“Beat Culture And The New America: 1950–1965”

Walker Art Center

More about artifacts than art, “Beat Culture and the New America,” curated by Lisa Phillips, includes a plethora of first editions, journals, manuscripts, ’zines, chapbooks, posters, letters, and jazz-album jackets, all entombed in vitrines. There are also TV clips and films, recorded poetry, and documentations of happenings, as well as a reading gallery stocked with shiny editions of Beat lit. An elaborate, wall-sized timeline charts significant events in the Beat world against significant events in the world at large, while newsprint flyers give the lowdown on the New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco scenes, complete with tangled East/West Coast “sociograms”—or family trees—of Beat artists.

In short, this exhibition thoroughly maps “Beat culture,” but seems flummoxed in its attempt to pin down such a far-flung, nebulous movement. Which is understandable: showcasing the Beats in a museum can’t help but desiccate their signature spirit of freedom and spontaneity. It’s almost too obviously ironic to note that Claes Oldenburg’s famous quote, “I am for an art . . . that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” is here encased in a vitrine among books and photographs of his work.

One problem with “Beat Culture” is that it ascribes a visual esthetic to a phenomenon that, up until now, was associated with writers and poets. I’d never known Oldenburg to be a Beat, for instance, much less Jackson Pollock or Robert Rauschenberg. Yet Pollock’s Number 27, 1950, and Rauschenberg’s Yoicks, 1953, are on display here, along with a few other works by the stars of art history that outshine, or perhaps attempt to legitimize, the many lesser pieces by lesser-knowns. To be fair, those who did identify as Beats were (according to the exhibit) rather casual about their role as visual artists—if only because, for most of them, this wasn’t their primary vocation. Consequently, there’s an incidental quality to a lot of the stuff here that’s at odds with the remove of its pristine, white paint-and-glass setting. Diane diPrima’s letter to her landlord embellished with magazine clippings, or a Magic Marker drawing, Rub Out the Word, ca. 1958–59, by William S. Burroughs, are akin to the kind of art you’d find decorating any slacker apartment.

Or take a drawing by the poet Cameron, in which an Amazonian babe with pointy breasts and a serpent’s tongue copulates doggy-style with a man who’s got superhero-ish, see-through musculature. This is an “exquisite” ink-on-paper work, according to the exhibition catalogue, though I thought it more akin to something a heavy metal boy would draw on his Pee-Chee in junior high. Then there are Jack Kerouac’s attempts at small-scale Abstract Expressionism, paintings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure, collages by Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and a whole wall of photographs by Allen Ginsberg (who took up photography “seriously” in 1953), including his oft-published photograph Jack Kerouac, Heroic Portrait, 1953, whose title, I fear, is not ironic.

Some works do stand up to the museum context, such as the cheeky paintings of Wally Hedrick, and the assemblages of George Herms and Bruce Conner. But it’s the 2,300-pound painting The Rose, 1958–65, by Hedrick’s onetime wife Jay DeFeo, that’s become the star of the show, perhaps by virtue of its association with Anselm Kiefer’s pile-it-on approach to painting. Wallace Berman’s “Semina” publication, his Verifax collages, and other projects presage the kind of DIY art made by those who, like Berman, are legendary in their own, noncommercial art circles but largely unknown outside them.

From happenings and environments, alternative galleries, and low-budget film to the enduring trend of charmingly discontented loafers embracing Eastern religions, any number of Beat legacies can be found in contemporary culture. But if there’s an overall feeling of familiarity to the exhibit, perhaps it’s really because Beat ideals of individuality, nonconformity, dissent, and anticonsumerism have become ubiquitous in a culture smitten with terms like alternative, cutting edge, underground, indie, and yes, “hip”—all packaged in a very “consumable” style (remember, Ginsberg and Kerouac wore khakis). In an age when Burger King is saying you gotta break the rules, it’s hard not to see “Beat Culture,” this institutionalized rebirth of cool, as simply more of same.

Julie Caniglia