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“Rebels: Painters and
Poets of the 1950s”
to June 2
Every subsequent era has had its own version of the ’50s. To the chaotic, rebellious 1960s, they were a decade of repression. In the ’70s of American Graffiti and Grease revivalism, the Eisenhower era was nostalgically viewed as a period of tranquillity. In Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, affection for the decade’s Cold War certainty jostled alongside the Gipper’s fantasies of a Marion Cunningham social order.
The current decade’s take on the ’50s is also telling. While conservative politicians continue to pine for a mythic age when everyone knew his place, scholars at all levels have offered a broader, more nuanced reading. David Halberstam’s popular history of the decade presents it as an era of innovation, when the patterns of production of—and dissent against—postwar American culture were first worked out. Academic interpretations of the decade’s cultural and political history—books on subjects ranging from the early civil rights movement to the birth of television to the structure of the household—describe a more diverse, more creative, more interesting 1950s America than had earlier been acknowledged.
One of the ironic effects of such readings may be the continued marginalization of many of the decade’s literary and artistic rebels, particularly the Beat Generation. The Beats were dismissed as childish by a good number of their own era’s literary critics and have been similarly misremembered by the many Americans whose first impression of the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg was that they were icons of rebellion against junior-high boredom. The new consensus that the ’50s were not, after all, as bland and homogeneous as a suburban adolescence, then, can hardly have helped the historical reputations of those who were thought to be rebelling against just that.
In the midst of what might otherwise be a critical onslaught, however, has come a host of new material on the poets and artists of the ’50s, who for all their faults in critical eyes remain eminently marketable. A CD collection, a new Beat reader, a host of symposiums, and most notably, a mammoth exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum have all presented positive reappraisals of America’s midcentury cultural ferment. An excellent example of this new view of the Beats is “Rebels: Painters and Poets of the 1950s,” a surprisingly informative exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
“Rebels” presents portraits of members of four distinct but related 1950s groupings: the Beat Generation, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Black Mountain School poets, as well as the New York School of poets and abstract expressionist painters. At its worst, the exhibit merely presents interesting pictures of interesting people. At its best, the exhibit integrates its subjects into the new historiography of their era by reflecting their appreciation of, and contributions to, its diversity, complexity, and audacity. Either way, it is worth a long look.
The highlights of the exhibit are the first two rooms, which focus on the New York and San Francisco Beats and on the Black Mountain poets. Organized by writer and locale, the sections present numerous memorable and novel images of already oft-pictured poets. The first room is dominated by Alice Neel’s 1966 painting of a Buddhalike Allen Ginsberg. To its left are earlier Ginsbergs: a photograph taken by William S. Burroughs on a dingy East Village rooftop, a 1954 painting by Robert LaVigne of a surprisingly clean-cut young man. To its right is a later photo, of Ginsberg bearded and clad in a clownish Uncle Sam top hat. Though the photos span two decades, there is a logic to their progression: Ginsberg as 1960s hippie—albeit as an old and rather awkward hippie—goes a long way to explaining the impact and importance of Ginsberg as unknown ’50s poet.
Other Beat heroes are similarly immortalized. A photograph by Ginsberg shows Jack Kerouac on the Staten Island Ferry pier; it is accompanied by notes bearing Ginsberg’s recollections of their ramblings: “We used to wander through truck parking lots along East Side docksides and under Brooklyn Bridge singing rawbone blues, reciting Poe’s Annabel Lee and shouting Hart Crane’s Atlantis to the traffic above.” An evocative John Cohen photograph shows Kerouac, ear cocked, listening to himself on the radio. There is Kerouac’s Buddha Red-Ears (a rendering of Philip Whalen), Harry Redl’s photograph of an earthy, monastic Gary Snyder, and an even more monastic Brother Antoninus. An R.B. Kitaj silkscreen of Kenneth Rexroth includes a prominently placed “25-cent Index Card” advertisement. The poet Jonathan Williams’ photograph of his colleague Charles Olson, shirtless with cigarettes and coffee, meanwhile, features more traditional poetic accouterments. Again, the exhibit’s less-than-complete fidelity to its ’50s focus is helpful: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Burroughs, in cowboy hat with rifle, is a caricature of his public image as Beat-era celebrity. The likeness between that picture and the similarly caricaturish pre-celebrity renderings of Whalen and Snyder is telling.
“Rebels” presents more than merely visual artifacts. Extensive recordings of readings are often accompanied—as in the case of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s autobiography—by jazz music. In the quiet rooms of the National Portrait Gallery, even those not listening to the headphones hear the faint sounds of jazz and poetry careening through the exhibit. In cases by the headphones lie early editions—often paperback and garishly illustrated—of Beat books.
The presentation on the Beats succeeds precisely because it shows why we should like and value them independently of their poetry. Buddha-sitting Ginsberg and jazz-talking Kerouac may have been culturally insensitive in ways that jar us 40 years later, but they were among the only members of their generation to experiment with identity. Memoirs of New York rambles and photographs of poets as barefoot woodsmen may sound contrived, but the Beats’ improvisation and disdain for form and convention—socially as well as poetically—was, for their time, daring. (Indeed, it was daring for our time as well: At a symposium in connection with the exhibit, Ginsberg charged that photographs of Michael McClure and Frank O’Hara had been left out of the exhibit because of nudity.) The plethora of pinup-style images (no portrait-based exhibit on Walt Whitman could ever be so interesting!) reminds us that the Beats were, involuntarily, celebrities; but as the look on Kerouac’s face as he leans toward the radio suggests, the Beats’ wry consciousness of popular culture was ahead of its time. Finally, the frenzied intensity with which the Beats performed their lives—whether in collective poetry readings or scribbled notes—was a sign of things to come in an America set to embrace everything from Elvis to method acting to a sexual revolution. Love Howl or hate it, the qualities brought to postwar America by these small circles of writers must be acknowledged as important. In showing how these qualities were reflected outside of the literature itself, “Rebels” achieves its greatest success.
The New York School artists and painters were at a generational and creative distance from the others portrayed in the exhibit, and “Rebels” treats them differently. The sections dedicated to them are far less ambitious, depicting the heroes at work but rarely displaying aspects of their history that make their story worthwhile. There are, of course, some exceptions: Alex Katz’s cool, subdued painting of LeRoi Jones shows the popular image of him in those years; a 1960 photograph of Jones and Diane DiPrima at the Cedar Street Tavern suggests some of the era’s creative bustle and poetic intermingling (DiPrima is most often associated with the Beat poets). Too often, though, the New York School section seems a mere catalog of the scene’s big and small names.
The same is true of the painters’ section of the exhibit. Since visitors are encouraged to look at the poets first, the exhibit seems to progress up a ladder of respectability, wealth, and age. Indeed, considering the differences of generation, renown, financial status, and public image that existed between poets and abstract expressionist painters, one wonders why they should even be part of the same exhibit. “Rebels” does very little to answer this question. If the painters are rebels, it is by rather different criteria than are the poets. The jarring transition between the sections, however, hardly prepares viewers for a shift in standards. One minute, there are informal photographs of poets taken in cafes and tenements by their friends and colleagues. The next, there are elaborate Life magazine layouts in East Hampton studios. There are legitimate reasons for these differences, of course. But “Rebels” never bridges the gap by explaining the common experiences of America’s 1950s poets and painters.
The ’50s painters, critics, gallery owners, and art-scene hangers-on included in this exhibit lived radically different lives from the poets, and saw themselves differently. Conscious of their place in the art world as they moved its capital from Paris to New York, the painters felt about themselves an air of gravitas quite absent from the subterranean scene of the then-obscure poets. The writers accompanied their brand-new poetry with a brand-new way of life and immortalized that way of life in the portraits that constitute “Rebels”’ better half. The painters were accompanying their brand-new art with lives lived within modernist painting’s established tradition of rebellion. Their ways of life are not the subject of their section of the exhibit; there is no visual sense of anything other than their strictly defined work. The section’s best portraits—Hans Namuth’s series of pictures of Jackson Pollock athletically throwing his body into painting the canvas on his studio floor, or group shots like Nina Leen’s The Irascibles, from Life—remain, for all the fan interest they may hold, quite conventional.
So what did the 1950s’ down-at-the-heels poets and soon-to-be-well-heeled painters have in common? Here, the title of the exhibit offers the answer. Despite the reinterpretations of ’90s scholars, at its core, American public life in the ’50s was rigidly conformist and deeply anti-intellectual. The very act of being an artist was in its own way rebellious. In presenting visions of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Kerouac that go beyond the well-known celebrity stills, “Rebels” contextualizes the era’s poets, explaining the reasons for and shape of their rebellion. The painters of the 1950s, meanwhile, made their own rebellion. Not only did they refuse to join the middle class’s headlong rush to conventional “normalcy,” but they fundamentally reshaped American art’s look, institutions, and vocabulary. Granted, their kind of rebellion is harder to capture in a portrait-based exhibit: The abstract expressionists were people who posed for portraits, while the poets relished the more telling accidental snapshot. That this exhibit offers few glimpses of painters beyond the familiar is understandable, but it nonetheless belies the fact that like their poet colleagues, the abstract expressionists were innovators who pushed the limits of postwar society, ultimately expanding the cultural options available to all Americans. It’s a pity that the painters’ section of “Rebels” fails to make better use of these options.CP