PRINT April 1977

A Note on Surrealism and the Beats

THE BEAT WRITERS WERE NOT out of touch with modernity in painting. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote art criticism, as the San Francisco correspondent for Arts Digest (now Arts Magazine) from 1953 to 1955. Allen Ginsberg studied art history with Meyer Schapiro, wrote an early poem (“Cézanne’s Ports”) about the great Gulf of Marseilles Seen from L’Estaque (c. 1883–85) in the Metropolitan, and considered his own writing to be influenced by Cézanne. He eventually drank and fraternized with “the Club” of the Abstract Expressionists in New York. Furthermore, only after the first reading of his recently written “Howl” at an artists’ and poets’ cooperative gallery (6 Gallery) in San Francisco in 1955 did Ginsberg feel part of a sympathetic creative community.

Michael McClure published in the Autumn 1958 Evergreen Review an “Ode to Jackson Pollock” that celebrates the kinship he felt with the tragic hero of Abstract Expressionism with as much grateful homage as Hart Crane on Whitman (a connection that later affected Jasper Johns in post-Abstract-Expressionist painting): “. . . I say / we. I—you. You saw the brightness / of pain.” Further: “I mean you. Held / yourself in animal suffering. / You made your history. Of pain.” McClure even touches on one of the main relations between Action Painting and Beat writing, the (even specifically gestural) process of suspending the conscious mind in dredging up the resources of the self.

Put it all down
in disbelief—waiting—forcing.
Each gesture painting.—Caught on
to the method of making each motion
your speech, your love, your rack
and found yourself. Heroic—huge—burning
with your feelings. . . .

The principal document from the Beat side for the self-expressiveness admired in McClure’s “Ode to Jackson Pollock” is the essay on “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” written by Kerouac to explain his writing method to Burroughs and Ginsberg, who admired it. This had appeared one issue earlier than the “Ode” in the Evergreen Review for Summer 1958. Kerouac felt his approach to composition to be influenced by jazz phrasing and described it as a process of “sketching.” Interestingly, even the widely prevalent contemporary interest in jazz improvisation—and Baroque instrumental improvisation as well compare with the emphasis on Baroque oil sketches and the less polished studies of Constable and Turner, among the Romantics, in art scholarship during the heyday of Abstract Expressionist painting. But the roots of Kerouac’s attitude trace back, as in the case of Pollock (whose Jungian psychoanalysis made clinical use of spontaneous drawing when verbalization seemed to fail), to the equally visual and literary preoccupations of Surrealism in the 1920s.

Kerouac’s recommendation that one “If possible write ‘without consciousness’ in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later trance writing) allowing subconscious to admit in its own interesting necessary and so ‘modern’ language what conscious art would censor” recapitulates the Freudian-influenced “automatic writing” advocated in André Breton’s 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism. Breton described “a monologue spoken as rapidly as possible without intervention on the part of the critical faculties.” The part of the Manifesto headed “Secrets of the Magical Surrealist Art; Written Surrealist Composition; or, First and Last Draft” includes the advice—“Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing and be tempted to reread what you’ve written.”

Of course, there are differences between Kerouac’s attitude and Breton’s. The Freudianism and revolutionary politics that were essential to Breton struck Kerouac as distastefully liberal-intellectual, even if Ginsberg, who turned to Kerouac for encouragement in spontaneity, would not have had this difficulty with Breton’s inspirations. All this involves Kerouac’s entire world-view, his blue-collar background as well as his freewheeling but compulsive personality. For instance, Breton’s ideal of the dream state has about it a distinct character of suspension from the controlling circuitry of a hostile external order, even in explicitly political terms, whereas Kerouac’s up-all-night writing frenzies can seem more a capitulation to alienating drudgery than a joyride, whatever he kept telling himself, although on his own terms even Kerouac produced a Book of Dreams (1961). Still, Surrealism was fundamental to both Abstract Expressionist painting and Beat literature, especially because Breton and other continental Surrealists were in New York in the early 1940s, thanks to World War II.

One remarkably direct point of contact between Surrealist modes of inspiration and Beats predates Kerouac’s essay, if not his actual employment of spontaneity, by several years. Ferlinghetti wrote a review of an exhibition at the Oakland Museum of paintings by the Belgian Surrealist poet Henri Michaux for the October 1 number of Arts Digest in 1954. To him Michaux was an inspiration more for his poetic method than as a plastic artist, yet his admiring quotation of Michaux fits right in with Breton’s Manifesto, Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose,” and even McClure’s ode to Pollock:

Draw without any particular intention, scrawl unconsciously, there practically always appear faces on the paper. . . . As soon as I take a pencil, a brush, one after the other they come to me on the paper, ten, fifteen, twenty. And savages for the most part. . . . Are they me, all these images? Are they others? From what depths do they come? . . . There is a certain interior phantom one must paint. . . .

In Ferlinghetti’s view the contamination by any pictorial imagery of what should always be an uncompromisingly non-representational expressiveness in abstract painting was a serious fault. This he repeatedly made clear in his critical essays, where the highest praise for an expressionist abstraction is that it is “true ‘open-form’” painting. And yet Michaux had made the affinity between Surrealism and “Beatitude“ all the clearer: “. . . It is the eye of the poet that looks out at you, the gone eye of a barbarian in Oakland.”

To suggest the continuity of a Surrealist tradition in Beat art and literature involves an irony like that of speaking of “anarchist tradition,” since the drift of the Surrealist movement itself was so anti-traditional. In a sense, with regard to the Beats, the writings of men like Blake and Whitman and Ginsberg constitute the exploration of a single poetic terrain, all along the same ground, rather than an additive, layered, formative tradition per se. Indeed, the relation of Abstract Expressionism itself to earlier, especially Germanic, Expressionism is a similar question.

There is within the Beat movement itself a fascinating dialectic between radical originality and a more or less deliberate vindication of antecedents. Sometimes this ambivalence backfires onto the reader, as in moments when, attentive and responsive to the Beat meaning, we may be tempted to such ambivalent extremes as quitting scholarship or bringing pedantry to bear, at almost the same time—a dilemma itself reminiscent of the famous dispute between Nietzsche and Flaubert about active versus sedentary lifestyles. (See?) Both Surrealist and Beat materials maintain a similar slipperiness toward “serious“ investigation. Compare Ferlinghetti standing before Michaux’s paintings in Oakland: “What does it mean to find Michaux hung up on the walls of a municipal museum in this bright banlieue?”

Take as an example of the dialectic of tradition and spontaneity the very title and theme of Kerouac’s definitively “spontaneous” On the Road (1957). The notion of being uprooted, on the move, and open to life as a steady stream of possible experiences itself implicates any number of “road” themes, from St. Paul on the road to Damascus to Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” to Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 note in The Green Box about the autobiographical “headlight child” who, like a comet with its tail in front, “absorbs by crushing (gold dust graphically) this Jura-Paris road.” Or think of the vivid detail of Depression social history recorded by Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)—“You ain’t ben on de road long” (ch. xxvii)—or, after On the Road, Ferlinghetti’s Starting from San Francisco (1961), or, in our own day, the Minimalist sculptor Tony Smith’s legendary vision of sublimity on the New Jersey Turnpike. That even such similar “unique” experiences may or may not constitute a tradition is an interesting question, since, whether or not later protagonists ever thought of their predecessors, an element of original revelation was vital in each case.

Actually, the problem of self-consciousness and even academicism had already attached itself to Abstract Expressionism by the later 1950s, which proved important for the development of art criticism as well as painting in New York. Ferlinghetti sensed this in California as early as 1954, when the San Francisco Art Association Annual limited painting entries to a canvas size of five-by-five feet. By the May 1 Arts Digest of that year Ferlinghetti could look back to 1952 and 1953 as watershed years. On August 1, 1955, he praised a show at the 6 Gallery (notably Abstract-Expressionist paintings by Ron Bladen) as representing “perhaps . . . the ultimate possibilities of abstract expressionism—the final, beautiful, lovely vision.” (The dissipation of tough, serious, “tragic” beauty into an easier loveliness eventually became an Eastern problem too.) It is difficult to recover a sense of that change now, largely because it was not until Pop art, at the very turn of the 1950s, that a whole new ball game was evidently being played in art, with its own parallels in New York poetry.

No doubt because it took a little time for Surrealist-encouraged New York School painting to establish itself on the West Coast, there happened to develop a closer rapport, in age and outlook, between especially Bay Area painting and Beat writing than prevailed here, although one might think of Philip Whalen in relation to Mark Tobey (b. 1890) in the Northwest. In a real sense the pre-eminence of such a great movement in painting here overshadowed literature, even though parallels do appear. New York reduced even Paris to a provincial artistic center. Meanwhile, the transcontinental shuttling of the Beats, which seems so aimless and frantic in On the Road, kept the literary extremities of the country connected (one may be reminded of the “coaxial cable” in the development of national television). Barreling back and forth along Route 80 between the George Washington and Oakland Bay bridges may have a served a purpose after all.

Furthermore, if many drawings by the Beat writers themselves show an eccentricity of theme or even an extreme sloppiness of facture, even that anticipates the post-Pop “Funk Art” practiced today mainly in the Bay Area and in Chicago. Funk itself is in direct continuity with Beat, not least because of Ferlinghetti’s funny little book of scrawly pictures and bad words, The Illustrated Wilfred Funk, published at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1971.

Joseph Masheck

Adapted from the introduction to the catalogue Beat Art: Drawings by Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky, Philip Whalen and Others from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University (Butler Library, Columbia University, March 2–May 19, 1977).