San Francisco

San Francisco

A frolicsome, sprawling twenty-three year survey of the arts in San Francisco was unveiled in twenty-three locations in the Bay City last June. Evidences of the event were in virtually every neighborhood in San Francisco and included a gang-bang poetry reading at the Nourse Auditorium which recreated in kind if not content the non-stop rapping heard in similar locations ten, twelve, fifteen years ago. The names were the same: Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, David Meltzer, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen and many others. Seeing the poets, listening to their litany, brought forth what one felt to be the essence of the entire month-long event of dance, painting, poetry, drama, photography, jazz, rock, sculpture and films.

The exhibitions throughout San Francisco reflect the almost casual acceptance of the vanguard styles of Abstract Expressionism, Junk sculpture, hoary collage, and proto-Pop funk. Artists from the fifties in San Francisco merge with one’s memory of the Bohemian-Beat demimonde: Keith Sanzenbach, Artie Richer, Michael Bowen, Ben Langston, Jack Carrigg, Bruce Conner, Robert Lavigne, Michael McCracken, Mike Nathan, John Reed, Sonia Bowen and Lori Lawyer, to name a few, some of whom are dead, others insane and a few virtually catatonic from the ultimate numbness induced by prolonged love affairs with methadrine. If, as William Rubin points out, the Dada and Surrealist artistic heritage has found firm soil in New York and other centers of urban America, the social and political gestes of both groups have found fecund soil between the quaint hills of San Francisco.

When studying the art produced in San Francisco between 1945 and 1968, it is interesting to note the shared influences, literary, political and philosophical, which a cross section of the underground artists held in common. The black jazz musician was considered a folk hero. By extension, the black man generally was respected and loved as much for what many considered to be a mirror-image of their White selves, insofar as both Bohemian and Black were and are separated from the mainstream of American life. A kind of ramshackle Marxism was prevalent among the more articulate painters and poets, much modified because the old leftists were either talking to themselves, dropping names to one of several sideshow subcommittees traveling through the San Francisco region, or sweating it out on one of several campuses waiting for some bland FBI operative to quietly subpoena him.

Djuna Barnes, C. G. Jung, Krafft-Ebing, Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse were generally read and discussed. The I. Ching, Oriental philosophy and Oriental poetry were read and re-read as well. The philosophic tradition of the West from Aristotle to Wittgenstein, on the other hand, was (and is) largely overlooked for the same reasons that Christianity and Judaism were (and are) overlooked: they seem inappropriate because they haven’t worked. Science was (and is) despised largely because it has become the handmaiden of people who dare use scientific discoveries to destroy rather than to feed and give aid to non-White peoples. The despicable many would provide a very lengthy list and extend from the beat cop to the President of the United States. If the Nos seem larger, louder and longer than the Yeahs, it is because the disenfranchised artistic underground has found Western society wanting on every level.

Keith Sanzenbach, probably the finest painter the San Francisco underground had, died in poverty a few years ago. Sanzenbach’s mandala pictures were completed in a three to four year period at the end of the fifties. The loose weave of jute sacking material, originally used to wrap Oriental rugs, was used to support the delicate staining of rough concentric patterns within the circular images. Bits of rectangular pieces of paper are half glued, half in relief on the textured and tan surfaces of the paintings. The painted papers in conjunction with the circular movement of color creates a flurry of motion across and around the mandala shape. The wholeness of Sanzenbach’s vision is quite extraordinary for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that sacking material and packing paper plus scumbled washes of paint can embody such a lyric art. The pathos of the impoverished surfaces are in such marked contrast to the esthetic pleasures they provide the onlooker that, in hindsight, one can hardly believe such luxurious response could have been had from the meager materials. Sanzenbach’s pictures were impoverished materially even in relation to the mean materiality of other artists during the same period. For example, Robert Rauschenberg’s combine-painting, Bed, seems of the richest quality, as if he could envision the time when anything would be made available for his use. A desperation born of anonymity and longing informs Sanzenbach’s pictures just as elegance, wit and confidence informs those of Rauschenberg. Sanzenbach’s giant fragile flowers look as if pressed between the pages of some unknown book which like Finnegan’s Wake takes a lifetime to read.

It would be perverse to say that Sanzenbach should have had more recognition during his short lifetime. Those who were around the North Beach section of San Francisco knew he was there. Those who had eyes knew he was an extraordinary artist. His friends felt the impropriety of his death and perhaps only recently the tragedy. Vestiges of the bourgeois crop up in the hippest people in pronouncements like, “. . . how can he have died of an overdose today, now?” As a matter of fact, he did die and it is as hard to believe now as it was then.

Congratulations should be extended to Intersection and the Glide Urban Center for gathering the material for the exhibition, publishing the sixty-four page catalog and coordinating the dance, theater and musical events. It was a very real tour de force, since the project had nothing but grass roots help and encouragement from start to finish. Even a simple description of the hundreds of objects in the exhibition is impossible as well as unnecessary and even unfair. Many of the artists in the various shows were represented by extant examples of their work which were easily available. In many cases these examples were, naturally enough, not of the highest quality. The organizers of the exhibition cannot be blamed because they had no money for shipping or insurance. Research for the exhibition was of necessity sketchy since there is little written material available from which to draw, nor was there a researcher to bring together an exhibition of the highest quality. A logical question would be, why do it if these ingredients are missing? The answer is because it needed doing and if the so-called professionals couldn’t seize the opportunity to organize an integrated survey, then it was left to enlightened amateurs, who put together a splendid survey, handicaps be damned. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson, where were the museums? Oh, working very hard, Mrs. Robinson, very hard.

James Monte