Note: Cyberliths by Robert LaVigne is part of a series called Five & Dime books published by Abaton Book Company, 116 Spring Street, Newton, New Jersey 07860. The review is by Bruce Harris of Seattle Washington, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the schools of ancient China, to the bars of Greenwich Village, artists have gathered together. They've founded guilds, assembled secret societies, and united into movements. They've congregated to exchange ideas and craft-knowledge, as well as for purposes of publicity and exhibition. They've banded together to promulgate manifestos, or take political action. They've even "fronted" for the C.I.A., as explained by Frances Stoner Saunders in her new book, The Cultural Cold War.
Art groups can be loose and informal like the Impressionists, or rigidly hierarchical like the official Surrealists. They can develop into convenient brand-names as did the Ashcan School, Cobra Group, and Pop. They can be social clubs, debating societies, or completely useless.
Indeed, artists (in the broadest sense of the term) have sometimes found themselves rather crudely lumped together in unexpected coalitions, as a rule, by journalists facing deadlines. The ritual usually goes: first, identify a trend and invent a catchy name, or hook. Thus comfortably pigeon holed, imply how alert the present journalist was to have noticed this new bird before the competition. Designate a leader, and then superficially examine the components of said trend. Note some oddity (i.e. manner of speech or dress) about "members" and broadmindedly wink. Make sure to mention the catchy name frequently. Remember, don't be afraid to pound home the hook, the public is hopelessly stupid. Lastly, dismiss the whole affair as a passing fad, a form of madness, or a misunderstanding of a time-honored idea -- with which, miraculously, the journalist turns out to be an old hand. Optional: despair for the "Future of ," fill in the blank.
Paradoxically this is not necessarily a bad thing, for publicity is a curious beast. No one can control it once it's out of the corral. Indeed, it might trample all beneath its hooves, or it might just be the magic ride to success. In fact, any kind of notoriety can be a good thing for an artist who knows how to use it. Publicity, qua publicity is the key.
A couple of years ago Senator Jessie Helms slashed art funds, made headlines, and created instant heros. This seemed to me like a novel approach to the problem. Watching TV, I began to wonder if the Karen Finley gang had actually paid the good Senator to mouth-off so loudly, and with such bald faced incomprehension. This is the stuff of legends. Being the jealous sort, I got to thinking if I too might somehow persuade the nation's then most eminent septuagenarian aesthetic philosopher (SAP) to denounce me from the Senate floor. In any case, I expect the NEA crew will be making art and complaining about their "victimization" long after Mr. Helms is roasting in hell. The trick here is knowing how to surf the wave and not get sucked down by the undertow of self importance.
A good historical example of the naming phenomenon would be when French critic, Louis Vauxcelles, attended the 1905 Salon d'Automine. It seems the eagle-eyed connoisseur spied a defenseless quattrocento-like sculpture situated (as if a trembling fawn surrounded by hungry wolves) among the boldly painted canvases of Matisse, Derain, Rouault, and Vlaminck. Vauxcelles, with the back of his trembling hand pressed to his forehead, famously declared, "Donatello au milieu des Fauves!" The name Fauve stuck like the proverbial leopard's spots, and none of the artists ever starved.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen's morph of Sputnik into Beatnik is another example with slightly different results. During the Eisenhower years the word Beatnik seemed to say, this place has class pinko -- no bearded bongo players need apply here! And whatever Mr. Caen's intentions, the word to this day still conjures the ghost of Maynard G. Krebbs and not Lao Tzu. Jack Kerouac's life never regained its center after the ballyhoo broke over On the Road, the so-called "Beatnik Bible."
But surely everyone since Adam knows advertising is good for business, and to name a thing is to have power over it. Nevertheless, it seems to me there are problems here, even with such generalized terminology. The difficulty may be deeper. It may be that there is something inherently irreconcilable between the notion of "artist," and the notion of an identifiable "group."
Under the Surrealist rubric, for instance, you would discover the fundamentally individual productions of Max Ernst, Lautreamont, and the garish Salvador Dali. The first two, dissimilar as they are, remain authentic evocations of the unconscious -- the secret heart of poetry and desire, and of course, the sacred fount of much 20th century art. Ernst and Lautreamont allow the spontaneous and irrational guts of dream to speak uncensored, which is, for what it's worth, the essence of surrealist procedure. To me, Dali's finicky paintings suggest not so much the secret heart of poetry and desire, as the facile confections of the academic Johnny-come-lately. They are merely clever, like an oily little Colonel's plot to take over a Banana Republic of Dream. Ernst and Lautreamont remain evocative and unfathomable. And yet ironically, to the public shrill Dali and his waxed mustache remains the epitome of surrealism. The Spaniard knew how to get noticed.
An American example of such an artist grouping is the Beat Generation. This designation was a bit murky to begin with, and became particularly elastic with the crucial importance Jack Kerouac, the Beat Adam, accorded the "Unspeakable vision of the individual." and, "Intranced fixation dreaming upon the object "
Of course, now-a-days there are lots of individuals out there with visions -- including politicians -- but not all of them are Beat, and none of them are striving, " to find the ecstasy of the stars "
That Kerouac's aphorisms sound suspiciously like Indo-Surrealist nostrums, at a certain level, is true. The evangelical fervor, however, and emphasis on the individual kindness-soul is pure American Jack. As he put it, "Sociability is a big smile, and a big smile is nothing but teeth. Rest and be kind."
He also said, "Strictly speaking, there is no me, because all is emptiness. I am empty. I am non-existent. All is bliss." And that's fine, but you if you believe his utterances are more than rhetoric, you might wonder where art would fit into such a doctrine.
You might also wonder, does this non-existent writer seriously contradict himself by his several million fascinating words? And let's leave aside the self-evident inconsistency of the fact that the words exist at all! Anne Waldman explains, "Sanskrit poetics speaks of Sandhyabasha or twilight speech, which is an 'upside-down` language harboring contradictions and paradoxes."
Very well then, he contradicts himself as he dreams of dreaming crazy wisdom! After all, he was a verbal virtuoso who in conjunction with his worldly adventuring, thought of himself as a Bodhi Sattva, ultimately as a religious writer more or less condemned to use words -- the sad, distilled spirits of masks, hallucinations, and fading shadows of nothing. And as he himself put in Desolation Angels, his task was "to test all, to go mad just to see what the void'll do "
Everyone ought read Kerouac's The Scripture of the Golden Eternity if they doubt his religious core. He obviously felt that such gnomic utterances therein contained would be part of, for him at least, "Telling the true story of the world in interior monologue."
So far so good, but you still have the irreconcilable terms "artist" and "group" to work through.
Fact is when you look carefully at Beatdom's holy trinity (William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg) you discover that except for their underground milieu, and digging kicks, they have less expressly artistic aspects in common than you might have believed. Fragmentation, explicit sexuality, truth of experience over aesthetic theory, etc, could describe a large number of Artists before and after them.
And in any case, to use a 50s locution, who can blame them for getting hung up on digging kicks? Nuclear destruction was poised like the sword of Damocles above everyone's head. Tempus fugit, and amphetamine was the fuel.
Said Jack, "Every time I see a leaf fall, I say goodbye forever."
Indeed, back in those days (1950's) kicks still had some get up and go left in them, some zing, perhaps even a metaphysical grounding. For example, it was still possible to actually believe Wilhelm Reich's idea that orgasm was a weapon against Fascism -- pretty cool. Had to be a great line as you sidled up to the bar, scoping things out. But the truth is, I've never met anyone, dishwasher or diplomat, who didn't dig kicks provided, of course, they could figure out what it was they were exactly. This won't do as a unifying artistic principle.
It's worth mentioning that San Francisco art critic, Thomas Albright, among others, dubbed the Beat Generation a "social movement." That it was also the tip of the Gay Liberation iceberg is now a commonplace, as is its grandfather role with the hippies, et al. Looking back from 2001 AD, Mr. Albright's opinion seems irrefutable. When you talk of the social, you must perforce talk of the political. And yet for all that, including the anti-war movement in the 1960's, there were, and are, Beat Artists -- which is to say, individuals and not just the members of an exclusive club.
When you consider it, Burroughs (the Father) might really be the Mark Twain of European Dada. His cultivated weirdness is singular. Alfred Jarry as much as Groucho Marx lurk in his routines. I think of his mad, high tea parlor games, his "Hangin' Judge" persona, his apocalyptic six-shooters blazing like radium tipped bullets at the Nova Gang. Think of his timeless fedora, his mummies -- stolen from Norman Mailer. But you might ask yourself, what can the famous cut-up technique say about the "Unspeakable vision of the individual?" In fact, in that "anyone can do it," doesn't the method remove the particular artist from the creative process to a significant degree? Doesn't it strip him of his singularity and produce a sort of meta-gibberish, or literary equivalent of Duchamp's ready mades?
Besides, following Claude Levi-Strauss, which Burroughs certainly does, Levi-Strauss states in his autobiography Tristes Tropiques, "The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant is the creation of cities and empires at the time when writing first emerged: it seems to have favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery." Sounds awfully nasty, like a practically antediluvian case of the dreaded Borroughsian "word virus."
And coming back to Kerouac (the Son), isn't he the culmination of the autobiographical tendency bodied forth by Emerson -- "if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly." The same road followed notably by Henry Miller (1891-1980) and Thomas Wolf (1900-1938). Furthermore, in addition to calling for the invention of the Democratic individual, literally the everyman as hero, be it remembered that the Sage of Concord also said, "America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination..."
And of course, Professor Ginsberg (the Holy Ghost) would agree with that. But even so, isn't he really the mutated gene splicing of Emma Goldman and Walt Whitman floating on a Buddhist parachute? I think one can now see the problem with labels, and categories. Each of these men is not like anyone else. Each is sui generis.
And yet tags are helpful sometimes, they can remind us of the savor of a particular time. I mentioned that there were still Beat Artists, and I'd like to turn to my friend, Robert LaVigne, one of the original "members" of the Beat Generation, and to his new art booklet, Cyberliths, an essay in drawings.
The publication is from Abaton Book Company, NYC. It's one of 25 such desktop generated pieces called, Five and Dime, whose promotional material says the purpose is, "... to present the work of well-known international artists in a simple, affordable manner."
Given the above, one can well imagine that his work might not fit easily into any given category. Robert LaVigne, born in St. Maries Idaho in 1928, painter, memoirist (60 journal volumes), Art Director at the San Francisco Actors Work Shop, Instructor at the California Institute of the Arts in LA, twice an Obie Award winner for Best Design.
His paintings have been exhibited at The National Portrait Gallery and the Whitney Museum of American Art. They are collected by the Hirschhorn in Washington, DC, Reidar Wennesland Collection, Norway, the Oakland Museum, the San Jose Museum of Art, and the LaVigne Collection, at Columbia University among many other places.
Despite the Obies, Robert LaVigne is primarily a painter. He is also no formula man, no cake baker ala Andy Warhol (1926-1987), or, let's take the gloves off here -- for what was once glorious turns tedious -- Robert Rauschenberg. As an example of what I mean, I refer to Mr. Rauchenberg's recently installed piece at Benaroya Concert Hall in Seattle, "Echo" (1998) which is sadly something of an embarrassment. Although it looks like a Rauschenberg of old, albeit inflated to imperial grandiosity and seemingly composed using Photo-Shop. In the end, "Echo" is a half-hearted schlep to the bank that feels oddly suburban in its pointless sprawl.
I mention Rauschenberg as a contrast to Robert LaVigne who has no career long signature style with which to coast into the sunset. LaVigne's work unfolds like asphodel rather than rolling off a production line like a car. There are some surprises. Over the years the paintings change like the moving water of consciousness, sometimes an underground river, sometimes an alpine lake. The work holds no brief with what amounts to marketing strategies -- alas for his stock portfolio!
Thomas Albright says in his book, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980, " in the 1950s LaVigne worked in a bold figurative style that sometimes branched into portraiture. He simplified forms, his emphatic rhythmic contours, and his interweaving of figure with ground suggested sources in the late paintings of Matisse. In the late 1950s he turned to collages in which a spare repertoire of objects and images was used to explore the ambiguous relationship between the thing itself and its pictorial representation." He might have added Robert executed some of the most intimate and charming portraits ever done of the sitters, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassady, Natalie Jackson, and other friends who made up the scene at the Hotel Wentley in San Francisco. Kerouac himself repaid the complement and rendered Robert as "Rene Levesque" in his own evocation of the period in Desolation Angels, averring Levesque/LaVigne was, " the best painter in San Francisco." Ginsberg penned the poem "The Dangerous Garden of Robert LaVigne" around the same time.
In the 1960s he moved from the West Cost to New York City. The late 60s into the 70s saw the culmination of "Psychedelic Painting," of which he was a pioneer. However, he doesn't much care for the by now creakingly hackneyed term, Psychedelic. Nevertheless, one of them, "Fast Eddy Meditations" caught a young reviewer's eye during a recent exhibition at Basil Hallward Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Interest in the period, it seems, shows no signs of abating.
All of which is good as well as ironic. Ironic in that I believe when the history of this period in American Art is written (with a little leavening historical perspective) Robert's, what call his work after 1985 or so, Post-Beat? In any case, the best of Robert's Post-Beat paintings, I think will be seen as part of the evolution beyond the banal, out of the grad-school endlessly whining, Neo-Duchampian, conceptualist, identity obsessed agitprop. The arid pseudo-philosophical "message" art that has been preaching to the choir, or boring people too cowed to complain for quite a while now. Why is this so? The fear for "sophisticated" viewers seems to be, "remember how the public had so badly misunderstood poor old Van Gogh and the Cubists!" Don't wanna miss the boat here, don't wanna seem ignorant like no damn bumpkin what just fell off the turnip-cart!
Be that as it may, what are some of the characteristics of this provisionally named "Post-Beat" work of Robert's? The simplest way to describe his drawings, watercolors, and oils would be that they echo incarnation's erotic transformations. They show how form gathers, morphs, and slides into something else: caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly -- genital flower, cloud flower, lips as leaves -- a lyrical biomorphism, a sexy, hallucinated interior landscape with rainbow pure light bathing forms that shift, and shift again. You see the skull? You see the mountain that's a tooth? Indeed, any or all of the developments of modernism may appear in any given work. Cezanne and Kandinsky walking hand-in-hand through the "Summer of Love."
As a postulate, Robert's paintings seem to share the constant pull of form from one interpretation to another, all with an eye to visual lushness, rather than intellectual conundrum. Meaning expands, poetry deepens, and mystery remains. The impermanence of things personified by this wayward drift of possible interpretations reflects the fleeting possibility of memory and perception. The way they "mean" depends upon the mood of the observer.
A personal favorite is called, "Edge" completed in 1994. An oil on canvas painting of 60" X 50" this masterpiece of red and green features, according to my own projections, sensuous carmine pink flower-wing-fingers that caress the coil of brain, or is it bird, amid intense green foliage, shifting into lover's guts, goose head, tubers. All this twisting above mammoth asphodel, while a trunk of remembered Idaho childhood tree on the right strides forward and turns out to be a well muscled leg from High Renaissance -- Parmigianino, Michelangelo? Is this fantastic flora from another planet? What's that strange profile in the upper right corner? On the bottom, are those things Pomegranates or flayed testicles? Pomegranates? POMEGRANATES! Of course, for this is another riff on Persephone!
And there's a another side -- Robert is no Luddite dauber, no dweller in the land of Nod unconcerned with the fate of the world. A look at his recently published Cyberliths, a computer generated essay in drawings, amply testifies to this.
By means of these speculative drawings of imaginary architectural monuments, Cyberliths, proposes that language must be made to be explicit for what amounts to eons. The problem is that language flows, and rocks crumple. How warn future generations of the dangers of nuclear waste? As Robert points out, the Rosette Stone illustrates in carved bas-salt, how language is not permanent. This is Cyberliths starting point.
Robert puts it, "Whatever symbol is chosen must be backed by a detailed idea translated tongue by tongue, generation by generation, to make information about the awful substances that the symbol stands for, concise, clear, and above all alive."
Cyberliths are drawings inspired by the Rosette Stone, the famous key to unlocking the lost meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Robert's mysterious little booklet contains poetic evocations of possible monumental structures that could be constructed to do this necessary job of remembering what and where the deadly stuff is.
Indeed, I don't think the dim future will love the humanity of our era very much. Why should they? Everyone, it seems, has leaped onto the band wagon of death, explicitly leaving the future holding the glowing, poisonous bag of spent fuel.
Robert's imagined monuments are emblazoned with cryptic hieroglyphs, spray painted with graffiti, covered with moss and tangled weeds, all threatened by encroaching forest. There's one of a monolithic wedge that may be the world's biggest gravestone. There's a gargantuan arch sinking into the ground, perhaps shaken free by an earthquake? There's an immense structure not unlike some futurist Stonehenge carved with more of the strange writing.
But what of language?
"Soldiers, from the height of those pyramids," bragged Napoleon addressing his troops before the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798, " forty centuries look down on you " Forty centuries amounts to 1/6 the time it takes for plutonium to become inert, and therefore as Robert points out, language, any language must remain continuously intelligible until AD 25,999.
And so what is the problem? Grandfather will tell grandson, grandson, great granddaughter! Robert notes, 25, 000 years is the span of time "..equal to the making, disappearance, rediscovery and translation of five Rosetta Stones."
The unearthing of the Rosetta Stone was, of course, one of the side-effects of that ill-fated French expedition to Egypt. The Stone remains arguably the single most important archeological find ever made. It is also a great symbol of the transience of the majesty of earthly power.
Robert LaVigne's plea should not be overlooked. It is sobering to think there are those out there who don't seem to get it. For example, the nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer recently complained, "..a 5.5 billion nuclear reactor on Long Island is shutdown and dismantled before selling a single kilowatt of electricity, part of a general `China Syndrome' panic about nuclear power.."
Panic, Mr. Krauthammer? That thing to the west of Long Island is called Manhattan. Those specks you see from your office window are people, lots, and lots of people.
The accidental recovery of meaning that those Egyptian hieroglyphs underwent should thunderously remind us how it can be that ideas are lost. Ideas are lost, language relinquishes meaning -- and yet plutonium abides, as will our so-called global culture's infamy, if we do not take the necessary steps now.