Sixties

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The curtain, opening to this series of stories, starts with our showing of this drawing at our Electric Works gallery and print studio in San Francisco. It’s by Dave Eggers. Dave Eggers the writer. That one.  We’d had a loose association with his 826 Valencia organization hosting fundraisers at our gallery, etc. So, when Dave came to my son & partner Noah and me asking if he could have a show of some things he was working on….”Uh…sure…you know we’re a couple of years out on our scheduling…” (The suitably vague, gently dismissive gallerist answer… ) “we have rent to pay, staff, materials…you understand” At first glance at the work, love at first sight, Noah and I said pretty much in unison, “How ’bout next Tuesday?!!” After all, hadn’t we touted ourselves as THE LAND of YES? We were the first to show his drawings.

It was in 2010 and I said to Dave “Hey man, I was boots on the ground. Washington, DC. DC was my incubator from 1966 to 1971. I’m gonna tell you. Can I use that image as a cover for my book about that time?”  He gave the OK and a friend from the SF Center for the Book said, “Perfect marketing, you’ll get everyone who hates the sixties, everyone who loves the sixties, everyone who is still bitter they weren’t there and all the reactionaries still mourning the loss of the fifties.”

I was just squeaking out some memoir-y things about that time and the thought of this drawing gave me the oomph to get seriously to work. Retirement from Electric Works in 2016 put more gas in the tank. The cliché of … “if you remember the sixties, you really weren’t there”, is funny, but it’s a lie. We’re talkin’ I-Max, surround sound, best seat in the house memories. More there than there.  “It was not from the vast ventriloquism of sleep’s faded papier-mâché . . .” Wallace Stevens’ line from his poem Not Ideas About the Thing, but the Thing Itself is a truth that helps shape these stories and nothing kills art—the thing itself—faster than Ideas About the Thing. I’ve promised myself to keep this “Boots on the Ground.” After all, the marching order back then was “authentic, 2, 3, 4…authentic 2, 3, 4…

With the other cliché of sex, drugs, & rock-n-roll, you have over 290,000 entries on Amazon alone. ‘Nuf said. This deal-y centers on the move to be an artist in the midst of all the mishegas swirling around. As my grandfather, JP (city of Chicago billiards champ 1916 BTW) said when I confessed I was dropping pre-med studies to follow the art-making path, “You know, you could wind up digging a ditch.” Well, I have in fact dug some ditches and took more than a little joy in the physical labor as a part of the thrust toward DIY. “Authentic, 2, 3, 4…”

I’m crazy about the opening shots of a movie— Stanley Kubrick’s opening credit-roll shots are the very best (start this link for Lolita at the 9:00 mark or 10:56 for Dr. Strangelove). I love the first lines of a poem, opening a menu at a new restaurant — and, as an art student in the sixties in Washington, DC my sculptural work, with what little coherence I was able to muster, centered on the idea of a gate–the threshold of any venture–any dream–the first stroke on a canvas–winding down the driveway to go on a trip. Those sculptures were physical structures exploring the feeling of walking into a new world.

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First Gate 1970

 

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Last Gate: Trees planted in 2003—view from the garden bench.

 

When I laid eyes on that Egger’s drawing it was like the butler in some tony British soap opera opening the door to a many-roomed mansion of memory. Please Don’t tell me about the Sixties. Right…? Right. You bet I will. Please Don’t tell me about the Sixties is written on the theatre curtain of this Vaudeville, and like Vaudeville it’s an entertainment (hopefully) of many diverse acts.

So what/when/where were the 60’s? Everyone knows, no one knows, maybe no one cares? This series of vignettes seen from close-in experience tells you what my sixties were about. I was not among the world-changers, the rock stars, the rabble-rousers with a bull-horn —the big personalities of the 60’s, but I did brush against some. Sometimes I was a coward in the face of power, sometimes I was brave. But the thing I am most earnest about expressing is the idea that the 60’s were about disavowing the status quo, not because it was wrong but because it wasn’t authentic. On top of it, I had dropped my pre-med studies to take up studio art while at George Washington U and at the Corcoran School. Who knows if art school was more authentic, it certainly was funner.  Sometimes in a certain light, I can talk myself into believing the 60’s were the result of Alfred E Neuman poking a finger in the eye of any authority.  I first saw Mad at a summer camp in ’56. “How can they say that? Is that allowed?” That 50’s & 60’s version of Mad Magazine cast a long shadow into what would become underground comics of R. Crumb, Earnie Kovacs’ TV show, Pop Art. Andy Warhol was the original live and in person “What, me worry?” guy.

It was the decade bookended—bookended by what? It certainly wasn’t a number—’60 to ’70 sitting on the shelf of history. Maybe it was bracketed by images—of Jackie, November of ’63 in her bloodied pink suit, her murdered husband in the cargo hold, witnessing Lyndon being sworn in as president on Air Force One—from that image to the image of helicopters shoved off the deck of an aircraft carrier in the abandonment/evacuation of Viet Nam, April 1975. Or maybe, it was bracketed by the Nixon years from when he had lost his bid for the governorship of California in ’62 giving his famous speech “…you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore” to August 9, 1974, hearing Nixon’s public shame in a broadcast to all media outlets, “I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.” A speech I heard on the radio as I sat in the parking lot of the newly-minted Point Reyes National Seashore, organizing my backpack for a  hike into the wilderness area of the park. I marked that moment as the day I moved to California and it marked the end of my personal 60’s.  They may have begun when, in a summer school class of 1960, with 12 other kids and a world-class teacher, set out to do an ecological (unheard of) map of a creek on an abandoned farm in Kankakee, Illinois. Then again, maybe the notion of the 60’s is best defined by Muhammad Ali’s two greatest victories—over Sonny Liston in 1964 and George Forman in 1974.

These stories, I’ve been compiling or telling to my family or anyone who would listen for some time now. I feel a little like Forest Gump somehow retrofitted into all the famous scenes of those days, but I did, I saw a lot of what were headline photos up close and personal. The East Coast version anyway. But though I was no 60’s action figure—I saw, first hand a lot of the violence—recieved some myself and I wanted to “smash the state” —I joined the cadres of those who wanted to build their own shelter, grow their own food, try on a new diet, live an “alternative” life and be authentic. DIY. Start a commune for pity’s sake!

From the movie — Jean de Florette: (1984) A city boy, a bureaucrat tax collector, wanna-be back-to-the-lander, moves to the country to begin a self-sufficient farming life on the farm he inherited. The naïf discovers too late, his neighbors César and nephew Ugolin are plotting to take his land away from him.

Uncle César to Ugolin-“What are they going to grow up there?”

Ugolin-“He says they are going to grow ‘Authentics””

The Sixties I will tell you about is really the ongoing and lasting story of people taking on the incumbency of their own lives in the search for this real-ness. To have an idea and do it on ones’ own terms. After all, there is an Eighth Deadly Sin. It’s called Acedia. Simply, the refusal of the call to your vocation, your “calling”. It’s the sin that causes most personal pain. So these stories become a record of responding to that inner pressure to answer the call—for me, to answer the call to art. In my own process to become…I was once told, in a psycho-therapeutic moment, “to move against the pull of acedia’s gravity, to move against internal resistance, is to add a shovelful of consciousness to the island of self—to ignore it, is to toss that shovel into the ocean where it disappears forever.”

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Who,? Me? Detail from Caravaggio’s The Calling