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Can the Beats go on? Poets, artists and fans hope so

After an unfettered conference in Davis draws attention to West Coast practitioners, a Getty Institute panel will look at L.A.'s role.

October 28, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

DAVIS, Calif. — Sitting by a swimming pool on a warm night as a party raged around him, local gallery owner John Natsoulas was explaining the purpose of a weekend conference focusing on visual art of the Beat generation.

He had cited San Francisco galleries, Venice sculptors and New York poets when he spotted an image closer to hand: a longhaired 6-year-old, naked as a cherub, cavorting in the pool.

"This is what it's all about!" he exclaimed, pointing to the boy, the son of the Beat-era painter Michael Bowen, who was watching his offspring along with his young Italian wife. If there was any confusion as to what Natsoulas meant, within an hour the beret-clad art dealer was shouting, "Get rid of the structure!" before going back to blowing saxophone with the party's jazz band.

Natsoulas, a short, intense, goateed man, has a kind of evangelical zeal about the Beats and their spontaneous, unfettered means of creation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credits -- In Tuesday's Calendar story on the visual art of the Beat generation, two photographs were credited as courtesy of Mary Kerr, who included them in her documentary. The photographers should have also been credited. The 1956 image of the Jazz Cellar was taken by C.R. Snyder; Wallace Berman's 1957 arrest at L.A.'s Ferus Gallery was taken by Charles Brittin. In addition, the conference was held in Davis, not at UC Davis.

"What great piece of art ever came out of structure?" he asked. "What great event ever came out of structure? The art of the period was poorly made. The fact that the sculptures weren't made to last is what I like about them."

For decades, the reputation of the Beat generation has rested on such writers as Jack Kerouac ("On the Road") and Allen Ginsberg ("Howl"), East Coasters based primarily in New York. That reputation, moreover, though apparently unquenchable, has flared periodically but mostly flickered.

But the heat seems to be on again. On Nov. 18, the Getty Research Institute will play host to a panel discussion, "Modern Art in Los Angeles: The Beat Years," scheduled to include legendary curator Walter Hopps, artist George Herms, photographer Charles Brittin and poet David Meltzer.

And in its second year earlier this month, the Davis conference, "The Beat Generation and Beyond," was dedicated to the Beats of the West Coast, particularly in San Francisco and Venice Beach, and to bringing visual artists and filmmakers, many of whom came after the movement's heyday, some of the attention that Beat poets and novelists have long enjoyed.

The conference began with a montage of films by Paul Mazursky, whose 1976 movie "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" and years of drinking at Village bars like the San Remo qualified him for inclusion. It comprised panels and lectures about Beat artists and filmmakers, short experimental films, parts of a documentary about the San Francisco and oft-overlooked Venice Beach scene of the 1950s and several presentations of poetry, assemblage, action painting and performance art. There was also an event for the now neglected proto-Beat poet Kenneth Patchen.

Most of the events took place at an Art Deco movie theater downtown called the Varsity, but a Saturday night opening drew hundreds to Natsoulas' enormous gallery, a converted UC Davis fraternity house, where a barefoot Bowen painted while a jazz quartet roared beside him. Many in the crowd were local students, teachers and professors, along with Northern California visual artists visiting a town that resembles a less gritty, more all-American Berkeley, full of coffee shops, bicycles and bookstores.

"What's fabulous about the movement is that they didn't know what they were doing, but they threw stuff together and improvised," Natsoulas said of his inspiration for the weekend. "They didn't care! It's about getting up there and doing it."

At times, the conference felt like a cult of self-expression or perhaps just of self: Many participants seemed to want to emphasize their own connections to the era. During questions for Mazursky, a woman raised her hand to point out that she knew some of the people involved in "Greenwich Village."

When the director, confused, asked for clarification, she said, "I met the actors." At much of "The Beat Generation and Beyond," having been on the scene was enough.

The conference's tone ranged from academic -- as in a lecture by art critic Donald Kuspit on Ginsberg's relationship to Cezanne and the filmmaker Stan Brakhage -- to cheeky. "Any beatniks here?" asked Mazursky with a verbal wink after his film screened.

The guests included Herms, the Los Angeles artist who was, with Wallace Berman, a crucial pioneer of the '50s assemblage movement; San Francisco sculptor Manuel Neri, who was active at the epochal Six Gallery, where Ginsberg first read "Howl"; Oakland-based poet and radio host Jack Foley, who, with his black garb, rotund build and Roman Catholic wisdom seemed a kind a Beat monk; and Carolee Schneemann, an early proponent of body and performance art who was on the fringes of the original scene and is now recognized as a godmother to performance artist Karen Finley and to Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues."

As an outspoken political artist whose unprintable sexual statements would make a sailor blush, Schneemann served as a kind of feminist conscience for the weekend. While male Beats were the first to see her work, most of the female artists of the time were "marginalized," she said.

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