On the Road Again : Beat Culture Is Revisited in an Exhibit at the Whitney Museum
Fifty years ago, Herbert Huncke, a charismatic hustler and streetwise storyteller, introduced writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to beat , the word that would become the mantra for their time.
Beat meant cheated in 1940s drug jargon, and in 1948, Kerouac remarked to novelist John Clellon Holmes: “So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation.” Ginsberg and Kerouac added a mystical twist by spinning the word out to “beatific.” By 1957, after the publication of Kerouac’s “On the Road” and the launch of the Soviet Sputnik, San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik.”
After half a century of drifting steadily into the mainstream, the Beat label has been stuck to everything from black berets and espresso to James Dean’s tight white T-shirt and “Funny Face” Audrey Hepburn’s existentialist musings.
And Beat goes on: Opening today (and on view through Feb. 4, after which it travels to Minneapolis and San Francisco), the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York presents “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965,” featuring more than 200 objects including paintings, photographs, installations, journals and manuscripts--among them the original “scroll” of “On the Road,” typed by Benzedrine-high Kerouac on a 250-foot roll of Teletype paper.
That’s not all. Later this month, Pantheon Books, as part of its Circles of the Twentieth Century series, will release cultural historian Steven Watson’s “The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters, 1944-1960.” And in January, another exhibition featuring Beats, this one curated by Watson, will open at the National Portrait Gallery: “Rebel Poets of the 1950s.”
“I think there’s a cultural void right now and we’ve found ourselves living through a time where everything has been homogenized, Disney-ized and as over-processed as Kraft cheese,” says Watson, when asked why we’re experiencing a new wave of interest in the Beat Generation. “We have a desire for another time,” he continues, “and the Beat era’s commitment to spontaneity and friendship is now something that is longed for.”
Watson, a New York-based writer who has chronicled other cultural movements in books about America’s first avant-garde and the Harlem Renaissance, was at work on “The Birth of the Beat Generation” and the National Portrait Gallery show when he first heard about the Whitney’s plans for a Beat exhibition.
“I called [Whitney curator] Lisa Phillips really to say, ‘Here we are in the same city and we’re working on the same material,’ ” Watson recalls.
Phillips then invited Watson to work as a consultant on her show. Together they have created an illustrated timeline for the exhibition. Watson, who is training Whitney docents for “Beat Culture” as well as leading a number of special group tours of the show, also contributed a chronology and what he calls “sociograms” to the catalogue. The sociograms chart the various connecting lines--romance, finance, feuds and unrequited love--that link the era’s main characters to one another.
“I think it’s only in hindsight that we give [time periods] hard and fast labels,” Watson says. “What the chronology [for the Whitney show] does is to really contextualize the period. I think the atomic bomb was a major influence and there was a feeling of living in a post-apocalyptic age.”
Jazz, particularly the exuberant, unpredictable be-bop of the ‘40s and ‘50s, also had a tremendous influence on the Beats; it informed their social life and shaped their aesthetic.
Exuberance and improvisation--"mining the gap between art and life,” as painter Robert Rauschenberg called it--infused visual art-making as well. The California assemblage and collage artists included in the current exhibition--Wallace Berman, George Herms, Jess, Ed Kienholz, Bruce Conner and Wally Hedrick--captured a brash, disjunctive visual poetry in their work.
In an artist statement for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1959 show “16 Americans,” San Francisco painter Jay DeFeo wrote in a philosophically beat mode, “Only by chancing the ridiculous, can I hope for the sublime.”
Now the Whitney, in conjunction with the artist’s estate, has restored DeFeo’s signature work “The Rose” (1958-1964) and is exhibiting it, in the “Beat Culture” show, for the first time in 20 years.
“ ‘The Rose’ is a massive work weighing 2,300 pounds. In order to get it out of DeFeo’s studio, they had to remove the studio’s windows,” Watson says. “Bruce Conner [DeFeo’s neighbor] filmed the event.” That film, Conner’s 1965 “The White Rose,” with Miles Davis’ haunting “Sketches of Spain” as the score, is also included in the Whitney show.
“Constellations” is how Watson refers to the interconnected lives of the Beats. It’s part of their appeal as subject matter as well as cultural icons.
“I don’t labor under the idea that great artists and great writers have any obligation to be likable people,” Watson says. “But one thing that I feel about writing about constellations, rather than individuals, is that there are very few people that I want [as a writer] to be in bed with for three years. A group doesn’t impose the same pressures. . . . I don’t have to identify with one person, I can be connected to all of them.”
Moving on from the Beat world, Watson has just completed a book about the landmark 1927 opera “Four Saints in Three Acts,” composed by Virgil Thomson with a libretto by Gertrude Stein, and is preparing to chart another Circle of the Twentieth Century in a book about Berlin in the ‘20s. His book about the Harlem Renaissance has been optioned by HBO for a miniseries.
In museums and especially on the printed page, Watson’s role is that of well-informed and genial host to various epochs.
“I hope when you read my books, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, this is what Steven Watson thinks about these people,’ ” he says. “I hope you have a sense of someone who has a good ear for what was said, gives everybody their best lines, knows how to structure a narrative, and keeps his own little psyche out of it.”
* “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Today-Feb . 4; June 2-Sept. 15, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Oct. 5-Dec. 29, 1996, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco.