William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. All writers. Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. All painters. Followers of two very different creative callings. But they had much in common.
They burst on the scene after World War II. They were outsiders. They banded together in groups against the establishment of their day. What they created, from deep within, challenged a world that had never seen anything like it before. And now, four decades after their heyday, American culture faces many of the issues that they faced. Maybe that's why they seem so interesting to us again.
They and their colleagues are the subjects of "Rebels: Painters and Poets of the 1950s," a new show at Washington's National Portrait Gallery that profiles the writers who became known as the Beat Generation and the artists of abstract expressionism. It's a well-organized, well-thought-out show that fascinates as far as it goes, but leaves the viewer wishing for more.
The show has two distinct halves, facing each other across the portrait gallery's main first-floor hall, and each had a separate curator. Steven Watson, an independent scholar and curator who has written previously on the Harlem Renaissance, organized the "poets" section, and it turns out to encompass more than either poets or the Beat Generation.
Those -- including this writer -- who are more familiar with the term "Beat Generation" than with its literature will be surprised to learn that strictly speaking it does not refer to a whole generation of writers.
It refers to a group of five people, of whom three formed the core: Ginsberg, whose most famous poem is "Howl" (1956); Burroughs, best known for "Naked Lunch" (1959); and Kerouac, whose "On the Road" (1957) Watson refers to as "the Bible of the Beat Generation." It's something of an irony that of the three most famous figures of the "poets" section of the show, two -- Kerouac and Burroughs -- are primarily prose writers.
The three met around the common ground of Columbia University in the 1940s and became extremely close. Eventually, Gregory Corso and Diane DiPrima became associated with the Beat Generation.
They represent one of four groups of writers Watson includes: the "San Francisco Renaissance" writers, including Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth; the poets of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, including Robert Creeley and Charles Olson; and the New York School, including Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, whose members (especially O'Hara) were closest the abstract expressionist painters.
These groups formed, in Ginsberg's term, "the united phalanx," although Watson observes in the show's brochure that their unity "owed more to a collective feeling of embattlement than it did to unified poetics. At the time, many of these writers were called anti-intellectuals, 'destroyers of language,' and literary juvenile delinquents. These writers actually read voraciously -- both classical and modern literature -- and pursued the perennial avant garde imperative to reinvigorate literary culture by destroying the hackneyed and moribund."
They formed into groups for mutual support, pursued mostly Bohemian lifestyles, read their works in bars and coffee houses, and created a new kind of writing freed of establishment restraints.
There was nothing so all-pervasive as a common style, but Watson notes that their works shared some common characteristics: "the bardic spoken voice, links to jazz and spontaneous composition, open verse forms and rhythms, derangement of the senses as a stimulus to creativity, confessional candor, and content that embraced political issues, Buddhism, and the natural environment."
They also incorporated into their work what Watson calls "the slang of marginal groups," including African-Americans and homosexuals.
There's much to admire in the material Watson has gathered on these writers. He includes multiple images of many of the figures in a variety of media, some by artists of renown.
Ginsberg is shown as a young man in a 1954 oil by Robert LaVigne, as a Buddha-like figure in a 1966 painting by Alice Neel, and the now-familiar face with luxuriant beard stares out from a 1966 photo by Fred W. McDarrah. O'Hara, beloved by many artists, is shown in a splendid portrait by Alice Neel, a painted cutout by Alex Katz, a drawing by Philip Guston and a sensitive double portrait by Larry Rivers.
In addition, texts give background on each of the writers, and there are examples of their books on view and recorded excerpts of a number of them reading brief passages from their works.
Show has a hole
Despite all this, there's a hole at the core of this show: We get little or no sense of the writing itself. The best-known works get snippets of descriptions in wall texts.
Of Ginsberg's "Howl": "In visionary and experimental language, he opened up new areas of personal candor and political concern as subject matter for poetry." Kerouac "emulated the improvisation of jazz musicians to create fact-based works written at top speed . Taken together, Kerouac's novels formed an epic autobiographical chronicle." Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" is "phantasmagoric -- black-comedy sequences that unspooled in his head like nightmarish movies."
Those bits don't give us much to go on. It's admittedly hard to know what would, short of long summations of the books or extended portions of the works in printed texts, which most people wouldn't read anyway.
And Watson would be perfectly justified in saying that if his show leaves us unsatisfied enough to go and read the works themselves, so much the better.
Nevertheless, the fact that the show doesn't give us a grasp of the writing leaves the nagging sense of a missing center.
Much the same could be said of the section on painters, curated by Portrait Gallery deputy director Carolyn Kinder Carr. The show contains many pictures of the abstract expressionists, but lacks their famous works -- necessarily, of course, in a show of this modest size.
Here it makes far less difference, though, because no doubt most of those who see the show will be familiar with abstract expressionist painting through seeing it in museums or reproductions. And those who aren't can see works by de Kooning, Still, Robert Motherwell and other abstract expressionists without going outside: They're on the third floor of the National Museum of American Art, which shares a building with the Portrait Gallery.
Like Watson, Carr has assembled generous visual material on the best-known artists of abstract expressionism, especially Pollock and de Kooning.
In a succinct statement in her accompanying essay, she notes a core similarity between the rebel painters and poets: "As with the poets of the period who challenged accepted literary standards to envelop their personal experiences within new formats, the painters of the 1950s created unique and distinctive images by merging their private states of imagination and feeling with innovative compositional structures."
Carr also highlights the role that leading critics (Clement Greenberg, Thomas Hess and Harold Rosenberg) and dealers (Peggy Guggenheim, Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis and others) played in promoting these figures into leading American and indeed world figures.
And in that there lies an essential difference between the painters and the poets here. The Beat Generation and their fellow writers never rose to a position of world dominance on the literary scene.
On the whole, the show is appealing, stimulating and marked by an admirable clarity of presentation. And it comes along at a good time, for one can draw parallels between the 1950s and the 1990s, as Watson did in a tour of the show last week. Common to both eras, for instance, are the issues of censorship (both "Howl" and "Naked Lunch" were subjected to obscenity trials) and family values (the lifestyles of many of the poets and painters were polar opposites of the Ozzie-and-Harriet image of the American family).
So there is ample reason to study the rebels today. And "Rebels" is a good place to start.
What: "Rebels: Poets and Painters of the 1950s"
Where: National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington
When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through June 2
Call: (202) 357-2700
Note: A symposium and reading by various writers in the show, including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Koch and Robert Creeley, is scheduled April 27. Information, reservations: (202) 357-4800