EssaysWeekend

Can We Still Learn To Speak Martian?

by John Yau on April 29, 2012

Deborah Remington "Soot" series 2 (1963) (image courtesy of David Nolan) (click to enlarge)

I.

Let us start with two addresses just a few blocks from each other in San Francisco, and what was happening there in the early and mid-1950s. On Halloween, 1954, the Six Gallery opened at 3119 Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The six founders were Wally Hedrick, Deborah Remington, Hayward King, David Simpson, John Ryan and Jack Spicer. Their shared interest was to have a place to exhibit art and host literary events, to put art and poetry on the walls, side by side. At the debut exhibition, Spicer’s poems were in fact on the wall, just like the paintings and drawings of the other co-founders.

The mixture of personalities and backgrounds of the founders is worth recalling in light of the times. There was an African-American (King); a veteran of the Korean War (Hedrick); students of Clyfford Still at the California School of Fine Arts (Simpson and Remington); Remington was the only woman, and Spicer was the only gay poet who spoke Martian.

On the day the gallery opened, a toilet was displayed in the front window with a draft notice suspended above it.  Hedrick, who, in 1963, became the first artist to protest the Vietnam War in his work, was the likely instigator.  The police were called and the toilet was removed. In the meantime, the gallery had made a statement: outrageousness was as important as seriousness, often with no distinction between the two.
Within a short time, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Bruce Conner, and Jay DeFeo would become associated with the Six Gallery. Also, Leo Valledor, a Filipino-American who had grown up in the Fillmore district and was later a founding member of the Park Place Gallery, New York, had his first show there when he was 19.  In an interview with Carlos Villa, Remington pointed out that during the three years of its existence (1954-1957), the Six Gallery showed a number of woman artists: Jay DeFeo, Joan Brown, Joanne Lowe, Miriam Hoffman, and Sonia Gechtoff. What these women had in common was a fierce individuality and an unwavering commitment to a hands-on studio practice. Forerunners of the feminist movement, their emphasis on the handmade prompted some theorists to characterize their art-making as “women’s work.”

Thomas Nozkowski, "Untitled" (2010) (image courtesy of the artist) (click to enlarge)

Remington is the only American artist I know of who went to Japan, taught American slang to university students, and acted in B-movies there, but that has no bearing on her importance. In the drawings, Soot Series I and Soot Series II (both 1963), we see the beginning of her preoccupation with emblematic abstract forms in which an evident identity is both carefully articulated and thoroughly denied. The viewer cannot name Remington’s invented forms, thus locating them in language.

(Might not a sharply focused exhibition of works by Remington, Thomas Nozkowski and Chuck Webster — painters from three different generations — cast a very different light on the issue of figure/ground?)

Remington’s austerely sensual forms may evoke a visor on a knight’s helmet or a radiator unit, but they never become them.  Using the unlikely medium of soot, the artist establishes a moody, almost sinister atmosphere in which her barred objects glow, like a cat’s eyes at night. At the same time, her ink on paper, Les Fleurs du Mal (1959), shares a visceral linearity with the drawings done by Jay DeFeo and Sonia Gechtoff during the fifties.

(Wouldn’t a show of drawings done by DeFeo, Gechtoff and Remington between 1959 and 1965 cast another light on this period?)

From 1952 to 1953, the 3119 Fillmore Street space had been the location of the King Ubu Gallery, which had been run by the artists Jess and Harry Jacobus, and the poet Robert Duncan. Open for less than a year, King Ubu hosted exhibitions by Remington, Julius Wasserstein, Hassel Smith, Adelie Landis Bischoff and Elmer Bischoff, among others.  One of its most memorable events was a production of Duncan’s play, Faustus Foutu; on closing night the author undressed in front of the audience and explained the importance of nakedness.  Just for these exhibitions and events alone there should be a plaque commemorating the site, which, last I heard, was a carpet store.

Flying carpet, red carpet, or history swept under the carpet—there is something fitting about where the story dissolves.

II.

Sonia Gechtoff, "Angel" (1960) (image courtesy of David Nolan)

The second address is 2322 Fillmore Street, the site of a large tenement building. The list of people who lived there during the 1950s and 60s includes Sonia Gechtoff and James Kelly; Craig Kauffman; Joan and William Brown; Bruce and Jean Conner; Michael and Joanne McClure; the musician Dave Getz; and Jim Newman who later founded the Syndell Studio in Los Angeles and the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco.  Unlike the other artists I have listed, who stayed on the West Coast, Gechtoff and Kelly moved to New York around 1959, shortly before the emergence of an overarching narrative that all but declared painting dead, an exercise in exclusion that has since run its course. That this false conclusion has led to the rediscovery of neglected artists comes as no surprise.

Inspired by literature, especially poetry, and myths, Gechtoff’s works from the 1950s are an unconventional synthesis of abstract marks and symbolic language. Often imbued with a figural presence, they frankly go beyond anything that other abstract artists in either New York or the Bay Area were doing at that time. For one thing, while many of her peers were using thick paint, she used a thinner, more liquid medium, but did not pour it on or splatter it against the surface. It seems to me that the work Gechtoff did while living in the Bay Area ought to be juxtaposed with that of Jay DeFeo, who is just now getting the recognition she has long deserved.  Excavation, we must periodically remind ourselves, never reaches an end.  And, in the case of the Bay Area from 1943 to 1967, it must include the known (Richard Diebenkorn), the neglected (Sonia Gechtoff and James Kelly), and those who don’t fit into the narrative (David Simpson) if it is going to change the way we understand this vital period in American art.

At first glance, James Kelly’s works share something with both Mark Tobey’s white writing paintings and Jackson Pollock’s poured paintings, but this similarity fades as soon as the viewer recognizes that Kelly achieves an all-over field in a way that owes nothing to either Tobey or Pollock. In contrast to their gestural expansiveness, the dense, primeval field of short, largely horizontal brushstrokes Kelly uses in Embarcadero II (1956) seems to mavrk the path of the artist feeling his way across the canvas. The painting is simultaneously visceral and visual.  Kelly’s insistence on the viewer’s haptic perception of paint distinguishes him from his New York counterparts, who downplayed the mark as well as elevated the optical above all else.

III.

Detail of James Kelly's "Embarcadero" (1956) (image courtesy of Nyehaus) (click to view entire painting)

On October 7, 1955, less than a year after the Six Gallery opened, it became part of literary history when it hosted a poetry reading that has been hailed as the “birth of the Beat Generation.” The Master of Ceremonies was Kenneth Rexroth, poet, translator, autodidact, anarchist, and curmudgeon. For years Rexroth had held a weekly salon, where poets and artists met, exchanged ideas, argued, and even became friends, so it was only natural that he introduce that evening’s reading by five young poets. One of the five was Allen Ginsberg, who gave his first public reading of Howl. The others were Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were in the audience, but Jack Spicer was not. He was in New York:

“I hate this town” he wrote a month after his arrival. “No sense of abandon here. No head-talk even among heads. People smoke their pot sadly. Nobody loves anybody. Nobody speaks Martian.”

(In the late 1940s, Spicer lived at 2018 McKinley Street, a boarding house, where the fellow tenants included Philip Lamantia, Robert Duncan and teen-aged Philip K. Dick, who later wrote the story, Do Androids Dream of Sheep? (1968), which is the literary source of the film, Blade Runner  (1982).)

Ginsberg read Howl the same year that Clement Greenberg published his influential essay, “American-Type Painting” in the Partisan Review.  By the mid-20th century, more than a century after the Gold Rush, not only did the respective citizens of the Bay Area and Manhattan read different books and speak different languages, but they also gazed at different horizons, wondering what lay on the other side.

Greenberg would have had a difficult time championing stain painting in the Bay Area without acknowledging the history of Chinese ink painting, but in New York he was able to tell a different story and many people listened.  While he writes about Clyfford Still in his influential essay, “American-Type Painting” (1955), he misrepresents Still by connecting his work to the opticality of the late paintings of Claude Monet.  Still was interested in the haptic nature of paint, rather than the light we associate with Monet, and this concern would both inspire and challenge the younger artists whom he taught. By all accounts, he was an imperious presence at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), at once an inspiration and an immense challenge. One can hardly imagine him hanging out in the Cedar Bar. Camaraderie was not a part of his make-up.

Chuck Webster, "Fitting In" (2010) (image courtesy of the artist)

Jack Spicer was a Martian in New York, which is decidedly weirder than being a Russian, Canadian or Dutchman in San Francisco. The planet that he landed on was starting to coagulate. Armed with degrees and influenced by Clement Greenberg’s theories, a younger generation of critics would soon begin formulating its own agenda regarding what artists and art should do. Conveniently forgetting the writings of James Agee, Edwin Denby, Virgil Thompson and Weldon Kees, the second and third generation of formalist critics asserted that the criticism of poets was not rigorous enough. They were convinced that America had no belle-lettrist tradition, even though, in 1960, the San Francisco Examiner offered a weekly column to Kenneth Rexroth — and by 1961, it was so popular that he often wrote two or three columns a week, eventually contributing more than 700 essays on a wide range of subjects. In 1967, he was fired for writing a contemptuous column attacking the police.

The coagulation of art that Greenberg started is simple to describe. He believed that art history was marked by a journey towards purity, which he equated with the optical or, to put it another way, bodilessness.  (Isn’t there something conventional about believing in narrative, particularly the one that Greenberg believes he formulated?) The body was an obstacle to be removed from painting because it wasn’t perfect and, worse, it was vulnerable to time and decay.  Opticality, or materialist heaven, was the only way for painting to go. (This is how Rebecca Solnit, in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, describes the postmodern, theorized body we see in contemporary art: “this body described in theory never even aches from hauling the complete works of Kierkegaard across campus.”) In New York City, the various cults believing in the death of painting set up their clubhouses and issued position papers, while the artists living in the Bay Area ignored the rumors of painting’s death and the subsequent packaging of them as irrefutable history.  Instead, they started a different club.

In 1959, Bruce Conner sent out letters inviting artists to join the Rat Bastard Protective Association. Among those who accepted his invitation were Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Jess, and George Herms. Rat, of course, is an anagram for art (Rat =Art, and all that the club’s double title implies). The Rat Bastard Protective Association was a paean to iconoclasm and anarchy. The “Rat Bastards” despised anything that smacked of an institutionally approved, aesthetic agenda, which is to say that they were decidedly anti-Formalist and anti-institutional long before the phrase “institutional critique” was appropriated by, and reformulated in, the academy.

They did not pursue bodilessness (disembodied color), unless it took the form of ghosts and spirits.  They did not shy away from decay or forget that mortality is inescapable. They were interested in altered states and heightened consciousness, and the kinds of seeing that occurred during these extreme experiences. They didn’t consult art magazines to find what to do next; they consulted the I Ching or shuffled the Tarot, with some preferring Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, while others chose the “Visconti-Sforza” deck. They did not tie themselves to a specific medium. Their honorary spiritual leader was Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), whose essay “Van Gogh, The Man Suicided By Society” (1947) had been translated and published in the New York based magazine, The Tiger’s Eye, #7 (March, 1949), which had also published poems by Duncan and Lamantia. They were not interested in assimilating. The Rat Bastards believed in community and mutual support, which is very different from joining a club of what Harold Rosenberg, in his rebuff of Greenberg, called “the herd of independent minds.”

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  • benlarocco

    This is a tour-de-force, John. As I read this, I spent a lot of time stopping to look up and examine the work of the artists invoked. Those I knew and those I did not know. This is the living history, the poetic history, the anarchic history, the painting history. The life world. 
    -Ben

  • Cynthia_Hartling

    Deborah Remington was one of my professors at Cooper Union and it is great to see her getting due attention.  She was a solitary trail blazer -ahead of her time, and a mentor who inspired, questioned, and pushed her students to go beyond their comfort zone.  Thank you for this welcome reminder!
    Cynthia Hartling

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DNYQQRHXKK5UQADLPFSVCGJTBI sonia

    John   This is a wonderful article!  I like the way you capture the feel of San Francisco since I remember it all so well. Thank you for what you say about my work and the work of my husband James Kelly. I am sure that the dear departed others and those still around would say the same.about your comments of their work.   Sonia Gechtoff

    • jyauwriter

      Dear Sonia, Thank-you. I was lucky enough to meet some of the people I wrote about who are no longer with us. All The Best to You, John 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Donald-Frazell/1640240703 Donald Frazell

    Very good work, I wish people would realize that Modern art is not dead. Just the artscenes and museo/academic/gallery comlex pushing of it. You cant teach this. It takes life expereinces and having something to say as one develops the language to say it with. That cannot be taught in a  sterile environment.
    Creative artists are seers, nabis, not of the future, but can see their times and add it to what has made us what we are. Our joined history.
    The Bay area has always produced America’s best artists, Unfortunately, I am stuck in LA. ugh.

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