for physicality and for what I call soul-making.

Bespectacled, vulnerable and almost willowy in stature, Allen began his poem in a clear, precise and measured voice, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” And as he entered the sweep of his new master work he moved into the realm of the bardic. But more than anything else, in my memory is the growing awareness, of first one person and then another that a challenge was being thrown out to the grim, fearful and war-obsessed fifties. The ominous and overwhelming powers of censorship—both those powers of the brutal government and the self-censoring processes of the individual in propagandized society—had been challenged. But there was something more—in this act of nerve and bravery there was a generosity.  This poem was not only a condemnation of society in a prophetic mode; it also kindly offered a helping hand. If this young and vulnerable man could speak out so clearly, broaching one unmentionable subject after another, why could not anyone do the same? Further, if it was possible to speak so, then why could one not go a step further and act?

The reading of Howlwas like a series of awakening shocks—each one a bit harsh in its sudden newness but also exhilarating in the unveiling of the unspoken—or the secretly spoken—obvious. The homosexual, the pothead, the artist, the gagged professor, the downtrodden aging failure, the aspiring bright spirit, the soul in growth in the automobile graveyard, the victimized boy and girl, the politically suspect, the fearful idealist, the budding voice of revolt against brutal mechanized greed, the crazed neurotic caught in the pinchers of mindless social conformity, the older woman with secret dreams of freedom, the conscientious objector, the dejected parents wondering about the future of their child, and those who were defying (or almost ready to defy) racism and the creators of nuclear armaments for the final war, everyone, heard a humane voice that was greeting them with a new sounding hello. At the end of the reading the audience was on their feet with the realization that a new limit of individual expression had been reached. Almost everyone there, from anarchist carpenter to society lady, was willing to put their toe on that new line and to refuse to be made to step back without a struggle. The Six Gallery on October 7th, l955, was the venue of the first group reading of what has come to be known as the Beat Generation.

Howlmarked a dramatic and public shift in performance art, affecting dance, theater, music, art poetry, literature and film. John Cage premiered his first Happening performance at Black Mountain College in 1952, Theater Piece No. 1, with Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham; the event featured a combination of painting, poetry, music and dance. Seymour Locks created the first light show in 1953, at San Francisco State College. The Rat Bastard Protective Association was formed in 1958 by Michael McClure, Bruce Conner, Wally Hedrick, Jay De Feo. Manuel Neri and Joan Brown as a kind of quasi-coalition of artists. Rat Bastard group was productive and active, making “rat” pieces, and mocking their artistic training, teachers and the politics of the era. Wallace Berman was arrested in 1957 at the Ferus Gallery, indicating the social effects that the freedom of the era was inflicting on rigid social restraints.  The same year, George Herms installed a Secret Exhibitionover a section of city blocks on La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles. Herms only revealed his achievement to Walter Hopps and John Reed. Experimental Beat films such as Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, and Bruce Conner’s A Moviecombined art with poetry and found footage to create new standards and push creative and socially defined boundaries. Even Jay De Feo’s monumentally influential painting, The Rose, was recorded in photography and film with the artist posing next to her work.

To the artists of the Beat Generation, living in the Bay Area allowed them the freedom to experiment, concentrate and make artistic leaps. Jay De Feo’s The Rose, and its long creation characterize the attitudes of the Beat artists and their dedication to craft. De Feo began work on The Rosein 1958; it would take her 7 years to complete to 129” x 92” x 8”, 2300- pound, mandala-shaped oil painting and would eventually have to be removed by a crane from her Fillmore Street house in Berkeley. The event was historically recorded in Bruce Conner’s Beat film, The White Rose. In the painting, the central image seems to represent De Feo’s fascination with sculptural painting that began in the ‘50s. As probably the most important Beat Generation painting of the Bay Area, The Rose reflected the San Francisco Beat Generation’s interest in Eastern thought as well as the interested in combined mediums—De Feo introduced bits of glass and beads into the thick-skinned oil painting, skewing the lines between painting, sculpture and assemblage.

Just as they were occurring on the West Coast, Happenings began to emerge in newly formed hangouts on the East Coast—cafes, galleries and bookstores were meeting places for artists and poets to share ideas and present. Jack Kerouac, John Cage, and the Black Mountain College students and instructors collaborated on performance and exhibitions similar to those happening on the West Coast. Publications such as the Village Voiceand articles in the New York Timesand the Evergreen Review brought vital attention to the beat movement in New York. Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine were given shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Jim Dine’s Car CrashHappening at the Judson Gallery, and the first jazz/poetry readings at the Brata Gallery signaled the importance of experimentation and cooperation in contemporary art. The interdisciplinary exchange of artistic ideas spread across the country heralding a new era of creative expression.

As you leave the Beat Generation and Beyond, I believe you will indeed find that these artists truly had a lyrical vision. They combined theater, music, painting, poetry, film, assemblage and sculpture. Their intention was to keep the galleries open at all costs, and in doing so, gave artists in San Francisco a place to express their creativity freely. The hope in my heart is that the rich culture of a land so diverse can be preserved through the many modes of expression these artists exemplify.

Beat Art