Beat Art Work – Power of the Gaze

“Sura”  (Portrait of Hope Savage by Robert LaVigne, 1958

Coming up this week, this Thursday, in New York, Beat Art Work: Power of the Gaze

Anne Waldman, the curator, writes:

“Beat Art Work: Power of the Gaze is an archival worthy exhibit, featuring portraits that engage in a magnetizing play of binaries: Who is looking at whom? Four principal Beat writers: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso are featured here. And joined by Joanne Kyger, Carolyn Cassady, Edie Parker (with an early portrait of Kerouac from 1943), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the legendary Moroccan novelist and painter Mohammed Mrabet, as well as African-American international poet and artist,
Ted Joans, who famously proclaimed, “Jazz is my religion.”

What are their art works’ gaze, the persons of that gaze and those of an audience long curious about entanglements explored in poetry, fiction and other annals of the Beat literary movement? Why did these complicated folk magnetize the imagination of the world? Legendary iconoclasts who defied the usual pathways by crossing borders and delving full tilt into fellaheen realms.

Who was the mysterious Hope Savage whom Robert LaVigne portrays in a gorgeous, delicate drawing, who commanded her Beat friends to travel to India? Or Joanne Kyger snapping a photo of Allen and Peter Orlovsky and is herself photographed by Ginsberg on a legendary trip to Japan and India with partner Gary Snyder, complaining in her journals about sitting around in her black cocktail dress waiting for some “wild martini attention” as Ginsberg readHowl” to the Dalai Lama. Is it a “male” gaze, a “gay” gaze, a lover’s gaze, a gender gaze, a genre gaze? It is coded or direct? No doubt restless and rhythmic under the light of camera, paint, pen, brush. Ginsberg said, “My interest in pictures was more sacramental than photographic,” and one feels this in the minute particulars of each occasion, his handmade captions scribed for eternity.

The characters in this tableau exhibit are both subjects and objects. And deeply entwined. Art making is another dimension for them, named for their “beatitude”: intimate and direct. And flawed seekers, as well. Kerouac was celebrated for his action writing; his portraits here are more meditative. Corso—incarcerated in his youth— became a serious reader and eclectic scholar who had a wonderful panoramic awareness and respect for poetic linage that you feel in the “Composition of Poets,” summoning heroes Poe and Whitman. William S. Burroughs with his photographic memory said his cut-up writing was cinematic; you played and dreamed future prophecy in visual time.  And his paintings here conjure the tempo of action painting. He had said he needed to write his way out of death.

These artworks are complicated stories from a radical and precipitous time, much as now, roiling with social pressures and issues of race, sexuality, identity, status in the endless war syndrome. The entangled friendships lasted through quintessential loyalty. These individuals met and caught each other on the “meat wheel” as Kerouac called it, with joy, wit, and lives of devoted art practice and “high talk.” Personal exchange was electric, vital, fiery, nourishing, skillful. Remembered.

The gaze moved across borders, it travelled from Calcutta to Mexico City, Morocco to Berkeley. Paris to Denver. The gaze was born of trance, visionary consciousness, and intimacy. And out of continual restlessness, seeing through facades, small talk, and aggressive models of acquisitive reality and the safe and straight life. It produced methods born of spiritual reportage and lived experience, born of Black arts jazz and speech and “soul-making.” The gaze was hybrid and modeled and molded in profound relationships and love affairs and lifelong contact and smart correspondence, which was voluminous. Who does not have images of the Beat writers’ poetic, controversial lives, countless appearances in chronicles, movies, scholarly tomes, their crimes and ecstasy? They are closer to us than we realize.

Jacques Lacan speaks of the mirror stage of the “gaze,” the narcissistic ego. Objects of our gaze —our desire, our want, our wiring, our longing— look back at us from the cosmic mirror.  Something happens to us when we become conscious of others looking back as well, especially in portraiture. So when Ginsberg snaps a photo what is he thinking? Looking back on himself? What is the “other” projecting? Feminists speak of the male gaze specifically as it objectifies a woman’s body and expresses the psychological desires of the patriarchy. There were many subsequent versions of being on the road for women. I experienced them myself.

We live in a world roiling in the karma of WW 2. False maps. More lethal weaponry, climate apocalypse, suffering and argument. You might say the world is worse, more inchoate, numbed, and sleepwalking through the incessant slime and rhetoric and narcissim of Internet capitalism, and stuck in dangerous patterns of ignorance. The glimpses in this Beat Art Work exhibit are powerful and refreshed reminders— sparks and vestiges—and a tribute to the visual fluidity of cavernous friendship and love. A sacred shared sense of humanity, and a balance of parity between the self & other.”

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