by Rebecca Solnit
Site of The 6 Gallery, 2001, 3119 Fillmore St.
Photo: Chris Carlsson
If all art aspires to the condition of music, then in the postwar coteries that would sometimes be called beat, that music was jazz, and its salient qualities were spontaneity, improvisation, collaboration, subversion, low and outlaw status, hipness/coolness, and an indigenous, hybrid, vernacular Americanism distinct from the Europhilia that had overwhelmed their predecessors. For visual artists jazz would be enormously important in that era, and one source of this cross-pollination was the presence of so many of the visual artists and poets of beat-era San Francisco in the Fillmore District. Though cheap rent was also part of the draw, the ambience was important.
The poet Michael McClure told me, "North Beach was like a reservation in which there was a free space for bohemians and oddballs of all stripes to meet in between the Italian and the Chinese districts in what was still a remarkably inexpensive part of town with lots of [residential] hotels. A lot of those very constructive people got out of there in '56 or '57 when the 'beatnik' thing started--because of the tour buses--and the obvious place to go was the Western Addition.
"We were enjoying the black stores, the black ambience, the black music," recalls McClure. "We had our faces toward them but our butts towards Pacific Heights."
McClure, Robert Duncan and his lover Jess, Bruce and Jean Conner, Wallace and Shirley Berman, Joan and Bill Brown, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Stan Brakhage, George Herms, John Wieners and Kenneth Rexroth are among those who made their home in the neighborhood at some point in the 1950s. It was a predominantly African-American neighborhood from Haight to California Streets, Van Ness to Masonic, and most of the African-Americans had arrived not long before, during World War II. The imprisonment of the neighborhood's Japanese-descent population was part of what opened the area to them.
Through the 1950s central Fillmore Street was the "Harlem of the West," with nightclubs, bars, theaters and more fostering a dynamic cultural life. Much of what is now known oxymoronically as "Lower Pacific Heights" was then part of the Fillmore or Western Addition. Places like Red Powell's Shoe Parlor (1552 Fillmore) displayed signed photographs by Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday and other stars who played in the nearby clubs (saved by photographer Lewis Watts, some of these photos can still be seen at Reggie Pettus's New Chicago Barbershop #3, across Fillmore Street).
In those days the Fillmore was being ravaged by urban renewal--nicknamed in that time and place "negro removal." As the Victorian homes were smashed into splinters in the name of progress, Conner and Herms salvaged material for their assemblage sculptures, which can be seen not only in their aesthetics and politics but in their very materials as part of that place.
San Francisco appears in nearly everyone's accounts as a sanctuary during the 1950s, a place where the conservatism and conformity of the McCarthy era weren't so stifling, a tolerant, cosmopolitan city whose tone had been set by the festive adventurers of the Gold Rush. If Los Angeles was the American city of the future, San Francisco was in many ways like a European city of the past with its Italian cafes, its small, pedestrian scale, its charming Victorian architecture. For many artists the swirling fog, innumerable vistas and places like the decrepit amusement park Playland at the Beach gave it a particular magic.
Perhaps because outside support was so abysmally lacking in that time and place, the subculture was distinguished by its friendships, correspondences, collaborations, gestures of support, and artist-run galleries, presses and publications, by artists who served as each other's audience and who worked to create a cultural infrastructure, a community. It was a culture that brought together artists, poets and filmmakers in San Francisco. It was a period of mixing it up, of bringing ideas and epiphanies from one medium to another, a period when not only jazz (and later, rhythm and blues and rock'n'roll), but esoteric and occult traditions, contemporary politics, popular culture, mass media, drugs, sex, and non-European traditions as well as dada and surrealism influenced and appeared in the work. From it emerged the great experimental films of Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Larry Jordan, Kenneth Anger, the paintings of Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Jess, Artie Richer, Joan Brown, the collages and assemblages of Conner, Jess, Berman, George Herms, Edward Kienholz, and an array of great poetry by Jack Spicer, David Meltzer, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, tied to the other poets' circles that included Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Bob Kaufman, and many more.
A flowering of anomalies and apostasies, the people tend to be exceptional in the most literal terms--thus one can say that there was a distinction between the no-nonsense abstract painters of the period and the mystical-poetic assemblage artists--except that the greatest painter of the era, Jay DeFeo, was something of a mystic in her work, hung out with the assemblagists and made a few immensely influential collages and assemblages. This fecund period is impossible to describe in terms of the neat linear geneologies of a genre or medium. Cross-pollinations were so central and those working in each medium drew on friends and theories from other media. Also, some of the most stellar figures worked in several media.
Berman counted some of L.A.'s great jazz musicians among his friends, and his first extant works of art are academic-surrealist drawings of jazz figures within the iconography of their world, one of which became a bebop album cover. An homage to Charlie Parker would show up fifteen years later in one of the issues of Semina, the experimental publication he produced, and throughout his life's work, literature and music would inform his visual work far more than visual art traditions--visual work which included photography, film, printmaking, mail art, the vast array of collage/print hybrids made on an early photocopier, assemblage, site-specific text pieces, perhaps installation....
Such an interdisciplinary approach is one of the things that typifies the period: George Herms evolved into an assemblage artist by making objects to bear his poetry, while the poet Michael McClure came to San Francisco in 1954 to study with abstract expressionist painters Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute at 800 Chestnut); finding them gone, he went on to use the ideas of gesture and action painting in the development of his distinctive poetic voice.
Another characteristic of the period is the lack of critics, curators, and other outsiders to sift through the abundance and set standards and draw lines. Success was nowhere on the horizon, and its absence freed up the artists to be as experimental, as outrageous, as personal as they liked, an exhilarating if not always an enviable condition. Between the looming cold war and the lack of an audience, there was little evident future for their work, which was made, like music, for the moment and their fellow artists. The artists were remarkable for an integrity, a commitment to working for its own sake, and their history is littered not only with acts of sabotage, but with abandoned and destroyed works, ephemeral gestures, and unstable materials. They established an idea of success that has everything to do with the calibre of one's acts and nothing to do with recognition, though some of them eventually became successes on both counts.
Many of the most significant galleries were in the Fillmore, notably the King Ubu Gallery Jess, Duncan and their friend Harry Redl opened in 1953 and was taken over by another group whose number gave it its new name, the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore (the six were gay poets Jack Spicer and John Allen Ryan, African-American artist Hayward King, and the painters Deborah Remington, David Simpson and Hedrick, though the gallery eventually came to have dozens of dues-paying members). Jess had been living at the Ghost House, a ramshackle Victorian at Franklin and Sutter Streets; Wally Hedrick, who also lived there briefly, recalls it as a hangout conveniently located between the Fillmore and North Beach, a place where Thelonius Monk or Miles Davis might drop in, and where parties were frequent. In search of a quieter life, Jess and Duncan moved to 1724 Baker Street, taking over the apartment from the filmmaker and poet James Broughton when he went to Europe. In 1952, Stan Brakhage, then a nineteen-year-old, later with Conner one of the founders of American experimental film, moved into the house and later recalled of his hosts, "They were wonderful people...living out the peculiarities of their lives as a triumph rather than an abyss."
Though the Six closed in 1957, another gallery, the East/West (run by the mother of painter Sonia Gechtoff, who lived at 2322 Fillmore) ran until 1958. Around that time and around the corner from the Ubu/Six site, Dimitri Grachis briefly ran the Spatza Gallery at 2192 Filbert, out of a garage he also lived in. The Batman Gallery at 2222 Fillmore was for several years after its opening in November 1960 an important venue for Conner and many other artists. The Ubu/Six was technically outside the Fillmore, just north of Union Street on the other side of Pacific Heights (for many years a middle-eastern carpet store that preserves something of the otherworldiness of the galleries it once was), but it was part of that culture. And the central moment in West Coast beat culture or in beat culture generally, the moment Jack Kerouac mythologized in The Dharma Bums and everyone runs up against in addressing the era, is Allen Ginsberg's first reading of "Howl" at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco in October of 1955.
The event can also illuminate some more general aspects of the scene then. The poem, and his public reading of it, was a watershed, but the homogenous image of a movement founded and a momentum begun falls apart under closer examination. Five poets read that evening. Michael McClure and Gary Snyder read poetry whose open, surging lines may well be beat but whose subjects--Coyote, a woman married to a bear, a whale massacre--forecast the environmental consciousness and indigenous traditions that would much later become key elements of West Coast culture. Philip Whalen, who was already immersed in zen, also read. The anarchist Kenneth Rexroth, whose salons had since the 1930s helped keep radical culture alive in San Francisco, was the master of ceremonies and senior poet. For many years, Rexroth held court at the corner of Scott and Page Street, above what is now and has long been Jack's Record Cellar. Near by was Alamo Square where Berman lived and hosted the poet John Wieners who commemorated his residency with the book 707 Scott Street.
An artists' collective had supplied the space in which poetry triumphed. Community had triumphed over capitalism. The 1950s saw both the "San Francisco Renaissance" in poetry and the so-called Beats open up the possibilities of American literature, both stylistically and politically, and while the trio of official beats were Eastern, both Ginsberg and Kerouac found liberation and confirmation in San Francisco.
So the "Howl" event pointed to things that preceded and followed the insurrectionary moment that would be called 'beat.' The beats who were to become so famous were largely strangers to the crowd who supported the Six; they lacked a community maintaining spaces, resources and connections that would make such a reading possible. If Ginsberg had broken new ground, the Six had made it possible to go public with it. The reading was modeled after one Robert Duncan had given at the Six earlier that year, with his lover Jess and friends Larry Jordan and McClure among the participants. And it was McClure who had invited Ginsberg into the community, and Ginsberg who brought Kerouac. Another writer present, Jack Goodwin, described in a letter how "This Carrowac person sat on the floor...slugging a gallon of Burgundy and repeating lines after Ginsberg, and singing snatches of scat in between the lines; he kept a kind of chanted, revival-meeting rhythm going."
Meanwhile, the 2322 Fillmore Building became a sort of latter-day Bateau Lavoir--the building in which Picasso and many of his peers lived during their starving-in-Montmartre phase. McClure and his family, gallerist James Newman, painter Sonia Gechtoff, and later the painters Joan Brown and Bill Brown lived at 2322 Fillmore as neighbors and friends of DeFeo and her painter husband, Wally Hedrick. DeFeo had worked on her painting The Rose for several years, eventually installing it in the bay window of the front room of her flat, which she used as a studio. The painting and her commitment to it became legendary, and her peers speak of DeFeo with an awe no one else elicited. The Rose came to weigh about a ton as the paint built up to become several inches thick, and the floor around it was, recalls Conner, so layered with yielding, drying paint that walking on it was like walking on the back of a whale. The house had become magical and slightly sinister, an extension of the painting that was so much an extension of the artist. Building up and scraping away the surface of the piece, letting it evolve through "a whole cycle of art history" from primitive to baroque to classical, taking it from a painted surface to a bas relief of paint, working on it as a ritual and an act of dedication consumed her for seven years.
It came to an end when they were evicted from the building. In 1964 her rent was raised from $65 to $300 a month and she was forced to move. Conner's black and white film The White Rose documents the 1964 removal of Jay DeFeo's monumental one-ton painting The Rose from her long-term home by a group of unusually priestly-looking moving men. The seven-minute movie is about many things, the artist's passionate commitment to this work, the mandala-like spiritual icon the painting had become, the melancholy end of the intricate relationship between artist, home, and art. But at a fundamental level the film is about eviction. The painting The Rose began to crumble and disappeared into conservation storage for twenty-five years, leaving nothing behind but a legend (until the Whitney Museum restored and acquired it in the late 1990s). Its departure marked the end of an era.
Bruce Conner had swept in at the height of that era, in the annus mirabulus of 1957, fleeing the draft (no one in Wichita was ever 4F he said later) and rejecting New York, already a prolific, brilliant artist with an enormous sense of purpose. A friend of McClure's from their high school days together in Wichita, he had been corresponding with the filmmaker Larry Jordan and arrived ready to start an experimental film society with him. (Stan Brakhage had introduced Conner to Jordan, who worked as Joseph Cornell's filmmaking assistant and used stop animation to make moving collage films himself.) Already an immensely talented painter, collagist and draftsman beginning to explore assemblage, Conner completed his own first movie in 1958. A collage of available footage titled A Movie, it deconstructs the genres, elements, cliches and cues of editing and sequencing of moviemaking so brilliantly it is still used as a sort of training film for would-be auteurs in art school. Other films explored sex, political life, the media and the medium of film. Among the earlier works was Marilyn Times Five, which deconstructed a girlie film of a Monroe lookalike through repetitions that begin to suggest the pathos, the labor and the loneliness involved; among the later were films using songs by the punk band Devo (Mongoloid, 1977) and by David Byrne and Brian Eno (America Is Waiting, 1981). A similar genius infused the assemblages, in which scraps of lace, nylon stockings, girlie photographs, jewelry, accreted into spooky compositions sometimes morbidly erotic, sometimes anguished, sometimes both. Conner was in the late seventies deeply involved with the punk scene that flourished in North Beach and made many photographs of the performers and milieu, and he still lives in San Francisco--albeit near Glen Park, far from the Fillmore. During the 1950s he was enormously inspired by his physical environment, by the many thrift stores on McAllister Street run by African-American men who would arrange their artifacts and debris in telling ways, by the decrepit Victorian material to be found in those shops, and by the sights on the streets. The garbage collectors who hung pendulous testicular sacks of trash off the side of their trucks and the scaffolding of buslines and electrical lines both became inspirations for his assemblages.
Conner has since become celebrated as a filmmaker as well as an artist; a huge exhibition of his work opened at the Walker Art Center in late 1999 and travel'led to three other major American museums in 2000. Recalling his beginnings in San Francisco at that time, he said the rent he and his bride Jean Sandstedt Conner paid in their first place at 2365 Jackson Street, near Fillmore, was $65 a month in 1957. But, he admonished, coming up with that sum was "not so easy if you were making one penny over minimum wage. I was working as a movie usher and Jean was working at a concession stand. She was also getting paid a dollar and one cent per hour.... We were living on Jackson Street in this three-room thing and Wallace Berman and Shirley [Berman] moved in down the street about three months after we moved in, about six or seven houses east of us on that block." Artists lived much more modestly then than now, he added. "We'd eat out once a month at the cheapest Chinese restaurant we could find and get about the least expensive thing that was on the menu. The rest of time we were eating hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches." As for housing, "It was easy to evict people but it was easy to find another a place. My rent went up to $85 ... I had to move out because we couldn't afford it, and at the same time Wallace and Shirley's rent went up from $65 to $125--they really didn't want them there. So I moved over to 1205 Oak Street and Wallace and Shirley and [their son] Tosh moved over to Alamo Square. Then we didn't have any real problems...." They had moved from the northern to the southern edge of the Western Addition, near what would become known as the Haight-Ashbury.
Few of the artists in this San Francisco coterie achieved much recognition before the 1970s. Yet their influence was profound, in broadening the definition of what art could be, in carving out a place for artistic activity, and in providing examples of working artists (often as teachers). They seem to have prefigured and in some ways generated not only a stable artistic tradition on the West Coast, but the counterculture which would change all of American society. Berman ended up not only in Easy Rider (a film Dennis Hopper says was influenced by Conner's cinematic techniques) but on the cover of the Beatle's Sergeant Pepper album, the album that was such a watershed in defining what rock could be. Conner worked on light shows with the North American Ibis Alchemical Company in the 1960s, making his most ephemeral and widely seen works and helping to define what would be considered psychedelic. Michael McClure became a mentor to Jim Morrison of the Doors and a friend of Bob Dylan's. It's hard to trace the permeation of drugs and esoteric religious traditions through the culture, but psychedelics, the Tarot, the Kabbalah, zen make some of their earliest surfacings in American culture in these circles. Too, their willing outsider status, their radical resistance to the political mainstream, their experiments with collective institutions and communal living seem to forecast the broad breakdown of the narrow strictures of the society. When the colossal Human Be-In took place in 1967, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg--two of the poets who had read at the famous Six Gallery event twelve years earlier--held the stage, and the small community they had found on Fillmore Street had become a mass movement in Golden Gate Park.
But for most of the artists, the indiscriminate revelry of the 1960s was more interesting than inviting. By the early sixties, Jess had already withdrawn from the turbulence of public culture into a more selective social life, and most of the artists had retreated from the urban epicenters. The kind of community they had created as a way of survival was no longer so necessary in a more tolerant, diverse society, and the experiments they had initiated collectively continued independently. The creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965 and subsequent growth of nonprofit arts organizations would assume, for better and worse, much of the responsibility of maintaining an artistic infrastructure, leaving artists to the creation of art rather than culture. And the art is remarkable on its own grounds.
--cobbled together from three pieces of Rebecca Solnit's writing: "Heretical Constellations," in Beat Culture and the New America (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995), Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (City Lights, 1990), and Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism (Verso, 2001).