By John Held, Jr.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Future Woman”
George Krevsky Gallery, San Fracnisco
May 30-June 29, 2013
77 Geary Street #205
San Francisco, CA
“Of art and poetry
Only the absolute need apply”
-from “Art & Poetry”,
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, March 1996
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is The City’s leading poet, publisher, bookseller and public defender of artistic freedom, and we are blessed to have him as a continuing active presence in his 94th year. Add practicing painter to the list –a skill he’s been honing for the past sixty years. In 1953, he occupied a loft at 9 Mission Street vacated by California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) instructor Hassel Smith. Since then there have been many one-person shows both here and abroad. In the catalog from a 1996 exhibition at the Palace of Exhibitions in Rome, Italy, the well known art critic Achille Bonito Oliva, credited Ferlinghetti as being the “godfather of the [Italian] trans-avant-garde,” and he was equally lauded and supported by Francesco Conz, the leading Italian patron of Fluxus artists.
Joseph Beuys, also affiliated with Fluxus, was an inspiration to Ferlinghetti. “I believe, with Joseph Beuys,” he wrote in 1994, “that art is capable of the total transformation of the world and of life itself. No less. It is an absolute demand, and I’d hold all art up to it. Especially these days, nothing else is acceptable. All else is but the play things of the leisure class.”
There is a remarkable painting in his current show at George Krevsky, “Battle with the Image,” an oil on canvas from 1956, a female form with outstretched arms, which the artist recently bought back from its original collector and possibly served as the model for the enduring City Lights bookstore logo. That alone should get you in the door.
Once inside, you will find all sorts of marvels. Ferlighetti has a number of obsessions, including sailing, painting and drawing the human figure. He has been a fixture at life drawing classes around the Bay Area for years and maintains a painting studio at Hunter’s Point. In this current show at George Krevsky, “Future Woman,” his seventh at the gallery, you’ll find over twenty examples of female figuration in the show, worked in a loose manner befitting a hurried pose with washes of ink, watercolor, acrylic or oil.
The figures are sometimes paired with a bird, or a secondary face breaking through the wash. In 1991, Ferlinghetti wrote, “It is a mysterious process, painting. The figures, the creatures, the faces appear, ‘out of nowhere,’ so to speak, messengers or harbingers from some other place or time…I only know they exist in their own world and time, and I only the means of their articulation.” Rarely can a painter evoke his world in such a skillfully elucidated phrase.
To the delight of his poetry fans, several of the works combine text and visuals. Peeking through the washes we find phrases such as, “I have heard the mermaids singing,” “Ah, sweet mystery (Rose Selavy),” “A Broken City in the Heart,” and indeed one cries out for other examples of the master’s wordsmithing in painted form, as they are so effective and indicative of his presence when they occur.
Mr. Ferlinghetti concerns himself with the continuing evolution of female figurative representation extending from Picasso to De Kooning. But, as Diane Roby, archivist of his visual art relates, there are larger issues involved. “He ponders questions of human existence and aspirations.” The two previously paired, along with museum director Kate Eilertsen, to assemble a larger exhibition of Ferlinghetti’s works at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in 2012, “Cross-Pollination: The Art of Lawrence Ferlinghetti,” which explored Ferlinghetti’s painting oeuvre, including those appearing in his most private notebooks, in depth. In a San Francisco Chronicle article appearing at the time of the show, Ferlinghetti stated that, “It’s easier to get high doing a painting. For one thing, it’s more instantaneous. A book – this new book of mine [“Time of Useful Consciousness”] – is two years of work. Whereas a painting, I might have one in a day. I feel like I can take a lot of chances in painting.”
He is the object of a current exhibition in Naples, Italy, based on the saga of Ulysses, organized by Italian curators Giada Diano and Elisa Polimeni. There was a certain pride in his voice as he related this to me at his opening. The coupling of art and literature is very much an ongoing concern for the lyrical poet and figurative artist, one that has been a consuming desire since a student in the late forties at both the Sorbonne and Academie Julien (Robert Rauschenberg was a student there the same year ) in Paris. San Francisco has been blessed to have had Mr. Ferlinghetti in our midst the years since. His latest series of paintings are pure icing on the cake.
For more information visit here.
View an interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in connection with his 2012 Sonoma Valley Museum of Art exhibition, “Cross-Pollination: The Art of Lawrence Ferlinghetti” here.