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

By Carol Strickland, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 3, 1995 | Go to article overview

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


Carol Strickland, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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