Glory Days of Hip and Cool Are Revisited in New York
Whitney Museum offers comprehensive look at literature and art of the beat generation: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others
NEW YORK — The beats are back. With a vengeance - if that term can be applied to such a pacifist, anti-bomb set. Although parodied by the mass media in the 1950s, beat writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs now inspire a new generation of poets reclaiming the energy of the spoken word. In coffeehouses and poetry ''slams'' across the nation, word-loving youths are continuing the legacy of their beat forebears.
Examining the cultural legacy of this movement is the aim of ''Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965,'' a multidisciplinary extravaganza at the Whitney Museum of American Art until Feb. 4, 1996. The show contains more than 200 objects from diverse art forms, including literature, film (see story, far right), photography, sculpture, painting, and music.
The beats, who counted poets like Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso among their number, thought of themselves as spiritual descendants of American poets like Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. They mutually celebrated liberation, nonconformity, and a pantheistic belief that, according to Ginsberg, ''Everything is holy!'' (Kerouac identified beat with ''beatific,'' calling the beat generation ''basically a religious generation.'')
Besides literature, the most outstanding art associated with the era is undoubtedly jazz, specifically bebop - that anarchic, syncopated beat pioneered by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. The beat writers worshiped these African-American musicians and patterned their poetics on improvisation. A videotape at the show highlights Parker, Monk, and a very young Miles Davis, blowing pure trumpet notes of concentrated intensity, as if it meant everything.
Plenty of literary artifacts are on display, including the legendary 100-foot roll of teletype paper on which Jack Kerouac produced his novel, ''On the Road'' (Viking, 1957), in a three-week, drug-fueled typing marathon.
Since the movement was primarily literary, the exhibition is more for students of American culture than for art lovers. The writers' dabbling in art is displayed, such as an amateurish painting of Buddha by Kerouac. Sketches and daubs by Burroughs, Corso, and McClure are no more than ephemera. Keep your day jobs, guys.
An exception are the portraits of his friends photographed by Allen Ginsberg, which have aesthetic as well as documentary value. In a moody portrait of Burroughs, a bar of shadow rakes across the author's eyes, making him look as bizarre as his major work, the novel ''Naked Lunch.''
Another original photographer is actor-filmmaker Dennis Hopper. His portrait, ''Biker'' (1961), and a study of a smashed car window are formally satisfying and visually challenging.
Some art heavyweights are represented in the show, even though their connection to the beat movement is tangential, based on chronology and shared sympathies. Even though not allied with the beats, painter Larry Rivers partook of the Zeitgeist, since he played in a jazz band and befriended New York School poets. His portrait of poet Frank O'Hara, ''O'Hara Nude with Boots'' (1954), is particularly strong.
A Jackson Pollock painting is in the show, presumably because his all-or-nothing spontaneity fit the beat credo of seizing the moment. Two Franz Kline canvases might have been included because he was fascinated with trains, as were these hobo writers. John Chamberlain's sculpture, ''Manitou'' (1959), fabricated of smashed auto parts, meshes with the beat obsession with cars, speed, and transcontinental travel.
Robert Rauschenberg is christened a beat essentially by virtue of his famous quote that art should ''act in [the] gap between'' art and life, to inject gritty realism into art. His painting, ''Satellite'' (1955), which includes goofy discarded materials like doilies, gloves, and a stuffed pheasant, transmutes urban detritus into a polyglot whole greater than the sum of its syllables.
On the West Coast, in the two urban centers of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the visual art of the period also recycled castoffs. The selected artists are not household names, but many deserve museum exposure.
During this period, a general (Dwight Eisenhower) was president of the United States, Sen. Joseph McCarthy pursued his witch hunt of Bolsheviks, and the Organization Man was top of the heap. Reacting against right-wing paranoia, Edward Kienholz invented assemblage in his overtly political art.
His ''Untitled American President'' (1962), a metal milk can with a painted American flag and bicycle seat on top, deflates the notion of hallowed public office.
Most haunting are shrouded, Gothic assemblages by Bruce Conner. He draped dolls and wax figures with frayed nylon stockings so they look like spider-webbed carcasses from a catacomb. ''Couch'' (1963) and ''Child'' (1959) reek of mortality and black humor.
Jay DeFeo's epic sculptural painting, ''The Rose'' (1958-65), has been resurrected for this show. Literally sealed behind a wall, it was excavated, restored, and is being shown for the first time in 25 years. The artist George Herms called it ''the ultimate living creature,'' for DeFeo worked on it daily for seven years, layering and carving paint that became eight inches thick in places. A more fitting emblem of the beat movement cannot be imagined.
The 11-foot-high work, weighing more than a ton, resembles a stucco ceiling medallion in a crumbling mansion. Its center is radiant, bright, and light, with a smooth shape that gradually becomes rough and broken as the rays widen and project outward. So, too, with the beat movement, which had radiating spheres of influence, from the flower children of Woodstock and save-the-earth conservationists to counterculture political dissidents like the Weathermen.
In a poignant film clip, a young Jack Kerouac reads from ''On the Road.'' In rhythmical riffs, he intones, ''Nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.''
Like Kerouac and his nomadic buddy Neal Cassady (the model for Kerouac's fictional hero), many of the artists in the exhibition are long gone - burnout victims of drugs, liquor, and fast living. Yet they also pursued what Ginsberg called the ''sacred mission of poetry.'' Four decades ago, amid an atmosphere of censorship that banned his poem ''Howl,'' Ginsberg praised ''angelheaded hipsters'' as the ''best minds of my generation.''
Their visions were the dreams of youth, with all its intensity, idealism, and absolutism. The same ragtag spirit beats like bongos in the pulse of each generation of rebellious youth - before their revels, too, subside into history.
* ''Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965'' remains at the Whitney Museum in New York until Feb. 4. It will be shown at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, from June 2 to Sept.15, and at the M.H. DeYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco from Oct. 5 to Dec. 29.