Abstract Expression: From Beat to Brando
Fire lights and smoking nights
And splashes of dripping paint;
Jazz explosions and constant commotions
“Leave It To Beaver” this ain’t.
It was the halftime show of the century!
1945 to 1955.
“We’re gonna rock the rock in the second half.”
Or we’re all gonna die.
Life was pretty uncertain after two world wars and two atomic bombs in too little time. By 1945, it could go either way and everybody knew it. Edward R. Murrow had been on the wireless delivering graphic nightly accounts of the bombing of Europe. Centuries-old nations were tumbling by the month. Blackouts, rationing and depression were a way of life. The end was surely near. But leaning forward into this tension wind were some courageous artists transforming their media into gloriously honest expressions of the furthest and sometimes most beautiful reaches of our mind.
Through a door opened by Freud and into a room lit by Jung, Reich, Stanislavsky, Breton and others, the expression of the subconscious self, the center, the soul, the truth, became the new goal of artists all over the world, some who happened to be drinking together, and others who were drinking alone.
During the same years that Jack Kerouac was blowing apart the novel and Allen Ginsberg the poem, Jackson Pollock was exploding canvases on Long Island, Charlie Parker was breaking the sound barrier on 52nd Street, and Marlon Brando was ripping his chest open on Broadway. In nextdoor Midtown, it was television’s “Golden Age” with Your Show of Shows inventing live sketch comedy, and Kraft Television Theater live weekly drama. Surfing the last of the vanishing vaudeville nightspots, Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce were cutting their teeth before cutting the edge of stand-up comedy. And several new publications began appearing, from the Village Voice to Playboy, all bringing the edge to the middle of the country.
In 1945, Jackson Pollock moved away from the nightly Village bar scene — with Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Frank O’Hara and roomfuls of other boozehounds — and out to the seclusion of a farmhouse in Springs, Long Island, to begin his dripping live action paintings. Where he came up with the idea is anybody’s guess since the tormented alcoholic abstractionist was notoriously uncommunicative about his process. His sculptor-friend Constantine Nivola could at least explain the lead-up: “It was the Surrealists, such as Breton, who had the idea of releasing the tension in painting without any preconceived notions, letting the spontaneity do the actual painting.” Pollock just took the idea to outer space. Or inner space. If you stand in front of one of his dripping paintings and stare into it for a while you can take a long strange trip without ever leaving the gallery. Somehow in the subconscious rhythms of Pollock’s trance dance he created a mirror of our mind, patterns out of chaos, and motion out of stillness.
“It was great drama,” filmmaker Hans Namuth said of watching him work. “The flame of explosion when the paint hit the canvas; the dancelike movement; the eyes tormented before knowing where to strike next; the tension; then the explosion again.”
“When I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I’m doing,” Pollock once said. When another brilliant Abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffmann asked him about the use of nature in his work, he answered — “I am nature.”
It was this firm belief in the natural flow of self that was propelling so many of these daring young artists in their flying seat pants. And remember — this was when gray was the national color, vanilla the flavor, conformity the goal, and McCarthyism the disease of the era. The slightest deviation in hair length or hemline meant you were a communist to many in this newly military-trained generation.
In November 1945, the same month that Pollock moved into the barn on Long Island, Charlie Parker moved into the WOR Studios in Midtown Manhattan to lay down some abstract expression of his own in what Savoy Records not unjustly called, “The greatest recording session in modern jazz.” The first session ever under Parker’s own name featured a little combo including Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis on trumpets and Max Roach on drums.
What Monk, Parker, Dizz, Miles and others had been working on the last few years of Monday night jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and the clubs along 52nd Street was the first big break in jazz since Louis Armstrong stretched the solo in his Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions in 1926. By improvising a new melody line based on the existing chords of 32-bar popular songs like “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “How High The Moon,” and often playing at double the tempo of the rhythm section, these bop-blazers created an unprecedented “skidilibee-bee you, —oo—ee, bop sh’bam,” as Doctor Kerouac so accurately diagnosed it in “The Beginning of Bop.”
Considered “almost telepathic” even by reserved jazz journals, Bird’s frenetic speed carried him into the unknown every night, relying on the same subconscious instinctual current that Pollock was channeling. And this complete commitment to intuition was about to revolutionize American theater.
Get this: When Chekhov’s first play The Seagull had its original production, it bombed so badly he vowed to never write another play. Then a young director named Konstantin Stanislavsky came along with some wacky new idea about actors improvising from their own experience to fully convey the psychology of the characters, and he begs Chekhov for the rights to re-stage the play. This pivotal production heralds the birth of both the Moscow Art Theater and the Stanislavsky “Method,” and gives the playwright Anton Chekhov the encouragement to go on and write a few more plays you may have heard of.
Flip ahead to December 1947, New York City, and A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando is opening on Broadway. This pivotal production by Elia Kazan heralds the birth of both the Actors Studio and the Method in American theater, and gives the playwright Tennessee Williams the encouragement to go on and write a few more plays you also may have heard of.
Stella Adler described Streetcar’s lead and Greenwich Village resident Brando as “the perfect marriage of intuition and intelligence,” but she could have been talking about any of these ice-breakers of the American art-ic.
Stanislavsky’s tenet was: “You must live the part every moment you are playing it.” Like Bird, Jackson and Jack. Rather than perfect diction or posture, actors were encouraged to channel the center of their soul. The frame of dialogue was only a canvas to fill in from the actor’s own experience.
And this same self-reliant philosophy was taking hold all over New York City. In 1950, with network television barely five years old, Sid Caesar and a few friends came up with this wild idea to do a funny 90-minute skit-driven comedy show on Saturday night live on NBC. For the next four years, televised sketch comedy was being pioneered on Your Show of Shows, with writers like Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks first getting their pens wet.
That same year, Lord Buckley, the wailinest Beat comedian there ever was, was getting ready to hit the road after five years of developing his improvisational hipster style in New York’s dives and dying vaudeville halls. Telling stories in his hipsemantic rap he’d “recast incidents from history and mythology into a patois that blended scat-singing, black jive, and the King’s English,” as biographer Oliver Trager summed it.
“Lord Buckley’s a secret thing you pass under the table,” Ken Kesey once explained of Buckley’s lack of name recognition, even though his influence ranges from George Carlin to Jerry Garcia. “Lord Buckley and Grateful Dead philosophy merge in a certain irony of viewpoint,” Garcia told Trager. “The way he did his show was very dramatic. It would start off like a regular stand-up routine, but it really turned into kind of a primal experience. A very powerful style with a lot of magic. You can’t act it. You have to think of yourself as ‘Lord Buckley.'”
In December of the same year Kerouac received “The Letter” — Neal Cassady’s famous 13,000-word Joan Anderson/Cherry Mary epic (brought jazzily to the screen in 1997 as The Last Time I Committed Suicide) — which would change Jack’s approach to writing. “I have renounced fiction and fear,” he wrote Cassady right back. “There is nothing to do but write the truth.” And within a few months he’d finished On The Road in a single twenty-day stretch on a single roll of tracing paper in a single paragraph.
To describe where his technique was coming from, Jack honored his friend Allen’s request to write his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and “Belief & Technique For Modern Prose”:
“Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, ‘blowing’ (as per jazz musician) on subject of image. . . . Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at ‘moment’ of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion. . . . Write ‘without consciousness’ in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later ‘trance writing’). . . . Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better.”
And speaking of seeing better — that same year the revered Brave New World author, Aldous Huxley, first took mescaline and wrote a vivid and valuable account of it in “The Doors of Perception.” Louis Armstrong was an old teahead of time, Bird a heroin addict, Jack, Jackson and Tennessee hard liquor drinkers, but this was a whole new trip. Huxley’s detailed and “inexpressibly wonderful” account of exploring the amplified mind opened The Doors for the psychedelic revolution that was shimmering just around a corner on Haight Street.
In 1953 yet another scholarly study appeared that would spark an even better revolution — Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female — whispering in science that a quarter of all married women had extramarital affairs and most women had multiple premarital partners. Ozzie was aghast and Harriet blushed, but the secret was out. Sex was happening. As part of his research, Kinsey even met with Tennessee Williams, went to see Streetcar, and studied the actors’ sexual backgrounds. He also interviewed the Beats’ number one hustler Herbert Huncke, and in fact used him to round up subjects. Too bad Cassady lived in San Francisco.
In 1954, a 19-year-old Elvis Presley passed through the doors of Sun Studios, and the whole world snuck in behind him. Brando won the Oscar for On The Waterfront the same year he was appearing in theaters all over the country as the leather-clad leader of a motorcycle gang called The Beetles in The Wild One. The possibilities of what was commercially acceptable were changing forever.
By ’55 the rockets of the renaissance began going off like fireworks —
James Dean’s disaffected hipster goes drag-racing with trouble in Rebel Without A Cause; Rod Serling’s “Patterns” wins an Emmy as he begins tweaking the summit of our imagination; the Village Voice and a new journalism appears; Chuck Berry goes cruisin’ with Maybellene;” Little Richard lets everybody know he’s Tutti Frutti all rootti — and Billboard begins tracking its first “Pop” chart; Marilyn’s white dress goes whoosh in The Seven Year Itch and the first birth-control pills start being sold; Jack writes Mexico City Blues in a month, giving it the inscription, “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday;” Burroughs starts nibbling on his Naked Lunch, Ferlinghetti snaps a few Pictures of The Gone World, Ginsberg begins to Howl at the Six Gallery reading — and the On The Road fame train is still two years away.
From Pollock’s swirling strokes to splashing color screen-savers — from Brando reaching New York audiences with A Streetcar Named Desire to Bravo reaching nationwide living rooms with Inside The Actors Studio — from Jack’s punctuation-liberated prose to the abbreviated brevity of online language — from Ginsberg freely howling to Richie Havens howling Freedom — the commitment to spontaneous subconscious expression during this pivotal mid-century decade intuited our new millennial lives in ways still being improvised.
Here’s a poem about Bird I wrote that was turned into a song — Smokin’ Charlie’s Saxophone.
Or here’s another piece on the Beats and art — the review of the huge Whitney Museum of Art Beat Retrospective.
Or here’s a story about last year’s epic Beat Shindig in San Francisco that was another similar blending of mediums.
Here’s a great radio interview where I go into a whole bunch of similar stories and ideas about the genesis of creation.
And here’s a joyous riffin’ print interview that explores the meaning of “Beat” and how it impacted culture at large and fits in the world today.
And here’s a whole bunch more. 😉
Brian Hassett firstname.lastname@example.org BrianHassett.com