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The Beat Goes On

October 6, 2009

A few weeks ago, I gave a Gallery Talk at the DMA that made connections between Abstract Expressionism and the Beat Generation.  I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Art History as well as English, so I am always looking for ways to make literary connections in our galleries.  Jackson Pollock’s Cathedral is one of my favorite paintings in our collection, and it provides the perfect comparison for the writings of the Beat Generation. 

The Beats believe in spontaneity and writing what is on your mind—an “undisturbed flow,” as Jack Kerouac called it.  Part I of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, an iconic work of Beat literature, is one long run-on sentence.  Ginsberg uses commas and semicolons to punctuate stanzas, but a period does not appear until the very end of Part I.  The Beats also felt that an author should write in the moment and shouldn’t worry about grammar or punctuation (see Jack Kerouac’s The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, 1959).  Kerouac’s first draft of On the Road was written over the course of three weeks, and in the end looked like one massive paragraph.  He didn’t think about punctuation or line breaks—he just let his words flow.  

So what does all of this have to do with Jackson Pollock?  Just as the Beats were letting words and ideas spontaneously stream onto paper, Jackson Pollock allowed paint to flow from his brush onto canvas.  His gestures draw our eye across—and right up to the edges—of the canvas, and we can imagine how he moved his arm and body through the picture plane.  There is a fantastic quote from Pollock that really illustrates just how similar his technique was with the Beat philosophy of writing: 

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing.  It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about.  I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.  I try to let it come through.  It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess.  Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.” ~Jackson Pollock, My Painting, 1947-1948.

Pollock painted “in the moment,” and his lines and gestures come together to create one unified masterpiece.  It’s also interesting to note another link between Pollock and the Beats–Cathedral was titled by another Beat poet: Frank O’Hara.  O’Hara described the painting in this way: “Cathedral is brilliant, clear, incisive, public—its brightness and its linear speed protect and signify, like the façade of a religious edifice…”
 
 I’m looking forward to continuing to explore interdisciplinary (especially literary) connections in the DMA’s collection and sharing these connections with our docents—and with student groups.  Are there other interdisciplinary connections that you make in your classrooms using the DMA’s collection?  If so, I would love to hear about them!       

 

Shannon Karol                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Tour Coordinator

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