Nyehaus is pleased to present Bella Pacifica: Bay Area Abstraction, 1946–1963: A Symphony In Four Parts that will take place from January 11th to March 5th, 2011 at David Nolan Gallery, Nyehaus, Franklin Parrasch Gallery and Leslie Feely Fine Art.
Characterized by tonal, harmonic, and rhythmic instability, the 6 Gallery exemplifies the ‘50s at its most restless, carefree and experimental. The work shown at the gallery within its short life span (1954 to 1957) ranges from expressionism, to surrealism, illusionism, collage, assemblage and abstraction; pure and impure. A DADA attitude of Hilarity and Disdain had replaced the grave sense of mission that characterized the period from 1945 to the early 1950s. It can be said that out of all these artists’ professors and mentors, Hassel Smith had the most influence over this group, as they were outgoing, gregarious and playful, with strong ties to jazz and a new poetry that was like jazz.
In the late ‘50s, both the San Francisco and Los Angeles scenes related to New York but on different
channels. There were two different ways of constructing a conversation of difference, in which New York stood in for all of Metropolitan culture and each of the Alternative Scenes (Los Angeles, San Francisco) presented itself as the Real America.
In San Francisco, the Alternative Scene resulted in collective projects such as galleries, publications,
jazz bands and film-screening societies. Founded in 1952, the City Lights project became the center for the literary movement, and was to poetry what the 6 Gallery (and King Ubu before it) was to art.
The factual history of the 6 Gallery has taken the form of memoires and oral histories (the latter
archived by the Smithsonian Institution). The gallery was an informal co-op with six members and no records were ever kept. Its members and other participants became famous later as poets and painters, successes and failures, and they dragged it into history with them.
The 6 Gallery co-op was located at 3119 Fillmore Street, in a disused garage space that had previously
housed King Ubu Gallery. The original 6 (members) were Jack Spicer, Wally Hedrick, Deborah Remington, Hayward King, John Allen Ryan and David Simpson. It’s mission—clear but never explicit—was to show both teachers’ and students’ work alike.
The 6 fostered a spirit of coexistence not only between faculty and students, but between different
art movements, disciplines and ideals. The community they helped to create was itself the masterpiece. These artists and poets, who came from such varied backgrounds, lived their lives as adventurers, without compromise, with mutual
encouragement and participation.
They were: Robert Duncan, active in Bay Area poetry since the late 1940s (and, unusual among San Francisco artists, a native) had been involved with Jess (Collins) since 1951, and with the gallery space (King Ubu) they founded together
with Harry Jacobus, since 1952. Jess Collins, a nuclear chemist who worked on the Manhattan project during WWII—went on to study art CSFA (California School of Fine Arts). A foreboding sense of doom was the catalyst. He remade the existing world, and rearranged it to be richer, stranger. Wally Hedrick, a Korean War veteran, his work was sarcastic and mystical.
He had been in San Francisco before the war and had met Clyfford Still and returned in the ‘50s with a group of friends from Pasadena, which included Deborah Remington. He Married
Jay DeFeo—by then back from Florence—in 1952. The final member of the original six was the poet Jack Spicer, who took over the lease from Duncan and Jess.
The other artists in this exhibit have equally important
roles in the history of the San Francisco avant-garde: Sonia Gechtoff (the first woman to have a solo show at Ferus Gallery in L.A.), Hassel Smith and Bruce Conner. Their mentors
were Jack Spicer (then teaching in the English department at CSFA), Hassel Smith, Elmer
Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn and Kenneth Rexroth. CSFA was the focal institution of the moment, but others, including Black Mountain College (which Duncan had attended) and the Ferus Gallery of Ed Kienholz and Walter Hopps were palpable influences.
A few feet from the gallery, at 2322 Fillmore Street, “The Ghost House” was their place of residence. There lived the following eccentric constellation of energetic youths: Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Bruce Conner, Joan Brown, Craig Kauffman, Sonia Gechtoff, Jess, Robert Duncan, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure and James Kelly, to name a few.
The Beat movement—as the avant-garde of this period would later be called and to which these artists belonged—took hold of the Bay Area youth culture during the Cold War and can be book-ended by the Korean War and Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a Dream”, followed by the student rebellions at Berkeley in 1963. It was a movement against “the gray, chill silence, the intellectual void, the spiritual drabness” and the oppressiveness of the times, McCarthyism a palpable
force against dissent.
Given the times, artists realized that before they made art, they had to create a culture in which to make art. “Whatever lives needs a habitat, a proper culture of warmth and moisture to grow...” as Gary Snyder put it.
But I have nothing
Shall have nothing
No one can afford
Being made here and now”
From the beginning, the 6 wanted poetry, TO SEE poetry on the walls along the works of art. They wanted to hear it, and they arranged for Michael McClure to organize a poetry reading. Lacking time, McClure delegated to a young New Yorker he had just met, Allen Ginsberg, the task of herding
a few poets together.
On the night of Friday, October 7th, 1955, the following happened: Rexroth was the Master of Ceremonies, Philip Lamantia read prose poems by his late friend John Hoffman and Mike McClure
read “Point Lobos: Animism”, and “The Death of 100 Whales”. Gary Snider read “A Berry Feast”, Philip Whalen read ”Plus ça Change”.
And then Allen Ginsberg read HOWL, in its totality
for the first time, which was, of course, all anybody
remembered afterwards. Something…but nobody remembers what. Jack Kerouac (who memorialized the event in his novel The Dharma Bums), Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Spicer were present, as was an astonished audience of 150. Everyone present (except for a reporter for The Chronicle, who informed middlebrow San Franciscans that, as ever, their City was the home of assorted nutty art frauds from elsewhere) understood
they had been present at one of those moments when everything changes.
By the 1970s, the memory of the early years of CSFA as an important part of the country’s history
was mostly forgotten. Bruce Conner was still around, but the scene had scattered, the poets
split for the East Bay or farther east. While one could still visit the Beatnik shrines of North Beach, the beat scene had disappeared into academe,
both its own academic version (The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, e.g.) and within regular curriculums.