Friday, June 15, 2012

"THE PAINTED WORD": "like gold to aery thinness BEAT"

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
          Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
          Like gold to aery thinness beat ….

Thy firmness makes my circle just,
          And makes me end where I begun.
                        From “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne

The Meridian Gallery in San Francisco (see my previous post  -- 2/17/12 -- about their wonderful Patrick Graham exhibition) is presenting a show, now extended through July 14th, called “The Painted Word,” co-curated by Peter Selz and Sue Kubly.   I will focus here on seven participants:  William Saroyan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Hirschman, Robert Duncan, Henry Miller, and Kenneth Patchen.

Audiences have become used to painters inserting words, phrases or poems in their work, as in Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell’s “Je t’aime (I love you)” below):

But we are not used to thinking about poets attempting, and succeeding at, painted poetry. Only the drawn and hand-printed plates of William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (completed in 
1793) come to mind:

 And then? Most of us cannot imagine any successors to Blake. This show changed all that for me. Poets paint. There was a movement, loosely grouped, endlessly defined, that co-existed with Abstract Expressionism: the Beat generation.  I should say, up front, that not every writer in this show is included in various lists of Beat poets (William Saroyan paints, but does not “Beat” in any list, for example), and that not all poets who came of age in the 1940’s and 1950’s painted their works on canvas (Allen Ginsberg among them).  But they don’t know what they missed -- this show is that compelling.

To better understand these writers and their era, I have been reading The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, by Bill Morgan, recommended to me by the staff of City Lights Bookstore (which, along with the Meridian Gallery, deserves a visit).  Morgan makes a claim up front for the differences among these writers:  “Friendship held these writers together, more than style or ideology” (xvii).  Allen Ginsberg is central to Morgan’s research, the figure around whom, the author says, the Beats moved. Ginsberg was not a painter, but he did set Blake’s poems to his own musical compositions (p.228) And so it seems that almost all of these writers considered working in another medium, or even with another medium. Here is proof; the show includes a poster of a Kenneth Patchen reading, accompanied by André Previn’s jazz, in Oakland (all images from here on are courtesy of The Meridian Gallery):

Breaking boundaries. This show at Meridian pulls together writer/artists working from the mid-1940’s to the 2010’s and makes us SEE the fullness of what the arts are and, specifically, what painting and poetry might BE if we can only see them, combined.

One of the seminal poets whose paintings are represented in this show is Lawrence Ferlinghetti. His book, A Coney Island of the Mind, is still in print, and is one of the best known books of poetry from this period, so Ferlinghetti can help introduce us to this way of thinking and feeling. A stanza follows:

Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making.

It is critical, that stress on “absurdity /and death.”  Coney Island poems were different from Shakespeare and W.H. Auden; they felt irreverent, immediate, and a little scary.  I found an article, last week, that was first published in The New York Times Magazine on November 16, 1952, called “This is the Beat Generation,” by John Clellan Holmes ( isBeatGen.html).  He writes that there are two main reactions to post-WWII America: people became conformists (what he calls “the young Republicans”) or Beats (what he calls the1950’s “hipsters”).  Holmes writes:

“More than mere weariness, [Beat] implies the feeling of having been
used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and,
ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to a bedrock of
consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up
against the wall of oneself …. [This generation had seen war and, much
as they are unwilling to go back into that void] they have never been
able to keep the world out of their dreams …. They had intimate experience
with the nadir and the zenith of human conduct …. [their experiences]
led to black markets, bebop, narcotics, sexual promiscuity, hucksterism, and
Jean-Paul Sartre. The beatness set in later …. Their excursions into drugs or
promiscuity come out of curiosity, not disillusionment …. How to live
seems to them much more crucial than why ….  The valueless abyss of
modern life is unbearable …. [And yet]  beneath the excess [of the Beats]
and the conformity [of the young Republicans] there is something other
than detachment. There are the stirrings of a quest.”

And isn’t that the point, really, that all of us, and all writers and artists, face the question of How to live? That life, and art, involve a kind of realization of the “nakedness of mind,” a “curiosity,” and “the stirrings of a quest”? The unease we sometimes feel, the restlessness and eagerness to find ourselves, and even the fear of what we will find, isn’t that central to our age, even now?

That is why this exhibition is so important, because it connects us, through works we are unlikely to see together ever again, to a larger world of art that helps us see that “abyss” and re-work it into something we can   -- perhaps -- confront through paint and words.  And it is their knowing that the “perhaps” is always there that leads these writers to jump into the paint with such abandon and apparent joy.

The first set of works I would like to mention seem to me to be all about a kind of wild exuberance. Just look at Henry Miller’s “Untitled” (in a corner he has written “1954”):

It is free, and happy; this painting bears no resemblance to the art of the Abstract Expressionists, with its European roots.  This is a fully local, American art, with a couple, a church, a house as if seen in a dream, lush colors, a fully-realized life.  Miller is not someone we think of as a Beat.  And yet there is a connection:  in The Holy Typewriter, Bill Morgan notes that because of the positive outcome of the  1957 censorship trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who had published Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems)  Grove Press would later be able to publish Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (p. 129).  And Miller would appear at an international writers’ conference in 1962 in Edinburgh with William Burroughs and Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer, a conference where Burroughs was championed by McCarthy, one of the endorsements that would make him famous (Morgan, p. 195).

William Burrough’s Naked Lunch  (see an excellent short introduction to him here: would suffer its own censorship trial, but survive, like Howl, to sell and inspire well beyond anything he might have imagined.  Morgan’s book details Burrough’s rough life, from addiction, to murder, to writing influential books with the intense support of his friends.  But Burrough’s visual art can be gestural, luminous, layered, and filled with color, as here in the very large “Piece for City People,” from 1993:

I love these pinks, rusts and purples, and the combination of the sweeping brushstroke and the smaller circles. 

The third in this “exuberant” series of works, one of the striking pieces on the first floor of the show, is “Dipthong,” from 2010, by Jack Hirschman:

We can see drips, a possible figure or animal, writing-not-quite-writing, and kind of brash use of color and shape. There’s a famous story about Hirschman; he sent work to Ernest Hemingway, who replied: "I can't help you, kid. You write better than I did when I was 19. But the hell of it is, you write like me. That is no sin. But you won't get anywhere with it."  Hirschman lives in San Francisco, was its poet laureate, and is an activist, poet and painter. Here are a few lines of his from “Who Cares” (printed in Left Curve no.21):

…. he said, speaking of
the future some thirty odd
years ago, of this visual
listening to light
just below the surface of things,
this planetary All in you, constructed
of holocausts and ecstasies, the snail's inch
and the worker's steel, demonstrations and
monotonies, golem and robot, opens to receive
most stumblingly, hungrily, desolately, authentically
sounds from deep within the wilding stillness
and there, when five small human bones tug
at your sleeve of skin, the question-mark
falls away and you know who cares.

There is a continuity here between the poetry and painting, lines in each one that keep moving, verbs that jump, colors that jump, waking you up.

The fourth set of paintings that seems to me to be completed in this bouncy, buoyant mode comes from Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  His book of poems, Coney Island,  had helped create his reputation, and Ferlinghetti would help others as he published their work through his City Lights Press. In January 1967, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were all on the stage at the San Francisco Human Be-In, an event billed as A Gathering of Tribes which “marked the start of what became known as “the Summer of Love” (Holy Typewriter, p. 223).  His poems are known for their easy, hip, cool, accessible language, language that offers more each time the reader returns to it. Here is a bit of “4,” from the painterly book Pictures of a Gone World:

 And in the poet’s plangent dream I saw
no Lorelei upon the Rhone
                               nor angels debarked at Marseilles
but couples going nude into the sad water
                                 in the profound lasciviousness of spring
   in an algebra of lyricism
                                 which I am still deciphering

Ferlinghetti’s paintings, shown at Meridian, are sometimes political (“Mother Russia”) or historical (“Freud”) or amusing (“Bagno di seni,” a man in a bathtub filled with breasts) but they are all like a single line of a poem: one thought, selected carefully, then writ or painted large. Here is a center detail of the wall-sized homage to Picasso, "Pablo" from 1991. The painter is surrounded by his creations:

The painter seems to be behind a glass wall, in his own world, unapproachable, but captured, with his women and what seem to be forms from Guernica floating all around him. “Pablo” is painted in primary colors, an interesting choice for a painter who preferred grays and browns.  “If he were here with us,” Ferlinghetti seems to be saying ….

I found, on thinking about the show after I saw it, that a second set of works seemed to present themselves. These are the quieter, more contemplative pieces that gave this post its title, the “gold to aery thinness beat.”  I felt as though these paintings, with their acknowledgement of all that has passed, still found the beauty and the feeling in what remains, just as Donne’s narrator does in his poem :”Valediction.” It is not “A breach, but an expansion.”

“I think of myself as someone who has used the medium of painting in an attempt to extend," said Kenneth Patchen (who also read poems to jazz accompaniment and wrote a play with John Cage).  Patchen would be one of the first poets published by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press.  He had attended the University of Wisconsin, and knew T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, yet had to work as a migrant and was confined to bed for his final 13 years, years when he wrote and painted some of his best work.  Patchen played with the poetic tradition:

Sunday, April 8th (168
With this rose, I thee world. Fashioned in Love, its color the
color of heart’sblood! See, though its leaves do wilt and fall, yet
is it rose; and never any mean or sullied thing. Wonder it!

Meridian has, for sale, a portfolio of delicate silkscreened poems on handmade paper by Patchen; they must be handled with gloves, but they are very beautiful, sometimes funny, always playing with whether colors or words are foremost.  Here is a painting from the show, a kind of “valediction,” called “#160 Untitled,” from the 1960’s:

“Shape-shifting was the essence of his art,” wrote the critic Jonathan Clark (in Kenneth Patchen: A Centennial Selection, Kelly’s Cove Press, p. 9. This book is also at Meridian, and gives you a good idea of how linked drawing and poetry were for Patchen).  The painting here shape-shifts on its own.  Roses? Snakes?  Planted fields with gold shot through the air?  Patchen also writes prose; here is a bit of  “A Pasturized Scene” (all crazed spellings are his):

“A little roly poly Giant Sloth chanced to be picking an bouquet of dryish blue skullcaps, when, without any warning whatever, an impetuous Cow dashed from a doorway hung with swinging bags and began at once to make wild threats against his continued safety. Much enamoured as he was by their vague, barny smell and puffy sponge-veined lips, he made in turn ….”

In addition to Shakespearean and Hefnerian sexual innuendoes (which I haven’t quoted here) the Beats had a more than a streak of Edward Lear….

Kenneth Rexroth was also one of the first writers published by City Lights and helped fight for Ferlinghetti’s Howl to be published (Holy Typewriter, pp. 127-8).  Here is the conclusion to the poem “Gic to Har” (from

I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.
Thirty factories empty their refuse in the creek.
On the parched lawns are starlings, alien and aggressive.
And I am on the other side of the continent
Ten years in an unfriendly city.

You can see here a lyricism, disrupted, and mourned for. Rexroth’s painting “San Marco” from 1956 has the same mournful, profound beauty:

I stood before this for quite awhile. The layers are really moving.

Along with Patchen and Rexroth, Robert Duncan’s paintings lend themselves to a long, hard, meditative look.  Here is “Flower Design,” from 1950:

It is a Vuillard, a Matisse, but goes all over, right to the edges, as if to say the dance continues… Duncan’s poems have an edge that he does not pull into his paintings.  See these few lines from the prose poem “Structure of Rime XX,” from his Selected Poems:

                  ….You keep the unknown bird hidden in your hands as if to carry sight into
the house. But the sightless ones have opend the windows and listen to the songs outside. Absence, the Mother of Blindness tells them, rimes among the feathers of birds that exist only in sight. The songs you hear fall from their flight light like the shadows stars cast among you.

                  You must learn to lose your heart. Let the beat of your heart go. Missing the beat. And from the care of your folded hands unfold a feeling in the room of an empty space….

And then there is this fabulous work, “Untitled,” which you must imagine as large (and then go and see it):

It is as if Duncan wanted a light, free, and easy touch in the allover paintings that he could not place in his poetry. For him, but not for the other poets, there was a difference between the painted and the written work.

The last of the writer-painters in this “quieter” group is William Saroyan, best known as a playwright, novelist and short-story writer.  One of his works is suspended from the gallery ceiling.  He once told a younger writer "Try to learn to breathe deeply; really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell." In this, he is a Beat, although he isn’t mentioned in The Typewriter is Holy.  Saroyan, like Duncan, paints all-over lines (that would later be “discovered’ anew by Brice Marden in his “Cold Mountain” series). Here is Saroyan’s wonderfully-titled “Paris Grass and Other Stuff (June 9, 1961)”:

Grass looks just like that, doesn’t it? Especially in Paris.  And here is my favorite painting by him, called “Orange on Top of Typed Sheet” from 1973:

This seems a fitting piece with which to end this review.  It’s a typescript that has been painted over, and yet we can still read bits of the type, and where we can’t, the artist has transcribed (illegibly!) some of the blotted-out words. Paint, ink, type, paper … it doesn’t get more basic than that. The show is up until July 14. Go and see it for yourself. And let me know what you think!