So it speaks to the thoughtfulness of John Held Jr.’s curation of disparate materials that there is a sort of quietude and intimacy to the exhibition as a whole, that is sorely lacking among Beat culture retrospectives that easily slip into an oblique antagonism toward the Mainstream Art Establishment (whatever that is).
The show is loosely organized around several Bay Area spaces in the ’50s as centers for creation and interaction between visual artists and their “poet brethren.” The modest collection of works is supplemented by accompanying documents and ephemera from the mostly alternative galleries. The exhibition literature, posters and announcements that were on display spoke directly to my cold, dead, visual culture-loving heart. There is unexpected poignancy in the tiny, minimalist collages of Fred Martin, and a self-deprecating humor in his Ray Johnson-esque mail art, sent in response to a rejection letter from…a prominent gallery? A lover? I don’t remember, but it was a box of rocks labeled “immortality pills.” Vintage photographs by Jerry Burchard portray local Beat-generation icons like Jay DeFeo and Bruce Conner in refreshingly un-iconic repose. “Beat by the Bay” manages to unearth fresh and relevant imagery in an unpretentious manner, which is no easy feat given the current fleshing out of every nook and cranny of mid-century West Coast art not to mention a half-century of commercial beatification of the Beats.
At any rate, it beats looking at another photo of Ginsberg’s junk.