Jul 25, 2014

Words, Image and History Erupt in Ferlinghetti Show at SVMA

Wednesday is free admission to the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, where Lawrence Ferlinghetti showed up for the opening of his newest show on Friday.


There was a lot to do in Sonoma on a Friday night. There was a hula demonstration in the plaza amphitheater. Sebastiani had a barbecue to celebrate the release of their 2010 Malbec. There was "pesticide free" music at Murphys. But the real action was at the, where Beat Royalty held court.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti - writer of "A Coney Island of the Mind," publisher of City Lights Books including Allen Ginsberg's "Howl", and for the last 50 years a painter of idiosyncratic and compelling whimsy - was present at the opening of the newest exhibit at the SVMA, "Cross-Pollination: The Art of Lawrence Ferlinghetti."  The show runs through September 23; admission on Wednesdays is free.

The poet, publisher and artist - Renaissance man would not be too strong a term - sat in a dim spot at the far room of the gallery, surrounded well-wishers, art lovers, literary colleagues and fans who just wanted to shake the hand of a man who made cultural history. If his name is not a household word, perhaps you grew up in the wrong house: it was in mine, and in that of many of the patrons of the arts who were in attendance Friday night.

His works from large brightly decorated canvases to small studies to painted artifacts burst with a vital cross-pollination -- hence the show's title -- of word and image, similar to the expressions of other Beat era artists such as "the Kenneths," Rexroth and Patchen. Lines of poetry, eruptions of ideas, truncated logic and lengthy exposition scrawled their way across portraits and surreal landscapes. This is not technical painting, but it is inspired.

It's how Ferlinghetti has always lived his life, and at 93, he's pretty good at it. Ferlinghetti was a painter first, poet second, pursuing his craft at the Sorbonne in Paris shortly after his naval service in World War II.  But it was his 1955 book A Coney Island of the Mind (published in 1958 by New Directions) that first brought him fame. The collection of poems has been translated into nine languages, with sales of over 1 million copies.

As illustrious as his poetry career has been, it's been running in parallel with his work as a painter - or, perhaps more accurately, visual artist.  His passion for image-making in paintings, drawings, prints, and mixed media that have been widely exhibited, including a major survey exhibition in 2010 in Rome and Calabria. To find them here, in Sonoma, is a coup for the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art for which executive director Kate Eilertsen is justifiably proud. 

Working with Ferlinghetti's curator, Diane Roby, a world-class exhibit has been assembled from the artist's Hunter's Point studio, including some works never before shown. These include a wooden book, a globe painted with the words "The Sun is God", and an ordinary kitchen clock transformed by the poet's restless imagination.

If cross-pollination between word and image is the over-riding theme of the show, it might be argued it's a theme of Ferlinghetti's own life. One of the large canvases in "Cross-Pollination" is a gray and black picture of anguish, with appropriately evocative lines from "Howl." There are works large and small referring to T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and others. His fellow artists, too, are given their props in works for Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh. And a randy Freud dances across the back wall.

Nonetheless, it's his career as a publisher that might be his most noteworthy contribution to culture. He co-founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1952, at Columbus and Broadway in San Francisco. It was the first all-paperback bookstore in the country, and as such became a nexus for the democratization of literature at the birth of the Beat Generation.

Ferlinghetti started publishing in 1955, with his own book of poetry Pictures of the Gone World as the first title. The fourth was Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg, the first time the already controversial poem had seen print. Upon its release in 1957, Ferlinghetti and the bookstore's manager were charged with disseminating obscene literature and arrested. They won the case, and it's safe to say literature - and movies, television, radio, Super Bowl halftime shows and just about every other form of popular arts - have never been the same since.

City Lights Books also published Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, Gregory Corso and William Carlos Williams among others, and Ferlinghetti became a kind of unofficial mentor for Beat poets. There were several current San Francisco poets among the guests at the show's opening on Friday night - and doubtless many poets yet to be published, and artists yet to be shown.

But it's that kind of show: there's some kind of a lightning-rod inside Lawrence Ferlinghetti, drawing fellow creative spirits toward him, and disseminating their energy into the center of the earth.

Cross-Pollination: The Art of Lawrence Ferlinghetti will be on view at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, 551 Broadway in Sonoma, June 23 through September 23, 2012.  The Museum hours are Wednesdays through Sundays 11 am– 5 pm.

Museum admission is $5 general, free for students in grades K-12.  Admission is free for all visitors every Wednesday.  More information about the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art is available online or by calling (707) 939-7862.

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