You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘seacoast of bohemia’ category.

On November 7, 1962, Richard Nixon conceded his loss to Pat Brown in the race for governor of California, saying famously, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” In 1963, after the assassination of President Kennedy, the Beat poet Bob Kaufman (pictured) took a vow of complete silence, spoken and written.† And in 1982, after four years as governor, Pat Brown’s son Jerry decided not to run for a third term, instead running for the Senate, losing to Pete Wilson, and withdrawing to study Buddhism in Japan.

In that spirit, it’s time for me to sign off. This has been a marvelous blog, and I’ve been happy to contribute to it. Cheers all, and see you in the ether.

† Which he kept until 1975, when he walked into a coffeeshop in North Beach and recited a poem.


Via beamish down in comments somewhere, and via my dad (sorta), some bohemian Muppets.


Robert Arnesen’s egghead sculptures are a prominent feature of the UC Davis campus. I learned only recently that one was duplicated for an installation in San Francisco.

Reproductions of Arneson’s Yin and Yang Eggheads appear along the Embarcadero, situated together just east of the Justin Herman Plaza fountain, across from the Port of San Francisco Ferry Building. The sculpture was dedicated in mid-December. A plaque recognizes it as a reproduction of one in a series of five acrylic-on-bronze sculptures commissioned for UC Davis.

A native of Benicia, Arneson taught ceramics at UC Davis from 1962 to 1991. His Egghead sculptures were created for specific campus locations and were installed during 1991-94. The original Yin and Yang Eggheads sit outside the UC Davis fine arts complex courtyard, where they were positioned by Arneson himself shortly before his death in 1992.

The eggheads that appear in San Francicso were cast in 2002 from Arneson’s original molds. Installers positioned the two Eggheads in San Francisco, orienting them like those at UC Davis.

I don’t know what they think the word “like” in that last sentence means, but here is the San Francisco Yin and Yang, from that same page:

And here is the original Yin and Yang, as placed, according to the article, by Arnesen himself:


As relief from the grim tone of the page, with no pictures or conversations, here are some links to work by the great Alice Neel (1900-1984). A true Greenwich Village bohemian, she lived a life that (had I the time) would warrant an extensive post. Apparently her work was disparaged during the brief (and macho) hegemony of abstraction; and certainly she suffered for it, living at times on welfare. In 1934, her companion Kenneth Doolittle destroyed hundreds of her paintings “in a rage”. And yet she made an extraordinary body of work, from the 1920s into the 1980s. Her specialty was the portrait, but there are striking cityscapes and still lifes as well. Looking at the pictures, I’m perpetually surprised at how much variety she achieved with seemingly simple means — and in particular, what variety of expression and personality she could convey in the faces of her sitters.

Entrance to Balmy Alley

In lieu of a real post (and in celebration of moving back to the Mission): tour San Francisco’s Balmy Alley.

Photo by Flickr user dogwelder used under a Creative Commons license.

Updated: of course, with bonus Sendak.

Jay DeFeo, during the removal of The Rose

On November 9, 1965, a crew from Bekins Moving Company arrived at 2322 Fillmore Street, San Francisco. In an apartment on the second floor, they cautiously unmounted an enormous painting — eight feet by eleven and weighing literally a ton — lowered it to the floor and packed it into a wooden crate. A carpenter cut out a window and part of the façade; the movers gently slid the painting out this slot onto the platform of a crane, then lowered it to the sidewalk and into the truck. The artist hovered, nervously smoking, clowning for a friend’s camera as her life’s work, unmanageable and well-nigh uncontainable, was shipped away.

Jay DeFeo was born in 1929, in Hanover, New Hampshire. She grew up in the Bay Area, and studied art at Berkeley, earning her MFA in 1951. After a year in Europe, she returned to Berkeley; in 1954, she married the painter Wally Hedrick, and they moved to San Francisco. Hedrick and others founded the Six Gallery, remembered today for the first reading of “Howl”. He and DeFeo established themselves on Fillmore Street, and for the next ten years, a rotating cast of San Francisco’s painting and writing bohemia rented other apartments in the building.

Through the 1950s, DeFeo painted productively, making a name for herself in the second wave of Abstract Expressionism. She had paintings in a group show in Los Angeles in 1959; then, she and Hedrick were invited to participate in “Sixteen Americans”, an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York, alongside the likes of Johns, Rauschenberg and Stella. The curator, Dorothy Miller, wanted to include Deathrose, a large new painting, but DeFeo said it wasn’t ready. She and Hedrick didn’t attend — with true bohemian insouciance, they gave away the airplane tickets MOMA sent them — and in any case, by the time of the opening, DeFeo was already deep in work, extending her new painting beyond anything she’d done before.

She worked at it all day, every day, for the next five years. The basic design was set early on — an abstract sunburst or cloudburst radiating from a point a bit above eye level — but the surface kept changing, and growing. Photographs of its various stages show many different textures. Sometimes she carved into the growing surface, but mostly she built, layer on layer of paint, even before the last layer had properly dried. At one point, the paint spread outward off the canvas and onto the wall around it: she jerry-rigged a new frame around it to accommodate the new scale, and kept working.

She might never have finished The Rose (as it came to be called) without the intervention of fate. In March 1965, Walter Hopps of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon) asked to show it. And then in September, the landlord at Fillmore Street served an eviction notice. Quickly, she accepted Hopps’ offer. The day after the painting was moved, DeFeo and Hedrick vacated the building, and separated. DeFeo followed the painting to Pasadena, and worked at it a few months longer before breaking off for good.

She returned to the Bay Area, but to Marin County, rather than San Francisco; she dropped out of the art scene, and didn’t pick up a brush for the next three years. She resumed painting in 1970, and continued painting, photography, and teaching (at Mills College) until her death in 1989, of cancer. (It’s hard not to suspect that the years of work on The Rose, living on paint fumes and Christian Brothers brandy, contributed.)

The painting itself returned to San Francisco in 1969. It was exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, but soon began to sag badly. To slow the damage, the Art Institute wrapped it up and plastered it into the wall, until the resources could be found to restore it properly. Finally, after DeFeo’s death, the Whitney Museum took on the project. The painting was excavated and carefully restored, with a new steel frame inside the layers and layers of paint. It first appeared in its new form at the Whitney on November 9, 1995, thirty years to the day after it was untimely ripped from its birthplace on Fillmore.

I saw it a year later, on loan at the Berkeley Art Museum. For such a massive, extravagant effort, it’s surprisingly reticent at first — the sunburst is muted, white on mostly gray. In the crevasses of the surface, though, other colors peek through, hinting at what’s buried beneath. The effect is at once overwhelming and shy.

Today it’s out of sight again, packed away in a metal cage in the Whitney’s storage facility. When I inquired this summer, they told me there’s no way to see it. These days in the City, we’re hearing a lot about the proposal of Donald Fisher, founder of The Gap, to build a museum in the Presidio for his collection of modern and contemporary art. I would suggest to Fisher, once he gets the site he wants, that he make room in the building for The Rose — the greatest artwork ever made in San Francisco, and in need of a good home.

In the meantime, for a taste of the painting, you can’t do better than Bruce Conner’s beautiful short film of the removal, The White Rose (with Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain for a score). I also recommend Jane Green and Leah Levy, Jay DeFeo and The Rose (2003) — great photos and useful writing.

[Updated to correct a serious misstatement at the end: the painting is inaccessible, not decaying again.]

Noted without (explicit) comment:

Across from the School of Business stands a burrito cart which makes outstanding burritos. The affluent MBA-seekers often go there to get lunch, and many of them, to prove that they are down with the gente, will place their orders in halting Spanish to the young lady who runs the cart. Like ordering in French at a French restaurant, but real.

Recently, a friend decided to get a burrito and stood in line behind one of these hotshots, who fumbled the Spanish for one of the toppings and then asked the burrito lady what the correct word was.

“I don’t know,” she says in English, “I’m from Malaysia, and I’ve only learned Spanish because people keep coming up and assuming I’m Mexican.”

On Oct. 7, 1955, the Six Gallery in San Francisco presented a reading by five well-known poets of the local scene (including poems by a sixth). Allen Ginsberg went on second to last, reading his new, unpublished poem Howl. The response was so strong — chants of “Go, go, go”, led by Jack Kerouac from the audience — that Kenneth Rexroth, the “M. C.”, called a break before the last reading, Gary Snyder doing “Berry Feast”. Afterward, elated, the crowd moved out for Chinese food.

It’s the signal event of the Beat moment in poetry — and yet it’s doubly exceptional. The poem is unique in Ginsberg’s oeuvre, to begin with. He wrote other good things (mostly during the same year or so), but nothing, not even Kaddish, is at the same level. Within a few years, he had moved on to the “King of the May” phase of his career, best captured, I think, in Jane Kramer’s book — a benignly inclusive celebrity but no longer primarily a poet.

And further, Ginsberg was not really “of” the San Francisco scene, but rather a globetrotter, for whom the globe revolved around New York (and New Jersey). His time in the Bay Area lasted about two years, from 1954 through 1956. He was clearly inspired by the scene he found there, and he came to symbolize it, but he didn’t shape it in the way Rexroth did, or Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. (Or Snyder, in his way, dropping in periodically from the Cascades, the Sierras or Japan.)

Or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and impresario of the City Lights bookstore and press, who made a slim volume of Howl and the other poems Ginsberg had been working on that year. This became the focus of an obscenity trial, ending two years later in victory for the press.

But all gossiping aside, we have to be grateful that the stars should have aligned themselves, however briefly, so powerfully that Ginsberg could ring on like that through line after Whitman-biblical line, dense, rich, hyperbolic and accessible like nothing else in our canon. It’s too tempting not to quote a bit (only hard to stop):

to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head, […]

with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.

Cadets reading Howl

The poet Jack Spicer is more blogged about than read, as you’ll read in practically every post about him. This will be no exception. I haven’t read him enough either: I’ve known him so far mainly as a focus of gossip. (A San Francisco poet I know once told me, as we marveled at the inanity of Billy Collins, that back in the day, Collins had been one of Spicer’s disciples in North Beach.) This week I’ve been reading Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s biography, Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan, 1998), which is a feast of anecdote. But there’s news, and I expect soon we’ll be hearing more about him again.

Spicer was born in Los Angeles in 1925. At UC Berkeley, he met Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, who would remain the poets closest to him. He studied for a few years in Minnesota, and then briefly worked in Boston, but he soon returned to the Bay Area to stay. He worked at Berkeley as a research linguist, but spent as much time as possible on the poetry scene in North Beach.

It’s astonishing how much of Spicer’s energy (and indeed that of the whole scene) went into the epiphenomena of poetry — teaching, talking, theorizing, publishing, arguing, drinking, cliquing, gossiping. (Spicer even supplied items to Herb Caen, gossip columnist for the Chronicle.) And yet he made poetry anyway.* He wrote steadily, publishing a stream of little books with fugitive presses. He distanced himself jealously from success in the poetry world — New York, Allen Ginsberg, even Ferlinghetti and City Lights — but achieved some success despite himself, speaking to attentive audiences, for example, at the University of British Columbia. His drinking caught up with him: in July 1965, he fell into a hepatic coma, and died after three weeks in and out of consciousness, fellow poets visiting whenever he could talk.

For Spicer, poetry was like receiving a radio transmission: something spoke through him. And more than a conceit or a superstition, this is borne out in the poetry. The language is direct, flexible, unshowy — what’s strange is the elusiveness of the voice, the instability of the poems’ agenda. It really is as though the poet had short-circuited himself out and his language spoke instead. Take this, from the book Language, of 1964:

    This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
    Tougher than anything.
    No one listens to poetry. The ocean
    Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
    Or crash of water. It means
    Is bread and butter
    Pepper and salt. The death
    That young men hope for. Aimlessly
    It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
    One listens to poetry.**

There’s an extended analogy at work here, but it would be hard, and misleading, to explicate it fully. One could assimilate “bread and butter / pepper and salt”, for example, to the analogy, but more plausibly they are simply clichés, half-abstract language objects bobbing up to divert the flow.

This week I went looking for the Collected Books, edited by Robin Blaser in the 1970s.  I used to see this on every poetry shelf in town, but now that I’m ready to read it, it’s become a collectible. Thank goodness, though, Wesleyan University Press is bringing out a new Collected Poems, long rumored and now on the brink of publication. (I’ve preordered it from Amazon.)

The title of the new book, My Vocabulary Did This To Me, is not a line from the poetry, but something Spicer said to Blaser in the hospital at the end. Or so Blaser says: another poet remembers the phrase differently, and a third denies it outright. Apart from its joke value, then (and Spicer might not have been joking), it’s an example of how Spicer is remembered — and an apt encapsulation of his poetic.


* Graham Mackintosh, who published him, said later, “I think what happened was he’d be of a certain blood-alcohol count, which would allow him to pass out for about five hours. Which would bring it around to approximately seven in the morning. Which was the time he would do most of his writing. Then he’d go back to sleep, and sort of pass back out.” (Quoted in Ellingham and Killian; but like most of their sources, Mackintosh is talking as much about himself as about Spicer.)

** Copied from the Spicer page at the Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center.  For more, see the Spicer feature in Jacket magazine, April 1999. And Lawrence La Riviere White dug deeper in a post at The Valve (almost on the fortieth anniversary of Spicer’s death).

Of her tumultuous, nomadic life, Tina Modotti spent only eight years in the United States. She was born in Friuli, northern Italy, in 1896, and spent her earliest years in Austria. Her father emigrated to San Francisco, and in 1913 she followed him. She worked as a seamstress, but soon began acting, rising to stardom in the local Italian theater. In 1918, she married a bohemian aspiring artist named Roubaix de l’Abrie (“Robo”) Richey, and they moved to Los Angeles. They had some success in crafts (e.g. batik), and Modotti made some first steps in a film career, appearing most notably in The Tiger’s Coat (1920). But in the same period, she met Edward Weston, and they began an intense relationship, both a love affair and an apprenticeship, which turned her toward the work for which she is now remembered.

Read the rest of this entry »

This is officially an award-winning blog

HNN, Best group blog: "Witty and insightful, the Edge of the American West puts the group in group blog, with frequent contributions from an irreverent band.... Always entertaining, often enlightening, the blog features snazzy visuals—graphs, photos, videos—and zippy writing...."