What is beat? From down and out through saintly beatitudes, beat is an attitude. As a literary movement, the Beat Generation is an American phenomenon, but every geographic area that experienced it, takes ownership, and the French are no different. In Paris, at Centre Pompidou's 6th floor neighboring a retrospective of Paul Klee, a vast exhibition devoted to the culture of The Beat Generation --with principals Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg-- provides essential visual and auditory material for an understanding of this literati's global influence.
As wall text makes clear, and in the retelling of Jean-Jacques Lebel, the Beats began with an encounter with Andre Breton and Philip Lamantia, a statement only a Frenchman would make. The exhibition begins with machines, as in Burroughs's family business, the adding machine, and moves on to photography by Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, Fred W. McDarrah, Harold Chapman, Anthony Balch, and John Cohen. In one alcove, the Frank-Leslie collaboration "Pull My Daisy" is delightful viewing, with Jack Kerouac's jazzy narration. A snippet of D. A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back" shows young Ginsberg on the side with even younger Bob Dylan in an alleyway. Manuscripts such as the original On the Road scroll text sits unfurled, majestic in its vitrine. Ginsberg's "Kaddish" and "Howl for Carl Solomon" take pride of place. And in another room behind a scrim, Brion Gysin's Dreammachine rotates, casting its hallucinatory magic.
Gysin collaborated with William Burroughs on The Third Mind, having defined cut-ups at The Beat Hotel. Gysin influenced his taking up painting. Near the Pompidou, at the Semiose Gallery, a fine show of Burroughs' visual work includes his shotgun and collage art. The catalogue features photographs of Burroughs with Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Francis Bacon, plus an essay by Jean-Jacques Lebel.
On opening night of the Pompidou show, John Cohen and Tim McDarrah, Fred's son, gave interviews, and milled around with the show's curator, Philippe-Alain Michaud and Burroughs biographer Barry Miles. Jean-Jacques Lebel held court at an after party in a rooftop flat near the Champs-Elysees. The night before, in a completely spontaneous, that is beat moment, Patti Smith and Marianne Faithfull attended the exhibit. I wonder whether they too were struck by the lack of women represented, except for Diane DiPrima. You could make a case that the beat artistic experimentation was a male only event, but in such a large show, you miss the mention of Elise Cowen, Hettie Jones, or Joyce Johnson, whose iconic Minor Characters has just been reissued in a French translation and graces many a Paris bookstore.
Sadly, few of the original beats are left. The week before in New York, at the Bowery Poetry Club Michael McClure staged a reading commemorating the famous Six Gallery poetry event in San Francisco, historically, the breakout for Ginsberg and Lamantia, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder. Poet and impresario Bob Holman attempted to play Kerouac, not reading but dispensing cheap wine. And a week later, in Manchester, United Kingdom, the European Beat Studies Network, an international association of scholars on the subject, would meet and dissect the ramifications of this imagery and text at The Wonder Inn. At the local science museum, on display in the exhibition of industry in Manchester, not dissimilar to the mills of Kerouac's hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, was, what else, a Burroughs adding machine.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.