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
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
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,
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
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. …