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Beck's First Sampling

The pop star learned about collage from his larger-than life grandfather, Al Hansen. A Santa Monica show connects their careers.

May 03, 1998|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

If you've been wondering how, in 1992, Beck managed to appear to the world a fully formed genius at the tender age of 23, the story can finally be told: Beck apprenticed at the knee of a master. For those unfamiliar with the finer points of avant-garde art history of the 20th century, that master was Beck's grandfather, the late Al Hansen.

Their artworks are the subject of "Playing With Matches" one of two exhibitions opening Saturday to launch the Santa Monica Museum of Art at its new location in Bergamot Station, and Beck and Al Hansen's sensibilities have a good deal in common. "Al was the first person who showed Beck how to make a rhyme and what that can lead to--it can lead to lyrics, visual poetry, a performative act," says Canadian curator Wayne Baerwaldt, who organized the show.

"Al also introduced him to the idea of how to create a conceptual framework that allows you to include anything," adds Baerwaldt of the musician, whose 1996 album "Odelay" was a huge critical and commercial success. "Beck uses Al's cut-and-paste technique to work in so many different mediums, it's almost as if he's collaging media."

Born in L.A. in 1970, the son of bluegrass musician David Campbell, Beck uses sampling as the central strategy in his music and does indeed cut a wide swath through pop culture. "Two turntables and a microphone" could be described as the aural equivalent of scissors and tape, and Beck's videos are similarly unfettered collages that reference film (from "The 400 Blows" to "Midnight Cowboy"), simple labor (coal mining, gardening, garbage collecting), subcultures (skateboarders, acid casualties) and the entirety of popular music, from Devo to Sinatra. Like his grandfather, Beck has the soul of a junkman and he scavenges through the scrap heap of culture to gather materials.

Al Hansen was a key figure in the Manhattan underground of the '50s that launched the careers of Yoko Ono, Claes Oldenburg and Nam June Paik, among others. Born in Queens in 1927, Hansen helped develop the approach to performance art that's been central to high culture of the last 50 years; such pieces were called "Happenings" when artists first started doing them, and Hansen did hundreds prior to his death in 1995.

"There is no plan for living, and my collage theater expresses this," said Hansen, who was the subject of a 1996 retrospective at the Kolnisches Stadt Museum in Germany.

A founder of the international art movement Fluxus, in which artists made small, temporal artworks that often were distributed internationally by mail, Hansen also produced paintings, collage and assemblage, and functioned as a central information source. He wrote the first book on performance ("A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art," published in 1965 by Something Else Press); he knew everyone and was always on the scene. Describing his manner of living as "pole-vaulting around," Hansen played a pivotal role in John Lennon meeting Yoko Ono, helped name the Velvet Underground and was at the Factory the day Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol.

"Beck comes out of a tradition of thinking across media, and he got that from his mother and grandfather," says art historian Kristine Stiles, whose book on performance art, "Uncorrupted Joy," slated for publication this year by the UC Press, includes a chapter on Hansen. "As to why Beck's had a bigger career than Al, I think it's because he had a stable family--and that is the great triumph of Beck's mother, Bibbe Hansen. [Artist] Carolee Schneemann says she remembers going to events Al was involved in, and there would be Bibbe, this tiny girl asleep on a pile of coats. Bibbe clearly gave Beck a sense of security that's helped him prosper."

Says Bibbe Hansen, whose parents divorced shortly after she was born, and who now administers the Al Hansen archive: "I grew up in an environment with lots of different artistic disciplines happening simultaneously. My father was working with dance companies, designing stage sets, doing happenings, making paintings, collages and experimental music with John Cage--culturally, it was very rich.

"I take no credit for Beck's creativity--he came into the world with it, and I recognized early on that he was gifted," she adds of her son, whose collages were the subject of an exhibition last year at Plug In, a gallery in Winnipeg, Canada. "But I did create a similar environment for him. Beck's father is a musician, I worked in film, photography and in bands, and when Beck was a child Al lived with us. He used to sit in the backyard making art, and because he was involved in L.A.'s punk scene, there were always people at the house playing guitars. Al and Beck have very similar sensibilities, and the reason Beck's reached a broader audience than Al did is because they're based in different fields. Fine art rarely gets the kind of audience pop music gets."

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