PARIS — Though almost entirely lacking a female presence — artist Jay DeFeo and poet Diane Di Prima being the exceptions that prove the rule — the Centre Pompidou’s airily laid out retrospective of the Beat Generation is otherwise flawless. It delicately and luxuriously balances the dim lighting requirements needed to show the mix of texts, paintings, photography, collages, ephemera, historic documents, magazines (including Beatitude, Umbra and Ed Sanders’s transgressive Fuck You: A Magazine for the Arts), books, jazz music, spoken word recordings, and fantastic underground films. This vast array of artifacts is organized geographically into three main sections — Paris, California, and New York — with two smaller areas devoted to Mexico and Tangier.
The Beat Generation’s romantic myth was born with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac gathering at Columbia University in 1944. The exhibition’s large entry gallery is bisected by Kerouac’s original manuscript-scroll of the Beat novel par excellence, On the Road. In the French context, Kerouac’s famous long scroll formally evokes the Marquis de Sade’s 12-meter-long scroll-manuscript of debauchery, The 120 Days of Sodom, seen last year at L’Institut des Lettres et Manuscrits. That the decadent dandy Frenchman could be such a key undercurrent for the literary and artistic aspects of the Beat Generation, first formulated in the late 1940s in the US, is fathomable given the vital role Paris and the French avant-garde played within Beat theory and activity. Between 1957 and 1963, Paris would be an important hub of creative doings and interesting rendezvous for Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Brion Gysin, and others who regularly crashed at the bohemian Beat Hotel at 9 rue Gît-Le-Coeur, as documented in the photographs shot at the hotel by Harold Chapman. The cultural moment Chapman captured is widely believed to have helped inspire the radical events of May 1968 and a general rejection of American technological idealism, racism, and homophobia.
For the Beats, for a time, Paris — with the help of psychotropic substances — became the creative heart of their verbal, visual, and sonic experiments. I was personally tickled to learn here that Ginsberg wrote Kaddish — also known as Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894–1956) — his long poem about his mother’s death, at my local Montparnasse café, Le Select. Paris was a particularly rich environment for Gysin, Burroughs, and Antony Balch, who together developed a Beat version of Dada master Tristan Tzara’s découpé (cut-up) technique, with which Burroughs wrote his Naked Lunch (in Paris) and Gysin first invented his fabulous flickering “Dreamachine” at the Beat Hotel — with the help of electronics technician and computer programmer Ian Sommerville.
In the Paris section of the Pompidou exhibition, we follow links between the community of American writers and French avant-garde poets and artists, including sound poet Bernard Heidsieck, Henri Chopin, Henri Michaux, and Jean-Jacques Lebel (who acted as a go-between and translator). Through Lebel — whose father, Robert Lebel, was a poet, collector, and art critic who wrote penetratingly on Marcel Duchamp — Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs had a decisive meeting in Paris with Duchamp, Man Ray, and the Surrealist poets Benjamin Péret and Gherasim Luca in 1958.
The area to the right of the Kerouac scroll is devoted to the Beats’ better-known New York City period, highlighting the relationship between music, literature, and the recording and typing machine technologies of their times. Journals and reviews are given prominent place, as the Beat writers’ work circulated in the pages of Floating Bear, Kulchur, and Fuck You. This publishing activity is linked with the bleary-eyed social life of grungy downtown New York through photographs by Fred W. McDarrah, including his 1959 shot of Ginsberg and Orlovsky at the Living Theatre — which had been founded in 1947 by Judith Malina and Julian Beck (who has some fabulously lush, semi-abstract paintings from the late ‘50s in the show).
The area to the left of Kerouac’s scroll chronicles the California scene between 1952 and 1965. Wallace Berman has a strong presence here with 11 works, including his proto-noise film “Aleph” (1956–66), in which he uses Hebrew letters to frame a hypnotic, rapid-fire noise montage that still conjures the gritty energy of the ‘60s underground. The hand-painted, 8mm film, shot over a decade and incorporating some images photographed on 16mm, preserves Berman’s engagement with the esoteric Kabbalah (meant to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal, and mysterious infinity and the mortal and finite universe). The film reflects the Beat Generation’s wider exploration of esoteric spiritual practices — including Hinduism, Zen, palm reading, astrology, and magick — and psychedelic drug consumption. Berman’s collage, “Untitled (Allen Ginsberg)” (1960), is one of many featured here that transmit something of this semi-hidden folklore.
The other semi-secret California master here is Bruce Conner. His 1958 hyper-montage 16mm film, “A Movie,” and outstanding visionary drawings, like “Untitled” (1968) — suggestive of Henri Michaux’s mescaline drawings — are terrific works. They outshine, for me, the familiar photographs of Ettore Sottsass — like his “Neal Cassady, Los Gatos, Californie” (1962) — Jay DeFeo’s painting “Tuxedo Junction” (1965–74), and the collages and postal art of George Herms and Jess. (Deborah Remington, a strong Beat painter, was sadly left out of the show.) The Californian section of the exhibition is further divided into areas focused on the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The first part features printed matter from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights publishing house and bookstore, and experimental films by Larry Jordan and Christopher MacLaine. MacLaine’s 16 mm film “The End” (1953) is particularly curious as it is flippantly concerned with people on the last days of their lives. But the key filmmaker here (or anywhere) is Stan Brakhage, whose Beat noise film “Desistfilm” (1954) is a definite highlight. At this point in the movement’s evolution, the scene had gravitated around City Lights and, for a short time, the Six Gallery, which on October 7, 1955, staged Ginsberg’s celebrated reading of his poem Howl. The ensuing obscenity trial brought the budding Beat scene some paradoxical fame.
In the years following the Second World War, as the Cold War was setting in, this bi-coastal Beat scene scandalized the puritanical American mainstream, even as it foreshadowed widespread late ‘60s Hippie culture, with its consciousness raising, herb puffing, and racial and sexual liberations. The widespread breaking down of artistic boundaries, sexual taboos, and drug interdictions, mixed with a desire for chance-based interdisciplinary collaboration is all beautifully illustrated by Frank Leibovici’s massive flow chart covering two of the large entry walls to the exhibition. Next to this installation is a group of working John Giorno “Dial-A-Poem” telephones, which were on display recently at the Palais de Tokyo. Giorno is here paired with key Beat master Burroughs, who was recently the hotly debated subject of the fascinating conference William Burroughs, le dernier humaniste? (“William Burroughs: The Last Humanist?”) at the École Normale Supérieure. Set aside there (and here) is the uncomfortable fact that in 1951 Burroughs shot and killed Joan Vollmer, a budding poet and his common-law wife, in a drunken game of “William Tell” at a party above the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City. This fact was recently re-evaluated in bitchmedia by Leela Ginelle, who swerves the story out of the “great man” hagiography that pervades much of Beat Generation. Here, a collection of little-known self-portrait photographs that Burroughs took in 1964 while in Tangier serve to prop up that hagiography.
Tangier, which Burroughs turned into the labyrinthine “interzone” of Naked Lunch, was a popular and welcoming place for many writers and artists who spent time there trying to kick heroin, writing, screwing, and enjoying cheap and readily available kif. Burroughs rented a room at the Muniria Hotel in 1954, where he developed his photomontage practice. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, and Orlovsky soon joined him in Tangier; Paul Bowles had been living there since the late ‘30s. In the early ‘50s, Gysin opened the Thousand and One Nights restaurant, where the Master Musicians of Jajouka came to play trance music. (Following this exposure, Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones went to Jajouka during the annual Rites of Pan Festival and recorded the Master Musicians’ music, releasing the LP Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka in 1971 — highly recommended.)
Speaking of music, on the New York side of the On the Road scroll is a big, old wooden radio (French made) playing early American jazz music by the likes of Bud Powell (who moved to Paris in 1959), Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and other greats of the mid-century era. Jazz bebop inspired the prosody, rhythm, and improvisational techniques of much of Beat poetry. An important place is also given to spoken poetry in its relationship to jazz, particularly to the Black American poets LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) and Bob Kaufman.
Photography is well represented here by the portrait production of Ginsberg, Burroughs, McDarrah, and, with his The Americans and From the Bus series, Robert Frank. John Cohen’s photos, such as “Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, Gregory Corso” (1959), are very revealing and rather touching. They were taken during the shooting of “Pull my Daisy,” a short, weedy film based on an incident in the life of Beat icon Neal Cassady and his wife, the painter/writer Carolyn Cassady, as adapted from Kerouac’s play Beat Generation. (Kerouac also provided additional improvised narration along with Ginsberg and Cassady; the music was provided by David Amram.) Directed by Frank and Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy features Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Corso, and Amram, artists Alice Neel and Larry Rivers (who has a startling painting, “Cedar Bar Menu II” from 1961, in the show), actors Richard Bellamy and Delphine Seyrig, dancer Sally Gross, and Pablo Frank (Robert Frank’s then-young son). A very strong painting by Leslie, “The Second Two-Panel Horizontal” (1958), dominates the background of the stoner scene in Pull My Daisy and is included in Beat Generation (on loan from the Museum of Modern Art). There are some rather raw paintings here that catch the Beat vibe by Bob Thompson, Julian Beck, and numerous drawings and oils by Kerouac himself, whose graphic work is largely unknown; they are complimented by works on paper by Orlovsky, Robert LaVigne, and Corso.
Before leaving, I had to return to the exhibition’s Paris section for another look at a highlight of the show, the collaborative work of Gysin and Burroughs from the early ’60s known as The Third Mind, their publishing project that used a chance-based, cut-up method. This method consists of cutting up and randomly reassembling various fragments of something to give them a completely new and unexpected meaning — in essence, one plus one equals three. In Ginsberg’s biography, I Celebrate Myself, his archivist, Bill Morgan, excellently recounts some of the genesis of Burroughs and Gysin’s forays into neo-Dada cut-up technique and collaboration. Gysin, in the mid ‘50s, had already pointed out to Burroughs that collage technique had been a regular tool in painting and graphics for half a century. This came as late news to the young Beat writers, so it is perhaps not surprising that Ginsberg’s first exposure to Burroughs’s use of the cut-up was met with disdain. Ginsberg considered it something along the lines of a parlor trick and speculated from New York City that Burroughs had lost his mind from lack of sex. As a joke, Ginsberg and Orlovsky cut up some of their own poems and rearranged them and sent them to Burroughs with the note: “Just having a little fun mother.” However, Burroughs was so dedicated to the cut-up method that he defended his use of the technique, soon making collages from newspapers and photographs while proclaiming that poetry and words were dead. (Ginsberg remained highly skeptical of chance operations for some time; following his travels in India he came to appreciate the cut-up technique, though he never employed it.)
Burroughs soon began work on a cut-up novel, The Soft Machine, drawing material from The Word Hoard, his collection of manuscripts written in Tangier, Paris, and London that formed the motherlode manuscript that served as the basis for much of Burroughs’s cut-up writings — including Naked Lunch. He also produced a text called Dead Fingers Talk in 1963, which contains excerpts from Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded, recombined to create a new narrative. Burroughs’s artistic collaborations resulted in the cut-up technique being combined with images — Gysin’s paintings — and sound (the cut-in being a sound cut-up) via Sommerville’s tape recorders. (Some of these recordings can be heard here; while a number of cut-up films can be seen here.)
Burroughs would soon begin collaborating on a book project with Gysin using the cut-up method, reassembling fragments of sentences and images to give them a new and unexpected meaning. The Third Mind is the title of the book they devised together (first published in a French-language edition in 1977) following this method. They were so overwhelmed by the results that they felt it had been composed by a third person, a third author (or mind) made of a synthesis of their two personalities. Fourteen original pages in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are on view here and well worth a second (or third) look.
Beat literary works and their formal techniques, originally viewed with contempt and suspicion, are now part of the American literary canon. Even as Beat Generation is restricted to a precise historical framework spanning 1944 to 1969, the last cheeky words spoken in this richly historic exhibition are worth dwelling on. Burroughs, speaking in French, conveys these words to the camera. “Rien est historique” — “Nothing is historic.” Or perhaps, eventually, everything is.
Beat Generation continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges Pompidou, 4th arrondissement, Paris, France) through October 3. The exhibition will then travel to the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, where it will be on view November 26, 2016–April 30, 2017.