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Allen Ginsberg: Photographs

Supervert's review of an exhibit featuring the photographs of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Originally published in Artforum Magazine (December 1995).

Exhibit at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York

Like the other Beats of the post-war years, Allen Ginsberg upheld an aesthetic that — contrary to the modernist formalism prevailing at the time — emphasized the values of directness, immediacy, and lived experience. It was a kind of a-formalism that freed its practitioners from pursuing purity of medium and enabled them to sow their creativity in a variety of fields. William Burroughs added collage and painting to his writing, Paul Bowles added writing to his music, and Allen Ginsberg took up photography alongside his poetry. Given the pictures exhibited in Ginsberg's show — some from the halcyon 1950s and 60s, some recent, in either case mostly portraits, unpretentious in form, personal in content, all in black and white — he appears to treat photography as though it were a relatively unmediated art form, much in the documentary manner of his peer Robert Frank. The handwritten captions added to each photograph reinforce the documentary effect: "William Burroughs sitting up in back bedroom waiting for my company, we slept together and worked on Yage Letters and Queer manuscripts," writes Ginsberg, specifying place (206 E. 7th St. #16, Lower East Side) and date (Fall, 1953) beneath a particularly cute picture of Burroughs — a rare glimpse of the normally suit-clad writer tastefully naked in bed but with his hair tousled and face traversed by a definite come-fuck-me expression.

While the Beat aesthetic which continues to form the core of Ginsberg's philosophy may have derived its initial force from so much derring-do in the face of experience, nevertheless out of its own strength it has spun a dilemma now evident in the body of Ginsberg's photographs. It is the logical conclusion of what Nietzsche called the artist's "evil eye," the tendency to watch oneself having experiences: if the art is so heavily dependent on personal experience, what happens when the artist starts to slow down? When the blood runs too thin for adventure? Looking at Ginsberg's exhibition as a whole, you can't help but be struck by two predominant groupings of pictures: guys in their creative prime in the 1950s, and the same guys in "Whatever happened to...?" pictures of the 1990s — Herbert Huncke, "here age 78 settled in Methadon program," or even Burroughs sounding like a retired postal clerk, "he has his hobbies, painting, writing, feeding his cats & goldfish in the backyard pond." Self-Portrait, 1991, shows Ginsberg naked and wizened taking his own picture in a hotel room mirror, his potbelly protruding below his bony shoulders like a hair-covered tumor grafted onto a thin person. On one hand, it's laughable, the great Experience of the Artist amounting to wandering motels as he does readings and book signings; but on the other hand, Ginsberg knows that it's laughable, that he has a big funny potbelly, but he has the balls to take — to exhibit — the picture anyway. It's not unlike those late self-portraits by Rembrandt, and if it's almost enough to scare you away from the literary life, it's not because the picture shows what the literary man becomes, but because of the sheer courage it displays in admitting the truth in all its humiliating detail.