Space is the Central Fact: The Beats at the Centre Pompidou
Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (June 22 – October 3, 2016)
Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris, surveys a far-flung group of over 80 artists, centered on William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who met in 1944 in New York City. It’s a literary group distinctly impatient with the printed text, and even language itself; they favor collective experience, collaboration across media, improvisation, and performance. Ginsberg presented “Howl” in a famous public reading, while Burroughs used texts for random “cut-ups”. Language migrates from one medium to another in the immersive, cave-like space of the show’s central gallery, where curator Philippe-Alain Michaud, assisted by film scholar Rani Singh and artist/curator Jean-Jacques Lebel, have orchestrated a comprehensive installation of original materials that encourage reflection on the interplay of European and American modernism.
Unlike a recent exhibition at the Orangerie dedicated to poet Guillaume Apollinaire, which focused on writers and artists in early 20th- century Paris, this one emphasizes travel across continents, fueled on a mix of Transcendentalism and Surrealism, on Walt Whitman and Arthur Rimbaud. There’s an appealing narrative, with a French inflection, to this voyage of marginalized individuals, alienated from a conformist society, who, as America expanded its world influence, turned to Antonin Artaud and Apollinaire, and insisted on immediate, lived experience. They explored film and audio recording and new methods of composition in the “open field”, and questioned consciousness itself through meditation and drugs. The journey ends, appropriately, in Paris circa 1960, at the seedy “Beat Hotel”, where Ginsberg composed “At the Grave of Apollinaire” and Burroughs’ visionary works took form, in the context of the group’s ongoing struggles with poverty, mental illness and addiction. There’s inspiration to be found in their vision, in these times of renewed threats to the individual, but also enough darkness to recall the warning of poet Charles Olson, who observed that we revere Whitman because he gives us hope, but that Melville is “the truer man”, who gives us “America, all of her space, the malice, the root.”
To paraphrase Olson again, “SPACE” is the “central fact” of the Beat Generation, with Jack Kerouac’s typewritten scroll of On the Road extending like a highway for 120 feet across the main gallery. Typed over three weeks on sheets of tracing paper, taped together so as to obviate changing pages in the machine, it’s a performance as much as a text, configured here as a sculptural installation. Anonymous film clips of the American road are projected on screens suspended overhead, while piped-in recordings of vintage blues and jazz intermingle with the hum of film projectors to create a buzzing, flickering field, a realm of surrealist suggestion, in which visitors are encouraged to wander. Displays of vintage typewriters, microphones, and tape recorders ground it all in the material context of cultural production.
Candid, hand-captioned photos taken by Ginsberg himself punctuate the exhibition, insinuating the poet’s personal magnetism and blurring the line between work and documentation. Photos selected from Robert Frank’s famous cross-country road trip, The Americans, supply a gritty visual context for Kerouac’s text, reinforcing the journalistic intensity of his verbal snapshots of marginalized characters. In a neighboring alcove, Frank’s 1959 film, Pull My Daisy, a whimsical collaboration narrated by Kerouac under the direction of Abstract Expressionist painter Alfred Leslie, features Ginsberg and others in a casual sequence of daily interactions. The improvisatory structure of jazz provides an important model for this informal art, and gestural painting seems a sideline for a number of writers, including Kerouac and Julian Beck, whose Living Theater exemplifies the group’s transgressive, participatory spirit.
If there’s innocent exuberance to Kerouac’s hunger for experience, to the freedom of “having nothing”, the cathartic incantation of Ginsberg’s “Howl”, drawn from Blake and Rimbaud, and from his own experience on the road and in a mental hospital, provides a counterpoint. Here, one can listen to Ginsberg himself reading the poem, examine his original manuscript with handwritten revisions, or interact with the words more directly by reading aloud a phonetic transcription, broken down onto some 200 posters created by contemporary artist Allen Ruppersberg. Neighboring displays of tabloid headlines from the 1950s featuring the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg evoke the era’s hysteria over communism and fears of nuclear war, traumas that can’t help but resonate with current anxieties in Europe.
In an inspired contrast to the dark activity of the opening gallery, the curators have dedicated the north gallery and its panoramic view of Montmartre to a reading room. Among its bookshelves, a lone monitor features Ginsberg being interviewed by Lebel, while the silent presence of the city at large animates the room in a flood of natural light. Combining intimacy and spectacle, it informally celebrates the wonder of everyday life and the possibility of enlightenment, anticipating Michael McClure’s ecstatic “Peyote Poem”, reproduced in a neighboring gallery: “I KNOW EVERYTHING! I PASS INTO THE ROOM.”
In side galleries, we follow the group from New York to California, where they establish affiliations with a rich culture of artists and writers, including McClure and Zen environmentalist Gary Snyder. A film clip shows McClure reading poems to a lion at the zoo, engaging with his animal body, while Bruce Conner’s mural-scale film clips of mushroom clouds from nuclear tests ironically conflate American expansionism and hallucinogenic drugs. There’s much art based on clipping and splicing, including the intricate “paste-ups” of Jess, which integrate science, art and myth. Wallace Berman’s collages using early xerox technology underline connections between collage and montage that emerge dramatically in Stan Brakhage’s Desistfilm (1954), with its opening credits hand scratched onto celluloid and compressed editing that develops tensions in an informal gathering, not unlike the one recorded more digressively in Pull My Daisy. A similar hallucinatory intensity animates the magic lantern effects of Harry Smith’s color animations, noteworthy in an exhibition that’s largely black and white, which extend Apollinaire’s concept of Orphism by coordinating shifts in visual patterns to music.
Of the three central figures, Burroughs took longer to establish his literary career, migrating to Mexico and Latin America in search of hallucinogenic plants, and sojourning with writer and ethnomusicologist Paul Bowles in Tangiers, before rejoining Ginsberg and other poets in Paris. A dilapidated bed evokes the seedy atmosphere of the “Beat Hotel”, where he and British writer Brion Gysin developed the “cut-up” – a technique of slicing up texts and randomly recombining the pieces that helped him complete Naked Lunch. For Burroughs, who regarded language as a virus, it was important to rid the body of its control. The cut-up, which Ginsberg saw as an extension of Cézanne’s process of construction with patches of color, also generated a wealth of visual material, combining photography, painting and calligraphy, that culminated in the “Dream Machine” – a rotating light box informed by primitive cinema and by the orgone theories of Wilhelm Reich, designed to activate the electrical energy of the body and generate a hypnotic state in which light could transcend language altogether.
In Paris, Ginsberg sought out Apollinaire’s grave at Père Lachaise and wrote his tribute to the poet who coined the term “surrealism” and gave verses visual form in “Calligrammes” – bringing an American movement back to its European roots. Curator Lebel, who was a member of the group at that time, even introduced the Americans to Marcel Duchamp, envisioning a fusion of European and American avant-gardes; the writers were drunk, but Duchamp, who welcomed the rawness of America in his assault on high culture, was not put off, even as Ginsberg kissed his knees and Gregory Corso clipped off his tie. Beat Generation responds to American scruffiness and homegrown mysticism with a similar generosity of spirit. World-weary Europeans attuned to Baudelairean irony might respond more to Andy Warhol’s reduction of transcendence to celebrity and commodification than to Ginsberg’s raw hunger for life. But by bringing French ideas back to Paris fully embodied in American space and popular culture, this exhibition inspires visions of a Whitmanesque merger. There’s a bracing freshness to the abrupt word juxtapositions of Ginsberg’s “Apollinaire”, while the harshness of Burroughs’ bodily imagery recalls us to the unkempt power of everyday experience.