Fantastic Fifties – Part 1
Artists of the Wichita group – Bombers and Bohemiansby James Johnson
America changed in the 1950s. After decades of hardship and sacrifice born by the Depression and World War II, our culture exploded into the dominant economic and artistic forces that has shaped the entire world. With the post war conversion to a consumer society, the American identity that we understand emerged with gusto. Defining characteristics such as Suburbia, Materialism, and Conformity produced a “Donna Reed /Leave it To Beaver” identity spread by television and held dear by a largely white, educated middle class. But there were other forces at work — an alternative personality seeking another definition of American life. They were called the Beats. Often thought of as a coastal movement (New York and San Francisco), the Beat Generation grew from all parts of our country — including Kansas.
In fact, so many well-known Beat era artists and writers came from Wichita, the poet Allen Ginsberg made a famous visit in February 1966 to “see where McClure and Conner came from” and wrote one of his most powerful works — WICHITA VORTEX SUTRA. Michael McClure and Bruce Conner (along with publisher David Haselwood) played such important roles in the art and literature of the American Beat scene that they are called “the Wichita Group”. A product of East High and Wichita University, they were the first of many young Kansans who would be a part of the new culture that would shape the artistic future of America.
Michael McClure was born in Marysville, Kansas in 1932. He moved to Wichita from the Seattle area in 1945. Although a writer, McClure always produced art. Influenced by the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollack, McClure’s artworks exhibit the psychological power of pure human emotion — the animal within — that characterizes his poetry. In his work GHOST MOTHER POET VISION we see the “drip” style of Pollack combined with a sketchy, dream-like drawing. The work is very personal, but not literal. These are symbols — or impressions of symbols — that recall the universal power of Motherhood. In the drawing BLACKSILVER WATERFALL; SONATA FOR BRUCE CONNER we see a slightly different McClure, this one autobiographical, referring to his friendship with Wichitan Bruce Conner which has endured for over 50 years.
Bruce Conner was born in McPherson in 1933. His father moved the family to Wichita in 1937 where he became the Wichita regional manager of the Dillons grocery stores. Bruce attended Hyde Elementary School, Robinson Junior High, East High School, and Wichita University. He moved to San Francisco in 1957 at the height of the Beat Renaissance. Already an exhibiting artist (his first New York show was in 1956) Conner would soon redefine two different artistic mediums — sculpture and films — and become one of this country’s most influential artists.
Prominent as an assemblage artist Conner made art from materials at hand, often using debris from the surrounding San Francisco neighborhoods. The work UNTITLED 1954 is an excellent example. The Victorian frame becomes a part of the work generating a sense of mystery or past memories that are reflected in the drawing. This is one of the earliest extant examples of his assemblage process.
For all his fame as an artist, Bruce Conner may be more important as a filmmaker. His first film, A MOVIE (1958), was constructed from discarded film stock from old movies, newsreels, and government films. Conner edited the unrelated film stock into a coherent, profound movie. It immediately changed the way we look at films and became influential to later filmmakers like Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Peter Sellers. More importantly he is credited with being the progenitor of music video, a distinction he reluctantly accepts. In 1988 Bruce Conner was awarded the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement for independent filmmakers and in 1992 A MOVIE was inducted into the Library of Congress Film Registry just ahead of Walt Disney’s PINNOCHIO.
In 1983 the writer William Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas. becoming the final Beat giant to be associated with Kansas. He, along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac are the original Beatniks. Each became larger than life, with legions of admirers worldwide. Their successes and tragedies are repeated as a kind of cultural myth that approached religion. This is illustrated in Burroughs graphic work SOMETHING NEW HAS BEEN ADDED. This work is a lithograph by the English illustrator Ralph Steadman which Burroughs has modified by adding 18 bulletholes, all documented as to the weapon and ammunition. It is reference to his lifelong fondness of guns and their role in his sometimes tragic life.
America changed in the 1950s. Brilliant minds burst forth and expressed ideas that shocked and inspired. Nothing would ever be the same. Art, music, literature and lifestyles began a trip that lead down the post modern highway that would travel from the Beats, to Hippies, Punks, Grunge, Xers, etc. It is impossible to imagine the freedom of these ideas without the enormous first step of the Beat generation, whose honesty and bravery in the face of a hostile culture opened the doors of what is acceptable for all who followed.
© 2001 by James Wallace Johnson. All Rights Reserved.