Not very sexy undergarments with phrases like “I Hate Men,” “I Am Gay,” and “I Am Not Gay” hang everywhere in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s studio. The work is simple, yet visionary. It lambastes labels as ignorant and renders sexuality irrelevant. His pieces aren’t just outside the box; they blow the box to smithereens. The painted underwear is part of his new Fluxus series that will be exhibited in Rome in May. The event will be kicked off by a city-sponsored public reading of Ferlinghetti’s poetry. Then, beautiful models will strut down the catwalk in the barely wearable art, sporting slogans like, “Would you like to Flux with me tonight.”
Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco studio is full of wit, anarchy and biting social commentary. The keen poet, painter and publisher, has truly changed the world. He revolutionized literature by opening City Lights Bookstore in the 1950’s, making quality, diverse reading affordable and giving West Coast radicalism a permanent home. Ferlinghetti ensured the Beats were heard, fought for free speech and had the balls to publish Howl. His own poems tell stories about the tragic-yet-comical life of the common man. They rip mass society and blow off steam about the betrayal of our democratic leaders. His political paintings combine gripping imagery with the written word and – like their author – aren’t afraid to take a stand.
In an industry starving for statements of relevance, Ferlinghetti’s work and vision ask the art world to wake up. “How long has it been since any prominent North American painter has made any important statements?” he asks. “I don’t know, it seems like they’re all asleep. And they can have nice dreams. It’s OK with me.” Ferlinghetti believes the digital revolution has shifted art’s consciousness from reality to virtual reality. The result has been fat attitudes and bloated investments. “In the art world, everyone is too well fed,” he says. “Generally, art has become a leisure-class activity in this country.” Ferlinghetti says many collectors are only interested in “pretty art” or “have-a-nice-day art.” With a shrug of the shoulders he says, “People come into galleries and they want a green painting to match a green wall.”
For more than 30 years, Ferlinghetti has rented a studio at the old Navy shipyard at Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. Painters, sculptors and craftsmen all work there. It’s one of only a few safe havens in an otherwise rough neighborhood. Long steel bars barricade buildings on the drive through the crime-riddled area. Faces full of hardship look lost as they wait aimlessly on street corners.
A guard greets visitors to the shipyard, a gravel road leads to building 101 and puddles cover potholes the whole way. Ferlinghetti’s building is plain in a minimalist-military kind of way. The walk upstairs to his studio on the second floor is hollow. Water stains make the ceiling look like something you’d see in a sewer. White walls and dim lights enclose the long, meat-locker-cold hallway. Halfway down on the left around the corner the numbers “2301” and the name “Ferlinghetti” are hand-painted above a plain door. The font appears to be more of an announcement than a welcome. Two screws hold a silver pie tin in place on the door. The words “Atelier Lumière” are painted on the outer rim with “The Studio of Light” painted inside it.
Ferlinghetti’s studio space is big, old and cold. A plug-in heater sputters on the floor, but does no good. The thin windows are no match for the wind whipping up off the water. The view out toward the southeast sliver of the bay includes no famous landmarks, and the area’s character appears lost in the brown sea below. Despite its bleak surroundings, this studio has produced decades of creative and provocative work. It’s as if an over-stuffed vacuum bag full of wisdom has been dumped within these walls. Fedoras, top hats, stylish ball caps – there are so many hats everywhere, and similar to his life, he’s worn them all. Smack dab in the middle of his paint-splattered, utensil-littered workman’s table is a clean, unbent, black-and-white bumper sticker that says “America Eats its Young.” Its perfect placement says so much.
Narrative paintings pack the place. They scream independence, and their anti-establishment messages echo off the walls. One Ferlinghetti piece depicts an execution at Sing Sing prison. The caption above the lifeless body in an electric chair reads, “This is Not a Man.” Then there’s the depth of a 20-year work in progress called “The Death of Neal Cassady.” The piece tells the story of the main character in Kerouac’s classic On the Road. The words “Cocksman” and “Adonis” appear above the womanizing railroad worker. Train tracks cover Cassady’s dead body, who croaked in real life after a night of hard partying next to a desolate railroad in Mexico.
Ferlinghetti has racks full of storied canvases, including a photo projection piece of Picasso he finished in 1992. Women’s body parts and a bull’s head are painted in the background, and next to the master’s face are the defacing words, “Les femmes disent que tu es un con.”
An exhibition of some of his most intriguing art just wrapped at the Yerba Buena Center. The 14-foot tarps from the series are now rolled up in Ferlinghetti’s studio. They had hung for just three days in the former Bank of America building in San Francisco. But tenants complained and the work was taken down. The sexual, religious and environment-laced art contain statements like “Too stupid and too greedy to save himself from eco-oblivion,” “Silence is complicity,” and “Never play cards with a guy called Doc.” One of the pieces, titled “Jesus Christ Discovers America,” shows Jesus nailed to a cross on a small wooden boat in the Atlantic. In “Bath of Breasts,” a man relaxes in a tub full of floating tits.
But it’s not just the paintings that make this place so special – a pair of green cargo pants with a yuppie, brown belt is attached to the wall. A baseball bat hangs out the zipper. It’s hard to tell if it’s the guy’s dick or his brain – maybe it’s the same thing. Around the corner, near a side window, a mannequin is elevated on a platform. William Burroughs’ poem “I Am Dying Meester?” is taped to her belly. She is naked, bald and handless, all dolled-up with lipstick and eye shadow, and is as “cut-up” as Burrough’s poem itself. A picture of Walt Whitman decorates a wall. A thick copy of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way rests on top of an Elmer Bischoff art book.
Like his environment, Ferlinghetti’s mind is constantly shuffling through its stored encyclopedia of authors, artists and movements. He encourages independent thinking, and would rather sweep the floor than have to explain something. This is evident from the broom in one corner of his studio. It has a painter’s cap atop its handle with a sign that reads “Process Driven Art.” Ferlinghetti has no desire to be a professor and believes the work, not the lips, should do an artist’s talking. “The art has to make it on its own without explanations or explications,” he says. “And it’s the same for poetry. If the poem or the painting has to be explained, then it’s a failure in communication.”
Ferlinghetti never minces words. He’s too sharp for that. He was born in 1919, and then the calendar forgot to age him. Wrinkles pretty much left his face alone. The white whiskers that may have skipped a few pores give him wisdom. He dresses like a hip artist in a tweed jacket and jeans with a designer black hat and neatly tied red scarf. A small hoop earring is fastened to his right lobe. Unfortunately, glaucoma has crept into this visionary’s eye. While illness may soon prevent him from painting, he’ll be damned if the government will. When Diane Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco, she tried to kick Ferlinghetti and all the other artists out of the shipyard to make way for a development project at Hunter’s Point. That didn’t go over so well with Ferlinghetti. “She sent a questionnaire around asking what kind of similar facilities we would accept if we were forced to move out,” he says. “And I wrote on the questionnaire, ‘They’ll have to carry us out like the squatters in Amsterdam.’ Of course, I never heard from her again.” He takes a deep breath and makes one last dig: “And she’s a disgrace to the Democratic Party these days, anyway.”
Ferlinghetti treats political opinions like friends he’s forced to hang out with. Instead of the controversial work, he says he’d much rather paint lyrical pieces. But just as those escapist words are spoken, the anachronistic lout on his other shoulder takes over, and without provocation, Ferlinghetti gets pissed off. “Bush and Cheney are international war criminals who should be in jail!” he exclaims. “They should be tried in the Hague, for crimes against humanity. I hope they both end up in jail along with some of their cohorts.” It’s not just the current administration that gets him going. “It’s a culture of corruption,” he contends. “Democrats are almost as bad as the Republicans as far as having been bought off with big money. Anyone who has been in Congress for any length of time has been feeding at the trough of corporate money. The whole system is totally corrupt from top to bottom.” He throws his hands up as if asking for understanding. “You see, it’s against my will. I don’t write a political poem or do a political painting unless I have to.”
There are other crusades that he champions as well like the environment. If a conversation is steered down that road, prepare to buckle up. “Every big city in the world is under constant attack from the automobile. It’s what I call ‘Autogeddon,'” he says. Cars have destroyed cities by polluting them, bogging them down in traffic jams and generally making them uglier by the criss-crossing mazes of monster concrete. But Ferlinghetti says there has been a reverse trend lately with San Francisco leading the way in taking down freeways and improving public transportation.
Ferlinghetti has called San Francisco home since 1951. He traveled cross-country by train that winter and took a ferry over from Oakland. “San Francisco was still a small city then,” he reflects. “It was like seeing Tunis from the sea. It was very Mediterranean looking. There were hardly any buildings that weren’t white and there were no skyscrapers. Now do you realize that there are twice as many people in San Francisco as there were in 1951 and twice as many people in the world for that matter? It’s really hard to believe. So there are twice as many scoundrels and twice as many idealists.”
Life was never handed to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Born in New York, he lost both parents before he ever got to know them. As a toddler he was raised by his aunt, partly in France, where he learned to speak French first. Lawrence spent a year in an orphanage back in the states. He became an Eagle Scout and learned the value of a dollar by working his way through school. During WWII he started out as a midshipman, and later became the skipper of a U.S. Navy subchaser and watched Americans die during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. “We could look through binoculars and see these poor dough boys getting blown up on the beaches. It was terrible,” he says. “Wave after wave of American troops would land, and before they got established on the beach, half of them would be blown up.” Six weeks after the bomb dropped in Nagasaki, Ferlinghetti saw it for himself. The devastation turned him into a lifelong pacifist.
Before the war, he did his undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. One of his heroes, Thomas Wolfe, had gone there, and it was a school he could afford (room and board was $30 a month). The G.I. Bill paid for his graduate degree at Columbia. Then it was back to Paris where he earned a Doctorate de L’Université from the Sorbonne in 1950. That year, Ferlinghetti did his first painting at the Academie Julien. It was a small, black and white drawing in the style of Jean Cocteau that left him hooked on art. Because of his East Coast roots he identified with Abstract Expressionists like Kline and de Kooning. For a decade, he tried what he calls a “farcical attempt” at that style. Non-objective art just wasn’t his thing. In the 1970’s, he made the switch to figurative, bringing live models into his studio. Soon, he began adding words to the images and his signature style was born. Narratives exploded off the canvas as he incorporated his own poetry and lines borrowed from Blake, Cummings and Eliot. It took time for his art to get its due recognition. By then, Ferlinghetti had already made a name for himself with a pen.
Revolutionary movements in art and literature in the Bay Area began during the free spirited, post-war 1950’s, and Ferlinghetti was a key figure. He came to San Francisco with a collection of degrees and a gift for writing, but was politically naïve when he landed on California soil. He got an education in dissidence real fast on the left coast. “San Franciscans had that island mentality,” he says. “They considered themselves part of an off-shore republic, not really part of the United States. I had never even heard of a conscientious objector until I got out here. I really got a political education from listening to (famed poet) Kenneth Rexroth on KPFA. He called himself a philosophical anarchist.” Ferlinghetti began challenging accepted norms. He put all his ideas on paper, layering multiple-meanings under simple language and eventually became a dean of San Francisco poetry. Dozens of his poetry books have been published, including A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), which continues to be the most popular poetry book in the U.S. with nearly one million copies in print.
In 1953, Ferlinghetti expanded his portfolio by opening City Lights Bookstore & Publishing Co. with Peter D. Martin. The funky store was filled to the brim with struggling-but-worthy authors. Best-sellers have never been welcomed. City Lights changed the culture and availability of literature, becoming the first all-paperback bookstore in the country. From the outset, the goal was to make books and poetry affordable and to offer an extremely diverse selection. “When I arrived in San Francisco, bookstores closed at 5 or 6 PM,” Ferlinghetti reflects. “And they weren’t open on the weekends. We were the first to stay open past midnight seven nights a week.” City Lights was also one of the first to stock its shelves full of periodicals that spanned the gamut from the far right to far left.
Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and others began hanging out at City Lights. The building on Broadway and Columbus in North Beach became a permanent home for West Coast radicalism. The writers, later dubbed Beatniks, were mostly carpetbaggers from New York who did dope and psychedelic drugs. They questioned social and political consciousness. Interestingly, the Beats and Bay Area Figurative painters rarely crossed paths. The painters were older, drank lots of booze, played jazz and hung out near the San Francisco Art Institute. They didn’t share in the dissent that the writers felt some eight blocks away on Columbus Avenue. Ferlinghetti was careful not to be pigeonholed in either group – Frank Lobdell painted in the same building at 9 Mission St. where Ferlinghetti had his first studio, inherited from Hassal Smith, and Kerouac based his novel Big Sur in Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Bixby Canyon, Big Sur.
In 1955, Ferlinghetti began publishing his Pocket Poetry Series. The paperbacks were small, slick and cheap. For many readers, they served as an introduction to avant-garde poetry and have featured everything from Beats to translations of European poetry. It was the fourth edition of the Pocket Poetry Series in 1956 that garnered national attention and solidified Ferlinghetti’s role as a renegade. “Poets and artists should be enemies of the state,” Ferlinghetti said. He put his own freedom on the line to back it up. Ginsberg had written a poem called Howl that castigated America’s consumer society. Ferlinghetti knew the language was rough, but believed in its message. So he published it.
After a police officer bought Howl at City Lights, Ferlinghetti and book clerk Shigayoshi Murao were arrested on obscenity charges. The ACLU represented him in SF Municipal Court for free. The landmark First Amendment case got the nation talking about free speech and made the Beats famous. After a couple months of testimony, the judge sided with Ferlinghetti, ruling that Howl was not obscene. The case established a key legal precedent for the publication of other controversial literature with redeeming social importance. The ruling reinforced the Beats platform, and they certainly had lots left to say. They first articulated many of the main themes of the 1960’s hippie counter-culture, and paved the way for the racial and gender equality movements, as well as the ecological revolution.
Today, City Lights continues to be one of the most popular independent bookstores in the world. In 1997, the city named Ferlinghetti the first Poet Laureate of San Francisco. During his acceptance speech he said, “I’d rather be Poet Laureate of San Francisco than anywhere, because this city has always been a poetic center, a frontier for free poetic life, with perhaps more poets and more poetry readers than any city in the world.” Ferlinghetti offered suggestions to make the city a better place, including banning chain stores, protecting North Beach as a “historic district,” and giving bicycles and pedestrians priority over automobiles. He also suggested painting Golden Gate Bridge gold, tilting Coit Tower like Pisa, and demanding that the Blue Angels not dive-bomb the city every year.
Ferlinghetti is a modern day Renaissance Man: a poet with an eloquent and stylish way of speaking and interpreting the written word; a publisher known for encouraging dissident voices; an artist who sees painting as an insurgent art, an entrepreneur who has knocked down establishment doors, and a thinker who inspires visionary alternatives to accepted norms.
Although he would be the last to say so, Ferlinghetti’s knowledge is profound and his accomplishments are voluminous. Having made his mark on the world, it’s back to lyric painting and Italian women’s underwear -and that’s just the mother Fluxus way he wants it.
Written by: Ben Bamsey
Photography by: Gina Taro