Grey Art Gallery, New York University
January 15 - April 6, 2013
Some exhibitions command attention through historical significance; others by sheer power of artistic expression. Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg exemplifies what can happen when an exhibition is heavily invested in both “art” and “history”. In this case, the relationship turns parasitic and art becomes little more than an instrument of history. Beat Memories, originally organized by The National Gallery of Art in Washington and curated by the Gallery’s Sarah Greenough, features over eighty photographs by Ginsberg. N.Y.U.’s Fales Library has contributed various archival documents by Beat writers—including Ginsberg’s correspondences, William S. Burroughs’s first drafts, and Gregory Corso’s ink drawings. These float in vitrines throughout the gallery.
Beat Memories could have constituted a revision of our understanding of a modern American legend. Even Ginsberg’s relationship to photography—aleatory and casual—has a certain charm. He undertook photography in earnest in 1953 with a secondhand, pawnshop camera. By 1964, Ginsberg lost the camera. Or misplaced it. Or loaned it. For 20 years, Ginsberg abandoned the art. Then in 1983, Ginsberg would return to photography with a new seriousness. He also reviewed earlier compositions and, following the advice of the famed photographer Berenice Abbott, he added captions in irregular, looping scrawl.
Although Ginsberg’s work demands historical contextualization, the impulse to embed Ginsberg’s subjects in a larger context encourages viewers to see his photographs as biographical documents for a Beat hagiology, not as art objects. This preference for the historical has a cost. It is easy to pour over unremarkable shots of puckish Peter Orlovsky or “Bill” Burroughs while artistic gems capturing anonymous subjects go unnoticed. At their best, Ginsberg’s photographs possess an accidental charm and incidental tragedy akin to works of Helen Levitt or mentor Robert Frank. The best qualities of Ginsberg’s early style are in evidenced in an image of Ginsberg’s father and stepmother, “Louis and Edith Ginsberg:” the play of light and shadow, the enlistment of inanimate objects as players in human drama, the coaxing of foreground and background into an oblique dialogue on melancholic estrangement, as the subjects are positioned together but seem miles apart. Similarly, it is easier to star-gaze at a beaming Madonna while other photographs featuring subjects who seem to splinter under the very weight of living or pulse with expression languish, displayed on a less prominent wall.
Documentary and aesthetic interests are not always incompatible. Many of Ginsberg’s photographs would attract attention even if they had not been taken by a famous poet, and were not images of some of the brightest stars in the Beat firmament. “Jack Kerouac the last time” (1964) reveals Kerouac not as a jubilant youth but truculently seated on a demure armchair in Ginsberg’s apartment, seemingly lost to a nightmare, suspended between visceral terror and perfect dissociation. Less grim is “Neal Cassady with cigarette;” (1955). Cassady’s smoldering, palpable, erotic vitality as he surveys used cars contrasts greatly with the slump-shouldered salesman who leans forward with his toes turned inward. Cassady stands upright, commanding the moment like an accidental kouros of Ancient Greece. These are visions charged with profound, aching intimacy.
Beat Memories contains much that is surprising and moving—but to experience it one has to resist becoming lost in the folds of cultural history. The temptation to neglect aesthetic engagement with these photographs is understandable; when treated as historical records, Ginsberg’s photographs endow viewers with momentary divinity, proffering experience of time as St. Augustine once imagined it, not a single unfolding present, but as three-pronged thing composed of past memory, anticipation of the future, and the evanescent “now” that their embrace creates. Through Ginsberg’s photographs, viewers discover a borrowed prescience—we can foresee the future and grasp the past with a singular authority, knowing it better than the subjects might have.
Yet, this intoxicating “knowledge” is deceptive, imperfect. Ginsberg penned different captions for different copies of the same print. This exhibition displays one version of the past, the version that Ginsberg remembered a certain way, on a certain day, in a certain humor. One of the most poignant photographs depicts Cassady “and his love of that year …” That’s the caption that exhibition-goers will read. A different copy, absent from the exhibition, reads: “his love that year before her suicide.” Eschewing the mercy of euphemism alters understanding of that image and the past it documents.
To allow the historical weight of Ginsberg’s photography to obscure its place as art-objects is problematic on historical as well as artistic grounds. If seduced by the potent documentary force of Beat Memories, we risk looking beyond Ginsberg’s photographs rather than at them, but the past we think we see is contingent and often—as Ginsberg’s interviews reveal—staged. More than this, though, we miss the chance to reassess a seminal American figure. Ginsberg was not always a master photographer, but his work is worthy of critical assessment. In this exhibition, interpretive guides encourage viewers to identify significant photographs through historical context, obliquely related documents are assembled in a way that tacitly allows a first edition of “Naked Lunch” to make the same claim for attention that a starkly beautiful photograph of an unknown aging Eastern European grandmother does. These choices threaten to make Ginsberg’s photographs a delightful, inadvertent documentary of Beat personalities alone. In the process, Beat Memories becomes but a stirring history lesson. And it can be so much more.