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Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been with us for more than a century. I mean this literally, as he was born on March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York, during the Spanish flu pandemic, and a few months ago celebrated his 101st birthday in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I know I am not alone in saying that Ferlinghetti has had a profound influence on my life, beginning with my discovery of his second book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), when I was 13. After co-founding City Lights bookshop in San Francisco in 1953, he became sole owner by 1955, the same year he started his imprint City Lights, the legendary publisher of Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg and Lunch Poems (1964) by Frank O’Hara, among other landmark books, such as the Artaud Anthology (1965), edited by Jack Hirshman. In the decade bracketed by the publication of these three books, a tectonic shift took place in American literature, giving rise to an alternative to mainstream or official verse.
What is less known or celebrated about Ferlinghetti is that he is also a painter, and that he has been one for as long as he has been a poet, publisher, bookstore proprietor, and political activist.
Given the location of his famed bookstore in the Italian-American neighborhood of North Beach, near Chinatown, I thought it was fitting that his first exhibition in New York, Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Études, is being held at New Release (August 27 – October 2, 2020), a new gallery in a funky storefront in Chinatown just across from Columbus Park, one of the city’s first large urban parks.
Originally scheduled to open in March to celebrate Ferlinghetti’s 101st birthday, the exhibition consisted of 14 works — two paintings, nine works on paper, and three small prints — in which the artist does sketchy interpretations of mythical figures (Icarus, Leda, and Orestes and his mother, Clytemnestra), literary figures (William Butler Yeats), and naked young men and women.
Ferlinghetti’s pared-down world of myth shares something with the work of Mary Frank and Nancy Spero, but is largely animated by a wistful sense of humor. Beneath his fluid oil portrait, “The Young Yeats” (oil on canvas, 30 by 24 inches, 2008), Ferlinghetti has written with a dry brush on the cream-colored ground: “Maud Gonne gone.”
Ferlinghetti tells the viewer nothing more, leaving to those who know — or those who are curious to learn — to fill in the details about Yeat’s half-century-long mad crush on the suffragist, political firebrand, and actress Maud Gonne, and their shared preoccupation with the occult.
This particularly struck me because Ferlinghetti’s poems are often imagistic and accessible. In the paintings, there is an assumption that the viewer knows something about mythology, poetry, and politics. Nor are Ferlinghetti’s inscriptions on the artworks necessarily literal or transparent.
What is the viewer to make of the phrase, “The night before thinking,” written in green paint beside two nude women, largely seen in profile against a black ground. Both women are green. The one standing in the middle of the composition is seen in profile, while the woman seated behind her, beside the left edge, rests her head in her hand. Her expression suggests annoyance or anger.
In contrast to the poems, which can be didactic at times, there is nothing obvious or instructional about the works in this exhibition, even when he writes in graphite on a charcoal drawing of a nude male seen from behind: “Marx is discredited now. Who’s the enemy?”
Some works attain another level altogether. In “Those Unrelenting Destinies” (conte, colored pencil, acrylic, wash on paper, 29 by 22 ½ inches, 1983), Ferlinghetti depicts three outlined figures in grey washes on the crest of a low black clump of turf. The one in the middle is turned away from us, leaning against a pike topped with a human skull. The figure on the right is holding what could be a round shield or an umbrella. The figure on the left is seated on the ground, looking as if he is trying to climb into himself. In the foreground, a contoured figure, differentiated by a light brown wash, lies on or beneath the turf as a cross rises from, or is driven into his chest, like a stake.
This image convinced me that Ferlinghetti is an artist who ought to be looked at more closely, that he is not simply a poet who happens to make art. I wondered if one reason why we have been so slow to look his art – at least on the East Coast – is because we think we already know who he is and what he has done, which is formidable.
In the painting “Dreamboat” (oil and acrylic on canvas, 30 by 40 inches, 2006), Ferlinghetti depicts a blue-outlined, blue-haired woman sitting in the green water of a bathtub, which sprouts a dark green mast and red sail. On the side of the tub, the artist has written the title, “DREAMBOAT.” This painting – the standout of the show – resists any narrative summation and remains firmly in the visual world. It seems so natural and direct, whimsical and mysterious. It also resonates with this moment of self-isolation, self-cleansing, and social distancing, just as it will mean something else, I am sure, at another time and place.
How many other amazing paintings has he done? How come we don’t know about them?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Études continues at New Release (60 Mulberry Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through October 2.