New York

Allen Ginsberg

Like the other Beats, Allen Ginsberg upheld an esthetic that emphasized directness, immediacy, and lived experienced-a kind of aformalism that enabled its practitioners to sow their creative seeds in a variety of fields. William Burroughs added collage and painting to his writing; Paul Bowles added writing to his music; and Ginsberg took up photography alongside his poetry. Given the pictures exhibited in Ginsberg’s show—some from the halcyon ’50s and ’60s, others more recent, in either case mostly portraits, unpretentious in form, personal in content, all in black and white—he appears to treat photography much in the documentary manner of his contemporary Robert Frank. The handwritten captions for each photograph reinforce this quality: “William Burroughs sitting up in back bedroom waiting for my company, we slept together and worked on Yage Letters and Queer manuscripts,” writes Ginsberg, specifying place (206 E. 7th St. #16, Lower East Side) and date (Fall, 1953) beneath a particularly cute picture of the normally suit-clad Burroughs lying naked in bed, hair tousled.

While the Beat esthetic, which continues to form the core of Ginsberg’s philosophy, may have derived its initial force from so much derring-do in the face of experience, over time it gave rise to the dilemma that is the logical conclusion of what Nietzsche called the artist’s “evil eye,” the tendency to watch oneself having experiences. That is, if artistic production is dependent on personal experience, what happens when the artist starts to slow down? When the blood runs too thin for adventure? Looking at Ginsberg’s exhibition, you can’t help but be struck by the fact that there are two basic kinds of pictures: guys in their creative prime in the ’50s, and those same guys in the “whatever happened to . . . ?” pictures of the ’90s—Herbert Huneke, “here age 78 settled in Methadon program,” or even Burroughs, sounding like a retired postal clerk, “he has his hobbies, painting, writing, feeding his cats & goldfish in the backyard pond.” Self-Portrait, 1991, shows Ginsberg naked and wizened, taking his own picture in a hotel room mirror, his potbelly protruding below his bony shoulders like a hair-covered tumor grafted onto a thin person. On the one hand, it’s laughable, the great experience of the artist amounting to wandering from motel to motel as he goes from reading to book signing. On the other hand, Ginsberg knows that it’s laughable, that he has a big funny potbelly, but he has the balls to take—to exhibit—the picture anyway. It’s not unlike Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, and if it’s almost enough to scare anyone away from the literary life, it’s not because the picture shows what the literary man becomes, but because it shows the sheer courage necessary to admit the truth in all its humiliating detail.

Keith Seward