"On the Road"

by Harry Roche

magazine unnoted, October 2, 1996

The traveling "Beat Culture and the New America" brings 200 beat objects to (still) life at the de Young.

Sandwiched between the '50s postwar prosperity and the '60s flowering of hippiedom, the beats were a nebulous constellation of counterculture poets, painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians whose moment came with the cold war. The omnipresent threat of atomic and newer-fangled hydrogen bombs generated an existential nihilism in disaffected youth who made pilgrimages to bohemian meccas like North Beach and Greenwich Village.

While the beats made no bones about marching to a bohemian drummer, they were often characterized as little more than a bongo-playing bad poets society self-absorbed, barely literate artists clad in black turtlenecks, sporting virgin goatees, and spouting Zen aphorisms. Herb Caen made an indelible contribution to beatdom's colorful lexicon by coining the appellation "beatnik". (When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, the Chronicle's intrepid columnist began affixing -nik to everything under the sun.) A band of recalcitrant loners who harbored socialist sympathies and espoused free love (including homosexual love, no less!) flew in the face of conventional middle-American mores.

Beat artists and writers shared an angst-ridden aesthetic that celebrated the immediacy of improvisation. Many were dedicated to dissolving boundaries between art and life. The creative act was seen as more important than the ephemeral artwork itself. That many of these products have survived and wound up in museums as precious objects d'art must seem to their creators to be as comical as the mainstream beatification of such unrepentant hell-raisers as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.

When "Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-65" rolls into the de Young Saturday, art enthusiasts and culture vultures alike will probably be flocking to Golden Gate Park in droves. Organized by New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and underwritten by AT&T, the eagerly anticipated blockbuster presents some 200 artworks including painting, sculpture, assemblage photography, film, installation, manuscripts, notebooks, collages, and spoken word assembled by groups working in three cities where beatdom flourished most febrifically: San Francisco (home of Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Wally Hedrick, Jess, Michael McClure); Los Angeles (Wallace Berman, George Herms, Dennis Hopper, Ed Kienholz, Dean Stockwell); and New York (William Burroughs, John Chamberlain, Jim Dine, Robert Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Franz Kline, Alfred Leslie, Claes Oldenberg, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Robert Smithson, et al).

Curator Lisa Phillips raises the aesthetic pitch with pieces by figures not normally associated with the beat movement but who are household names to any museum-goer. (At least Pollock, the abstract expressionist for whom painting really was an arena in which to act, may have been a beat at heart.)

While the wily spectacle promises to be wildly uneven and of greater historical interest than aesthetic merit in many instances (the nursery-school primitivism of Kerouac's Buddha canvas, for example, is embarrassingly bad) there are plenty of bona fide highlights to engage viewers, including a dozen prints from Robert Frank's famed "The Americans" series and the first public showing in a quarter century of "The Rose" (1958-64), Jay DeFeo's 2,300 pound magnum opus. Bruce Conner's horrific Child (1959-60) is a seminal anti-capital punishment assemblage that has lost none of its shock appeal: this black wax baby strapped in a high chair and sheathed in fetishized spiderweb nylons reeks of age, death, and decay. Though Conner's charred, howling homunculus is an allusion to a convicted rapist who got the gas chamber, it could be the poster child for the cold war.

The End