The invitation said, "They're Old, they're Cool, they're Wise, and they all lived on the Lower East Side." Needless to say, it was not an invitation to Georgie Boy's inauguration. It was an invitation to a group show, and "they" are octegenarians -- Mary Beach, whose 1998 collage "Pepper Head" (above) illustrates the invitation, Taylor Mead, Boris Lurie and Herbert Huncke who died in 1996 at age 81. But more than age, they share in common the status of artist outsiders.

Mary Beach in The Pink Pony

The Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Museum (161 Essex Street, NYC, NY) previews the show tonight (1/20/05) with a reception for the artists from 6 to 8 p.m. The show opens Friday in Manhattan on the Lower East Side and runs (by appointment only phone: 212-477-1363 ) through Feb. 27, 2005

Once upon a time Mary Beach and I collaborated on a San Francisco literary magazine together with Claude Pélieu, Carl Weissner and Norman Mustill. Her life and work, like Meade's, Lurie's and Huncke's, cover a lot of ground -- mostly the alternative underground. From the 1930s on, the gallery notes, their combined experience includes "everything from the distant art world of prewar Europe to the literary Beat scene of New York; from Nazi prison and concentratrion camps to the Surrealist, Pop and No! Art movements; from the first Holocaust art to the streets, galleries and museums of Paris, Berlin, New York, London and San Francisco."

Of the four, Herbert Huncke and Taylor Mead are probably the best known -- Huncke because of his association with Bill Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; Mead because of his association with Andy Warhol (an actor and poet, he was one of Warhol's superstars).

Taylor Mead enjoys the moment

Boris Lurie, who survived four years in Buchenwald and other concentration camps, is perhaps least known in or out of the downtown scene. I discovered him only in 1973, when he sent an essay over the transom to the Something Else Press for an anthology I was editing. I loved the piece and published it.

*Here's how it began:


The art world is in deep crisis and has been for some time. Artificial cultivation of decorative "esthetic" values, reckless investment speculation aided by large numbers of collaborating artists have brought about a situation very much like the last stage of a bull market on the stock exchange. Esthetically and philosophically the bottom has already dropped out. The mini-movements cultivating minor esthetic modes by-passed by the pioneers of modern art are being groomed, refined, enlarged and overstated all out of proportion to their real value. Even amputated splinters of the old rebellious Dada have been converted into saleable parlor games. ...

The "theoretical" part of the art market is supported by museum curators eager to please trustees and to promote large attendance by the uneducated public. It is indebted to artist-producers who operate manufacting enterprises out of mammoth lofts in New York. But the sanctity and reliability of art critics and art publications, whose full page, awe-inspiring ads and color covers have lost their magic, convince the public no longer. The museums are finally accepted for what they really are: corporate entities & private organizations controlled by a small number of not-distinguished trustees whose conflicting interests in the art market should be opened to question.

Such Sanctum Sanctorums have only been picketed; a general clean-up must begin in earnest. And many artists do understand now that their field is not just the production of art. In the most extreme cases, political confrontation has become an art form. Some are in flight from marketable objects in what is viewed as an exaggerated reaction to their unhappy findings. To many, unfortunately, all art has become useless and corrupt.

The hope is that some place, some day, a truly unmanipulated art will appear, that younger artists will become free of the art world hang-ups of their older brothers and sisters of the Fifties and Sixties, and of the poisonous atmosphere of establishment-fostered art. Let's hope they will know better how to handle the success-monster, the ego-monster, the competition-monster, and the monster of in-group camp. These nasy monsters have always had a habit of reappearing.

The first rebellion always begins out of desperation, triggered perhaps by the realization that isolation and inwardness must be broken. The artist who understands this is free only in rebellion.


Lurie went on to describe the history of his and other downtown artists's shows, such as "Adieu Amerique" (1959), his farewell "statement of rejection" when he was about to leave the country for good, he thought; group shows such as, Les Lions," at the time of the Algerian war in a cooperative basement gallery on the Lower East Side, the "Vulgar Show," the "Involvement Show," the "Doom Show" in 1962, which he described as "a direct attack on the danger of atomic war at the time of the Kennedy-Kruschev confrontation over Cuba, when basement air raid shelters were introduced for unprotected homes and hysteria swept the country."

© 2005 - Jan Herman

Pepper Head: Mary Beach
Photo renderings: Hammond Guthrie
Gallery photographs: Laki Vazakas / Nicole Peyrafitte

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