Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
To quote a Canned Heat lyric, “I’m on the road again.” The trip up to New York City on the Chinatown bus was all wind in the hair and “Born to be Wild.” Smooth sailing with Billy and Wyatt, but the trip back to Baltimore was more like the bus ride with Ratso Rizzo at the end of Midnight Cowboy. That said, it was worth the trip as New York City was the site of two very different exhibits dealing with the 1960s: the Whitney’s Summer of Love and Printed Matter’s’ Fuck for Peace: A History of the Fugs. Neither show was ideal but taken together they provided a very informative perspective of the era.
I must admit that my viewing of the Whitney exhibit was somewhat tainted by several people who told me to focus on what was missing from the show. These absences do speak volumes about the exhibit, but if one really digs around and explores the entire museum, it can be argued that the Whitney saw the gaps in the Tate Museum’s organization of the show and attempted to correct them. Psychedelics are supposed to cleanse the doors of perception, clarify the sight of the third eye, and help one see the Truth more easily, but the Summer of Love exhibit tends to filter the Sixties through rose-colored glasses. The exhibit for the most part presents the good trips such as those provided by Owsley’s White Lightning. What needed to be given more attention were the bummer visions like those engendered by the notorious brown acid that filtered through Woodstock.
The problem could be that the exhibit used the more positive / celebratory elements of rock culture to tie together the whole show. Handbills, album covers, light shows, and posters dominated the space. Think of the Art of Rock book that chronicled the rock posters and handbills of the period. This is to be expected at a show celebrating the art of the psychedelic era, but the focus on rock music and the artwork it inspired could have been used to much greater and complex effect.
For example, those attending the exhibit could pick up pre-recorded devices that played music with certain sections of the show. In some cases, the music simply accompanied a rock poster, album cover, or visual effect. As a result, the listener would understand what a band or situation sounded like, but in far too few cases did the music actually comment critically on the era. When utilized in this manner the effects could be striking. The most memorable instance for me involved the Fugs’ song “Kill for Peace.” The song was to be played while viewing Peter Saul’s large piece: Saigon. It was an inspired pairing and unusual as the Fugs and Vietnam were two of the notable absences of the show. This type of hard edge would have benefitted the show.
The New York section of the show focused on the Fillmore East, Millbrook, and Woodstock with no mention at all of the freak scene of the Lower East Side that Ed Sanders and the Fugs represented. This aspect of the New York art world was big news during the Summer of Love. For example, Sanders made the cover of Life in 1967. He and the Fugs should have been included in the New York section.
There was a small part of the exhibit that presented photographs of Vietnam. Interestingly, most of the photographs were by Robert Whitaker who also took many iconic rock photos. The exhibit, as put together by the Tate, highlights the rock and not the war. I think the Whitney understands that Vietnam and violence are a huge part of the era and under-represented. For example, a handout available at the Whitney reads, “If you would like to hear more about the politics and social unrest associated with the Summer of Love, check out our Summer of Love podcast on Whitney.org.” Whitney press releases talk the talk. Unrest, turbulent era, protest are all highlighted but in reality the real meat of the exhibit on display is on the “sweet freedom of the moment” as captured by John Phillips in his song on San Francisco: “For those who come to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Yet if you dig and work at it, the other side of the coin, the underbelly of the Summer of Love, is there at the Whitney.
Tucked away — I would say hidden — in the Sondra Gilman Gallery on the Fifth Floor Mezzanine is a small exhibit entitled Resistance Is. While the Summer of Love exhibit was crowded and lines circled the museum on Sunday, this small section was basically unattended. Yet it was here that the sole picture of the Black Panthers (taken by Gordon Parks) hung. Curious really as the photograph was taken in 1967 of the San Francisco chapter of the group. The Whitney clearly realizes the importance of the Black Panthers to the era as the photograph is featured in the Whitney calendar for June-August. In addition the only photograph of the Chicago 7 hung in the Gilman Gallery. This prompts the question were was the student protest in the main exhibit. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement might be before the time period shown, but there is no excuse for not mentioning the takeover of Columbia in 1969 in the New York section of the exhibit. By the way where was Stonewall, the Weathermen or the more militant aspects of the feminist movement like the Red Stockings. This was all San Francisco with the Flowers in your hair and no Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker.
The Resistance Is exhibit also globalized and made contemporary its subject in a way the Summer of Love did not. London gets lavish attention but what about France, Italy or Germany to just focus on the Western World. Resistance Is looks beyond the West into the East and the Third World. The Whitney calendar reads, “Resistance Is considers the relationship between historical narratives and the conditions of social agency prevalent today.” There is footage from as recent as 2006. In a sense the Resistance Is exhibit was the more relevant to today. Or should be. The lack of a protest movement that embraces all aspects of culture and on the scale of the sixties is shocking right now given the apparent dissatisfaction with the state of the union in the United States. There is a more music, art, and literature being made than ever before, but none of what you see in the mainstream is about protest or resistance.
A whole wall is dedicated to Warhol’s Factory and the Velvet Underground. One would think that the inclusion of this speedy, gay element would provide something of a corrective for the show. Instead, the focus is on the Plastic Exploding Inevitable; heavy on handbills and posters. The exhibit seems to suggest that Warhol and the Velvets fit in with the visual, performance elements of the Summer of Love. This is unfortunate since the Plastic Exploding show in San Francisco was a disaster and highlighted the differences between the NYC and San Francisco counterculture. New York’s art scene was definitely not represented by Woodstock as suggested. Yet I think the Whitney realizes the harder edge and importance of the Warhol / Velvet circle in the counterculture and in the formation of the art scene of the 1970s such as punk and urban arts like graffiti.
Again you had to search it out on another floor. To my mind, an installation in the Rudolf Stingel show on the third floor provided all the commentary you could want on the impact of the Factory. Stingel constructed a large, floor to ceiling space out of Styrofoam which he then covered in silver wall paper. Previous attendees of the exhibit in other cities as well (as Stingel) were allowed to chip away and graffiti the silver wall so that by the time it reached the Whitney the purity of the silver was completely defaced in every nook and cranny. If the beginning suggested the tin foil of the Factory, the end result was the bathroom at CBGB. The installation placed above the Summer of Love exhibits commented on the trajectory of the New York art scene after the Factory and indirectly on the influence of the Velvet Underground. If the Summer of Love celebrated pot and LSD, Stingel’s silver room brought to mind images of shooting up in a toilet stall. The exhibit also had echoes of the urban landscape, a decayed setting that was the site of controversial renewal in the 1960s. The idea of the subway (graffiti art) or the jail cell (Attica, George Jackson) came to mind.
The Summer of Love exhibit is full of curious choices. There is a lot of coverage of Keith and Mick’s drug bust in 1967, but that was hardly the most important, most representative, or most “sixties” moment of the Stones. I would argue that occurred with the murder of Meredith Hunter by the Hell’s Angels during the free Stones concert at Altamont. Many of the major darker themes of the 1960s were captured by Baird Bryant, the cameraman, when he filmed the murder. It could be the Zapruder film of the counterculture. The exhibit provides film footage of Altamont, but focuses on the construction of the Ant Farm installation instead. There is a day-glo and air brushed feel to the entire Summer of Love show. For example, if you are going to feature Life magazine covers throughout the exhibit, you may want to end the show with the cover featuring Charles Manson. It is one of the most recognized issues of Life and an enduring image of the 1960s. If it was there, I missed it.
Why did the Tate show touch up the Summer of Love and why did the Whitney acknowledge the deficiencies but choose to hide them in the recesses of the museum? A cynic would say that you have to go no further than the gift shop. All the CDs and coffee table art books were available right up front. You get the sense that the Whitney was like a Starbucks selling sanitized nostalgia. By most accounts, the Summer of Love was over in San Francisco by 1967. Mass markets and mainstream media co-opted it for distribution to the curious in the 1960s, not just in the present. The gift shop in the Whitney highlights a major theme of the Summer of Love as it was experienced in 1967 — the commoditization of the counterculture — but to get any treatment of this from the exhibit you have to dig and be aware of what is missing from the display tables.
The wall on LSD is an interesting section of the exhibit that touches on these issues. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters get lots of pictures here. The 1967 Be-In is featured along with psychedelic publications like Psychedelic Review and Leary’s LPs and books. The truth is that San Francisco in 1967 was not about LSD at all. LSD was made illegal in 1966, and strangely, pot was scarce. Instead, heroin and speed flooded the market. There are plenty of conspiracy theories about this involving organized crime and the CIA, but none are mentioned by the exhibit. This section did feature exploitation / sleaze paperbacks on LSD and the hippies under glass. These pulp paperbacks shared space with Life and Saturday Evening Post features on the same topics. This section of the exhibit suggests the influence of mass market capitalism on the counterculture, the packaging and fetishization of illicit activity to Middle America, as well as the pacifying nature of exploitation. The inclusion of Leary and Kesey in this section brings home the point that they were hucksters as much as gurus. This is not hindsight; this was all understood at the time. Proof of this is the Diggers, maybe the finest critics of the Summer of Love. It was nice to see the Diggers featured alongside Leary, Kesey, and mass market treatment of the Haight.
This was the most complex and critical part of the entire show. I wonder if this was just coincidence or if it was intended. The selection of Life magazines in this section suggests the former. A few cover issues on LSD were present including of course the piece on LSD art. Yet the 1967 Hippie issue of the Saturday Evening Post should have been included there as well. Why feature the discotheque issue of Life? The Saturday Evening Post issue was much more pertinent then and now. It ran Joan Didion’s scathing piece on San Francisco entitled “Slouching toward Bethlehem.” To this day, Didion’s piece is one of the finest critical looks on the Summer of Love. It would have shown that the bloom was off the rose even in the mainstream media and driven home the point that the times were a’ changing and a bad moon was on the rise by 1967.
Printed Matter’s exhibit entitled Fuck for Peace: A History of the Fugs offers a nice corrective to the Whitney show. Located on 10th Avenue between 21st and 22nd Street, Printed Matter is a publishing collective that specializes in the book arts and alternative publishing. The Fugs are a perfect choice given that two members of the Fugs, Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, are legendary members of the mimeo revolution. The DIY aesthetic of the Fugs in song and in print fits in perfectly with the goals and production of the collective. The exhibit focused on two founding fathers of today’s zine and artist book culture.
The Fugs exhibit was small and cramped, but at the same time, had an air of inclusion. The exhibit featured publications, album covers, newspaper and magazine stories, fan letters, and lyric sheets. Yet there were no photographs and I think that was a mistake. Of course a broader show could have been done. This show would include documentation of the Fugs at Detroit, at the Chicago Convention of 1968, at the Pentagon in 1967. The political and racial turmoil of Chicago, Detroit and Washington were largely missing from the Summer of Love show. Such photographs would have broadened both exhibits but even so there was a grit and obscenity at the Fugs show that would have done the Whitney good.
If you are going to focus on the Summer of Love, you have to have some fucking in the streets. The first thing I saw when I entered the small back room of the Fugs exhibit was an image of Tuli Kupferberg sitting on a shabby couch clutching his cock. This was not a young nymph with flowers in her hair. Works like Fuck God in the Ass, Auden’s Platonic Blow, Sheep Fuck Poem, and the outrageous fan letters written in the Fuck You style provided the atmosphere of goofiness, depravity, transgression, and upfront sexuality that was the flip side of the Summer of Love. The Fugs also captured the anarchy, paranoia, and ugliness of the time.
Not surprisingly, William Burroughs is absent from the Whitney exhibit but all over the place at Printed Matter. You flip through the contemporary work being sold by Printed Matter and the Burroughs influence is strongly felt. I think this speak volumes about the type of 1960s being portrayed In the Fugs show as opposed to the Whitney. Burroughs tends to scare the parents. Hide your kids from the dirty old junkie. Printed Matter wants to shock while the Whitney wants to soothe.
All the Burroughs publications by Fuck You were there including one of the holy grails of Burroughs collectors: the Fuck You Version of APO-33. I have told the story of this legendary rarity elsewhere but let me say: It did not look as unprofessional and disorganized as I expected given Burroughs’ reaction. This is more proof that Burroughs was something of a control freak concerning the presentation of his own material and that the laissez-faire attitude towards his work is maybe something of an act. As a collector, seeing APO-33 was the highlight of the weekend.
Interestingly, the “evil” hands of the marketplace could be felt all over the Printed Matter exhibit. Many of the pieces came on loan from the Fales Collection of NYU (the APO-33, I suspect), but a good number including a beautiful copy of the Mad Motherfucker issue of Fuck You with the Warhol cover were up for sale. And not cheaply either. The Couch issue could be yours for $1500. From a collector’s point of view, the material at Printed Matter could not be more beautiful. The complete run of Fuck You magazine was immaculate. Too much so? I think the copies do not have the original staples and have been rebound. I could be wrong but the Mad Motherfucker issue was definitely rebound with new staples. For obsessives, this is problematic, but the brightness and crispness of all the material should overcome some of these feelings of violation.
Not surprisingly, the alternative art market created a darker exhibit than the mainstream market at the Whitney. Collectors interested in the Summer of Love can find the exhibit basically recreated work for work in the latest Beatbooks catalog. The Printed Matter show while smaller was in some ways more complex and more accurate. Make no mistake both places are selling something. Much could be made of the image of the 1960s each makes available. The packaging of these two shows comments on the various roles of art in society. For me, the view presented by Printed Matter and the images hidden from viewers at the Whitney are the ones that matter in the now and in the long run. Basically, the Whitney show highlights and foregrounds peace, love, and understanding. As Elvis Costello would say there is nothing wrong with that. But it is not what is most dynamic and lasting about the era. Great art is produced outside of the mainstream in a position of opposition. It is against something. The Summer of Love exhibit downplays protest and conflict (although the Whitney attempts to correct this). In addition, art associated with drugs are about erasing boundaries and about the pain of alienation. Drugs should intensify those sensations not numb or heal them. In an age of de-anxietized man, there are no great artists. There is little sense of the fear and paranoia of the 1960s at the Whitney.
The mantra of the real estate market is location, location, location. Maybe that is the key with these two exhibits as well. One museum is located on Madison Avenue and the other is on 10th Avenue. One’s view of the world begins with a look out one’s front door.