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Art: Beatnik Crisis

3 minute read

Around Manhattan’s Washington Square early last week, there was hardly a joint that wasn’t a drag. Reason: too much fuzz (cops). Just about any coffeehouse—the Gaslight, the Epitome, the International (behind the White Horse, where Dylan Thomas used to drink), any place, in fact, where the espressos are like Rome’s and the cats are cool—had a freeze on. The copniks, like, had told the beatniks, like, that reading poetry aloud is entertainment, and to have entertainment a joint’s got to have a cabaret license. “We don’t get no bread [money] for this,” pleaded the Gaslight’s Bob Lubin, “so why not coexist?” But the cops, who don’t dig beatniks, kept right on handing out summonses.

Storm center of this culture crisis was Poet-Painter William Morris. 28. who can make with both the words and the brushes. “If Jack Kerouac is the prose writer of the Beat Generation, I am its visual chronicler,” boasts Morris. As a painter, Los Angeles-born Morris once rode a motor scooter from Barcelona (“I cleaned Miro’s studio”) to Denmark (where he painted canvases with his bare feet), has kept a partial record of 25 exhibitions and eight museums in which his work hangs. As a poet, Morris has the word from Ezra Pound (“In 50 years you will be a poet”) and William Carlos Williams (“The total impression is of great beauty”). Three months ago he returned from Paris, where he had read poetry in Left Bank squares and cafes with Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg, soon had all of Manhattan’s beatniks digging it. Sample: “i want to hear once more the bedspring music of your kiss.”

When the cops moved in, Poet Morris exploded. “Until now, poetry hasn’t been considered a crime. This is absolutely ridiculous,” he announced, and made the front page of the New York Herald Tribune. His remarks also attracted the attention of Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm, who was moved to compassion. Taking pen in hand, Commissioner Arm handed down a ruling:

Technically, a beatnik spouting poetry

is an entertainer under law,

But though in violation, to the cops

he’s just a bore.*

He can talk throughout the night if

he doesn’t incite to riot;

We hope he keeps talking till his

audience yells for quiet.

That cooled the crisis, but not Morris, who seized the opportunity to bring his painting to the attention of a wider audience. “I’m sick of what passes for art,” he explains. “I’m for beat, beat like a drum. I’m for action. There isn’t anybody moving in painting. Like they’re all shot. I’m starting a new school—action expressionism. The action signifies the beat behind it.”

Examples of action-expressionism line his basement studio-bedroom—large black canvases slashed with color laid on with a paint roller, brush and palette knife. Requiem for Bird, named for the late Jazz Saxophonist Charlie (“Bird”) Parker, looks like a grey goose hit hard in flight by a charge from a chokebore shotgun. “When I run out of materials, I borrow and steal shamelessly,” says Morris. “After I painted some canvases on the Jack Paar Show, I sold one to a dealer in Chicago. Then I was on CBS and NBC newsreels. I got other customers. They came, but they couldn’t wait to get out of here fast enough. They were afraid to get their mink suits dirty. Ha!”

* Born and reared in Brooklyn, Commissioner Arm has no trouble rhyming law (pronounced lore) and bore.

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