Beats happening

A couple of unnamed “beats,” carrying a work of art up Powell Street in San Francisco’s North Beach sometime in the ’50s.

A couple of unnamed “beats,” carrying a work of art up Powell Street in San Francisco’s North Beach sometime in the ’50s.

Long before poetry slams or performance art achieved counter-cultural cachet, a restless community of young artists dazzled 1950s San Francisco as it defied conformity. To appeal directly to the public without interference of gallery owners and critics, artists opened their own galleries. Soon the creativity unleashed overflowed beyond the visual arts to engulf music, sculpture, dance, poetry, film and theater. Gallery openings attracted artists collaborating and improvising in all these genres. They called themselves “beats.”

Novelist Jack Kerouac alluded to the connection with the word “beatific.” Poet Allen Ginsberg said it had more to do with feeling downtrodden. Either way, a defining beat moment came in 1955, at the beats’ then preeminent improvisational matrix, called simply the Six Gallery for the six friends who founded it.

Fifty years later, the beats’ fiery poetry and performances still inspire event organizer John Natsoulas, who is also an improvisational jazz saxophonist. “It’s the liberating excitement of just letting go,”Natsoulas says. “Disengaging the thinking process and creating something because, when you are in the company of friends also performing, the moment feels right.”

Natsoulas first was bewitched by the beats while researching the early underground galleries in San Francisco—Batman, King Ubu and Spatsa as well as the Six—for a book, The Beat Generation and Beyond, published in the early 1990s. When conducting numerous interviews with artists and audience members—these roles being interchangeable frequently—Natsoulas unearthed another seminal beat event, a memorable evening at the Six that began when three poets rolled a piano into the crowded gallery. Soon an ax was produced, and the poets ritualistically destroyed the piano. One poet reeled bleeding from a flesh wound and disappeared into the crowd, who believed this was all part of the performance. The two remaining poets finished off the instrument. Later, a sculptor gathered up the pieces and incorporated them in a sculpture perched beside San Francisco City Hall.

“I hope this conference will give people a sense of the unpredictable energies that artists of all stripes tapped into back then,” Natsoulas says of the Beat Generation and Beyond Conference and Exhibition weekend at the John Natsoulas Gallery. “Hopefully, as poets, dancers and musicians come together in performance at this conference, we’ll all be able to experience something of the freedom the beats seized in the 1950s.”

Performers will include playwright, poet and painter Michael McClure in collaboration with jazz flutist Larry Kassin; performance artist George Herms and dancer Anna Halprin. The concurrent beat-art exhibition features work by many luminaries of the scene, including Sonya Getchoff, Jack Jefferson, Madeleine Dimond and Wallace Berman.