SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE | The Beats—More Than Nostalgia

 Gathered together for the museum's tribute to the beat era were pioneers Claes Oldenburg (left), Wally Berman and Bruce Conner.

Gathered together for the museum's tribute to the beat era were pioneers Claes Oldenburg (left), Wally Berman and Bruce Conner.

BY THOMAS ALBRIGHT

It was a bit like old home week as three pioneers of the Funk esthetic gathered Thursday amid raw abstract paintings and assemblages of derelict objects to discuss a landmark exhibition of “Beat Generation” art at the San Francisco Museum.

“It feels funny to look back at all this stuff,” said Wally Berman, the Los Angeles artist who was one of the founders of the funk assemblages, as he examined a display of remnants from issues of “Semina,” a hand-assembled portfolio of art and poetry which he initiated in the mid-’50s.

Bruce Conner, who outraged more conservative segments of the San Francisco art world with his violent constructions in the late ’50s, and later achieved international recognition as a filmmaker, opined that the exhibition was a spinoff of the current “nostalgia craze.”

“It’s catching up with us,” Claes Oldenburg, the celebrated New York sculptor and an originator of “happenings,” agreed. “Graduate students are all out looking. They’ve found a period that hasn’t been touched, so they jump in on it.”

The exhibition, organized by the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and Southern Methodist University, contains more than 60 works by artists who were involved in the “Beat” milieu of San Francisco and New York between 1950-1965, and is entitled “Poets of the Cities.”

The wry comments of Conner and Oldenburg notwithstanding, a cursory look suggests that most of the paintings, sculptures, constructions and other works that occupy three full galleries manage to transcend nostalgia, retaining a poetic elusiveness coupled with raw energy and power.

The exhibition represents several artists who might seem to constitute strange company, from Jasper Johns and Jim Dine to Wally Hendrick, Jess Collins, Jay DeFeo and George Herms, who, with Berman and Conner, make up a West Coast contingent that could have been much larger.

In general, both the rawness and the poetry remain much more forceful in the West Coast works than in their East Coast counterparts, which assume a finesse and, sometimes, a self-conscious cleverness that somewhat dulls their cutting edge. Still, there is an edge, an explosive, instinctual vitality that runs throughout this show, from Pollock and Still and Kline to Nevelson and Red Grooms. 

In many ways, after a decade that has been largely preoccupied with formalist, conceptualist and other primarily perceptual and cerebral concerns, this vitality seems stronger than ever.

The three artists on hand at Thursday’s press preview addressed themselves briefly to some of the questions associated with this as yet historically neglected movement, which – to quote the museum’s press release – involved an “integration of the arts and breakdown of traditional categories that were to influence subsequent developments in every facet of American avant-garde art.”

“Art became more theatrical,” Conner observed. “Poetry can out of the academies and cloisters and onto the streets. The same thing happened in sculpture, which developed into happenings and movies.”

“In New York, a lot of poets were earning a living by writing art reviews for $15 a piece,” Oldenburg said. “They had to look at art, and so they began to associate with artists.

“You have to lie on a couch, and it begins to come back,” he reflected. “This is really the first show if it’s kind, of pre-Pop stuff. It might take years to bring it all back.”