In the aftermath of World War II, at the dawn of the Cold War, a new aesthetic emerged in America among a generation of young poets and visual artists. Calling themselves the Beats, these artists formed a potent underground that offered an alternative to the complacent conformity of the Eisenhower years. But many of them also shared a powerful vision of their country's future and viewed with great sadness the vast chasm between the promise of the American dream and its uneven fulfillment. Seeking to bridge this gap through their art, they produced gritty and vibrant work that, like the Beats themselves, made a virtue of breaking the rules.
Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and on view at Walker Art Center from June 2 through September 15, looks at the Beat movement in all its complexity, illuminating the many cross-currents, rich exchanges, and collaborations among poets, artists, musicians, and filmmakers during this era of creative ferment. Painting, sculpture, film, music, and the spoken word will be combined with books, magazines, illustrated notebooks, and original manuscripts to provide a fresh perspective on American culture at mid-century. It will include works by over 70 artists and writers, including Wallace Berman, William Burroughs, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Dennis Hopper, Jack Kerouac, Ed Kienholz, Michael McClure, and Robert Rauschenberg.
The opening of Beat Culture and the New America will be celebrated with a number of related programs, including a preview party, poetry reading, panel discussion, artist talk, and guided tour on opening weekend; a Late Night in Gallery 8 performance; a class; and a Ruben Cinematheque film series. (A complete listing follows.)
With the publication of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" in 1956 and Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road in 1957, the underground exuberance of those who came to be known as the Beat Generation made its first public appearance. The term "beat" was first used in the late 1940s by writer and Times Square denizen Herbert Huncke to suggest a quality of being poor, down-and-out, deadbeat, sad, or used. By the time it reached print in 1952, it was understood by Kerouac as a positive term. "The Beat Generation is basically a religious generation," he wrote. "Beat means beatitude, not beat up."
The term's specific literary reference centers around three writers--Ginsberg, Kerouac, and William Burroughs--who met in New York City in the mid-1940s and were a catalyst for an increasingly interdisciplinary jazz, poetry, and painting scene in Greenwich Village. Similar countercultures developed in San Francisco and Los Angeles; Beats on both coasts were searching for a new kind of ecstasy. Finding vibrancy at the margins of American life, they embraced African-American culture, the detritus of the street, mind-altering drugs, and Eastern philosophy. Their raw, unpolished aesthetic fused spontaneous expression with firsthand experience, imbuing American culture with a new vibrancy and honesty.
Beat Culture and the New America examines the Beat sensibility in three urban centers--New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. By defining Beat as a broad cultural movement, the exhibition demonstrates that the Beat spirit extended well beyond its now legendary literary accomplishments, permeating many forms of artistic expression and ultimately transforming American life.
New York City
The first gallery explores the Manhattan Beat underground and its connections to the New York school of painting, Junk Art, Assemblage, Happenings, independent film, jazz, and avant-garde theater. Included are paintings by Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, Alfred Leslie, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock; sculpture by John Chamberlain and Richard Stankiewicz; manuscripts, notebooks, and collages by Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Amiri Baraka, and others; and a large selection of photographs, including 12 prints from Robert Frank's portfolio The Americans, which are on loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. A highlight of this section is the original "scroll version" of Kerouac's manuscript for On the Road, a powerful icon for the times which will be on view alongside vintage television footage of the author reading excerpts of the text on The Steve Allen Show in 1959.
The New York Happenings scene will be explored through works by Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, and Jim Dine, including video documentation of a 1962 Oldenburg Happening in Chicago. The Walker's presentation will include a special section documenting Kaprow's "Happening in a Cave," which was commissioned by the Walker in 1962 and staged in St. Paul's Lehmann Mushroom Caves. In this section of the exhibition, visitors also may use a listening station to hear selections of jazz and poetry by such artists as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Ginsberg, Baraka, and Kerouac. In addition, the classic Beat-era film Pull My Daisy (1959), created by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie and starring Ginsberg, Corso, David Amram, Larry Rivers, and others will be running continuously on a video monitor in the gallery.
The second gallery will examine the distinctive mix of literary, artistic, and Hollywood figures that made up the Los Angeles Beat scene. Centered around the charismatic figure of Wallace Berman, this group's work melds the arcane, the spiritual, and the occult with popular culture and the media. Berman is represented in the exhibition by his idiosyncratic sculpture, collages, drawings, books and other ephemera. His only film, an untitled, non-narrative collage of images from his studio, the media, and other sources, will be shown as a video projection in this section. Several works by the premier assemblage artist George Herms, including his 1986 tribute to Berman entitled The Berman Peace (part of the Walker's permanent collection) will be on view in this section as well as works by Ed Kienholz, Dennis Hopper, Stuart Perkoff, and Dean Stockwell. This section of the show will also house the Beat Lounge, a reading room featuring an illustrated timeline of the period and documentary photographs. Seating will be available so that visitors may spend time reading from the selection of poetry and prose books by authors represented in the exhibition.
The final gallery of the exhibition chronicles the flowering of the San Francisco Renaissance, from Ginsberg's public reading of "Howl" at the 6 Gallery in 1955 to the explosion of North Beach and Haight Ashbury in the mid-1960s. Such artists and writers as Jess, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure worked in multiple media, including poetry, drawing, assemblage, film, and photography.
A highlight of this section is DeFeo's monumental painting The Rose (1958-1966), two tons of paint worked into a radiating abstract form. Recently restored by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Art Institute, its inclusion in the exhibition is its first public appearance in over 25 years. Bruce Conner's film The White Rose, which documents the removal of the huge work from DeFeo's studio, will run continuously in an in-gallery screening room.
Archie Givens Collection
There is a strong African-American presence in Beat culture, from the influence of jazz and black vernacular to the contributions of several African-American poets, including Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), Ted Joans, and Bob Kaufman. To enhance our understanding of this presence, the Walker has borrowed material from the Archie Givens, Sr. Collection of African American Literature and Life, part of Wilson Library's Special Collections at the University of Minnesota. On view will be books, journals, letters, and other materials by Baraka, Joans, and Kaufman as well as a group of jazz-related printed materials.
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated, 280-page catalogue published by the Whitney Museum of American Art. The volume is the first comprehensive study of the far-reaching accomplishments of the Beats in their quest for new forms of expression. It includes a prologue by Allen Ginsberg and a lead essay by exhibition curator Lisa Phillips and provides an insightful and absorbing exploration of the world of the Beats and their contribution to cultural life in the late 20th century. The catalogue is available in the Walker Art Center Shops. Hardcover $55 ($49.50 Walker members); softcover $35 ($31.50).
Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965 was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and is sponsored by the AT&T Foundation. The exhibition is also made possible by a generous contribution from Thomas H. Lee and Ann Tenenbaum. Additional underwriting is provided by The Yamagata Foundation. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Committee of the Whitney Museum, and the New York State Council on the Arts have made grants in support of the exhibition. The Minneapolis presentation of this exhibition is made possible by Goldman, Sachs & Co. The Walker Art Center would like to thank the Givens Foundation for African American Literature for its support of this exhibition.
Major support for Walker Art Center programs is provided by the Minnesota State Arts Board through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, The Bush Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, Target Stores, Dayton's, and Mervyn's by the Dayton Hudson Foundation, the Northwest Area Foundation, the General Mills Foundation, the Institute of Museum Services, Burnet Realty, the American Express Minnesota Philanthropic Program, the Honeywell Foundation, Northwest Airlines, Inc., The Regis Foundation, The St. Paul Companies, Inc., the 3M Foundation, and the members of the Walker Art Center.
Organizing curator: Lisa Phillips, Whitney Museum of American Art, with John G. Hanhardt, curator of film and video at the Whitney; Ray Carney, professor of film and American Studies at Boston University; and Steven Watson, cultural historian and author. Walker coordinating curator: Joan Rothfuss.
Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965
Friday, May 31, 9 pm-12 midnight, $20 ($10)
The 1950s meet the 1990s as the vibrant artists, poets, writers, and musicians of the Beat era inspire our celebration. Live jazz by Part of the Noise (led by drummer Tim DuRoche) and poetry in a coffeehouse setting, screenings of short films introduced by visual artist-filmmaker Bruce Conner, hors d'oeuvres, a cash bar, poetic fortune cookies, and the composition of a giant "cut-up" poem by partygoers celebrate the spirit of the times.
Tickets are available for Walker members only, through Friday, May 24. Remaining tickets go on sale to the general public beginning Saturday, May 25, at the Walker box office, (612) 375-7622.
Ginsberg Poetry Reading and Panel Discussion
Saturday, June 1 4-6 pm, $10 ($8)
Poet Allen Ginsberg, accompanied by guitarist Steven Taylor, will perform songs and read from his work as a prelude to this interdisciplinary panel discussion. Panelists include visual artist-filmmaker Bruce Conner, sculptor George Herms, and writer Hettie Jones. The panel is moderated by cultural historian Steven Watson, author of The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters 1944-1960.
Artist Talk: George Herms
Sunday, June 2, 1 pm, Free with gallery admission
Galleries 1, 2, 3
Sculptor George Herms, one of the leading artists associated with California Assemblage, gives a gallery talk on his work The Berman Peace. Made in memory of his close friend and fellow Los Angeles Beat artist Wallace Berman, this powerful work is part of the Walker's permanent collection and is on view in the exhibition.
Gallery Tour: Lisa Phillips
Sunday June 2, 2 pm, Free with gallery admission
Galleries 1, 2, 3
Join Lisa Phillips, Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, and curator of the exhibition, for an informative and informal tour of the exhibition galleries.
Other Related Events in June
Late Night in Gallery 8
Saturday, June 8, 10 pm, $5 ($4*)
Gallery 8 Restaurant
This evening of on-the-edge music-making in a cabaret atmosphere is curated by Beat-inspired composer-accordionist Victor Zupanc and offered in conjunction with the exhibition. The lineup features theatrical word-jazz by Zupanc with Michael Sommers and Kevin Kling (of zany Bad Jazz fame); a cyber-Zen performance installation by Paul Higham for koto, video, and automatons; and the spoken-word, heavy-groove sounds of Mike Croswell and Metaphor. Copresented with the American Composers Forum. (*WAC and ACF members)
Second Sunday Tour
The Beat Goes On: Art, Music, and Poetry
Sunday, June 9, 2 pm, Free with Gallery Admission
Meet in the lobby.
Explore connections between art, music, and poetry. "Play" The Large Blue Horses, Colonial Cubism, or works from the exhibition. (Instruments will be provided or bring your own.) Bring your favorite piece of poetry to share in the galleries.
Notes from the Underground
Tuesdays, June 4-25, $5 ($4) for each evening
Walker Lecture Room
This weekly series draws on work from the Walker's Ruben Film Collection and focuses on the emergence of Beat-influenced "underground" cinema. Special programming assistance was provided by Barbara Moore of Bound and Unbound and Robert Haller of Anthology Film Archives.
A Conversation with Amos Vogel: What They Saw
Tuesday, June 4, 7 pm
Walker Film/Video Curator Bruce Jenkins hosts an evening with New York critic-scholar Amos Vogel, founder of the legendary Cinema 16 film society--a movie mecca for artists, cinephiles, and the intelligentsia of the late 1940s through the early 1960s. Vogel will share film clips and his personal reminiscences of his Beat clientele and the films (underground and otherwise) they came to see.
Tuesday, June 11, 7 pm
Mixing animation and live action, documentary and fiction, this program of shorts ranges from the lyrical West Coast imagery of Bruce Baillie's All My Life (1966, 3 minutes) and the mystical iconography of artist and ethnomusicologist Harry Smith's Early Abstraction No. 10 (1957, 10 minutes) to Ron Rice's The Flower Thief (1960, 75 minutes), an episodic tale of "wild child" Taylor Mead traipsing through the haunts of the San Francisco Beats. The program concludes with the world premiere screening of Peter Moore's Stockhausen's Originale: Doubletakes (1964/1995, 33 minutes), an exuberant portrait of the opening of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's Originale, a famed New York performance event.
Tuesday, June 18, 7 pm
A survey of the celebratory and critical aspects of the underground, this program opens with Marie Menken's neo-city symphony Go, Go, Go (1962-1964, 11 1/2 minutes) and Larry Jordan's Triptych in Four Parts (1958, 12 minutes), a Beat-era portrait of the denizens of North Beach (including Michael McClure and Wallace Berman). At the center of the evening are Overstimulated (1960, 5 minutes) and Flaming Creatures (1963, 45 minutes), two rare works by pioneering underground artist Jack Smith. Concluding the program are Stan Vanderbeek's satirical collage Wheeeels #1 (1959-1965), James Whitney's computer animation Lapis (1963-1966, 10 minutes), and Kenneth Anger's epochal Scorpio Rising (1963, 29 minutes).
Tuesday, June 25, 7 pm
The experimental side of the underground is surveyed in a program that opens with Shirley Clarke's Bridges-Go-Round (1958, 3 minutes), an exuberant homage to the Brooklyn Bridge, and Rudy Burckhardt's Mounting Tension (1950, 20 minutes), a vintage street improvisation featuring Larry Rivers and John Ashberry. Two highlights of the evening are Alfred Leslie's rarely screened second film The Last Clean Shirt (1964, 40 minutes) and Barbara Rubin's two-screen, erotic masterpiece Christmas on Earth (1963, 29 minutes). Concluding the program are a pair of remarkable shorts: Ricky Leacock's Anatomy of Cindy Fink (1965, 12 minutes), a verité visit to Alfred Leslie's studio, and Ed Emshwiller's Thanatopsis (1962, 5 minutes), a choreographic tale of existential anxiety.
Class: The Beat Generation
Thursdays, June 20-July 18 (no class on July 4), 6:30-8 pm
A 1952 New York Times magazine article about Jack Kerouac and other poets shouted the headline "This is the Beat Generation!" Explore the multidisciplinary art of Beat painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, and filmmakers in a class offered in conjunction with the exhibition. Learn more about this fascinating movement from several guest lecturers and delve into the rich collaborations in visual art, music, literature, performance, and film. Instructor: Karen Moss, associate curator of education and public programs at the Walker Art Center. Guest lecturers: Peter Boswell, independent scholar and curator; Tim DuRoche, writer and jazz musician; and Maria Damon, associate professor of English literature at the University of Minnesota. Cosponsored by the University of Minnesota's Compleat Scholar program.
NOTE: Beat-related events--Performances, Readings, Lectures, Gallery Talks, a Summer Salon, and Summer Movies and Music--continue in July and August. Details to be announced.
($) = ticket price for Walker members, seniors, AFDC cardholders, groups of 10 or more.