Unfettered personal expression in the 1950s: the Beat Generation and the Abstract Expressionists
While the 1950s are popularly remembered as a decade of “button down” conformity, the postwar era saw the rise of two groups of American writers and artists who broke with tradition and social norms in an exaltation of unfettered personal expression.
The Beat Generation scandalized the country with their licentious lives and confessional writings. Allen Ginsberg’s rousing poem Howl (1956), Jack Kerouac’s semi-fictional novel On the Road (1957), and William S. Burroughs’s acerbic satire Naked Lunch (1959) spurned materialism, reveled in sexuality, and celebrated the use of illegal drugs. The writers were in turn reviled as “beatniks,” conflating the popular conception of bohemia with juvenile delinquency, another perceived social threat of the times.
The Abstract Expressionists, a loose group of modern artists that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, were breaking boundaries in the visual arts at roughly the same time. While they did not make their equally unconventional personal lives public, their work elicited the same type of shocked reactions from the media and the public as the Beats did, such as Pollock being called “Jack the Dripper” in a famous 1956 article in Time titled “The Wild Ones” (partly in reference to “The Wild One,” a film about motorcycle gangs starring Marlon Brando).
Legendary Magnum photographer Burt Glinn captured many of the key protagonists in these movements in the late 1950s. In the images included here, we see a table at the legendary jazz club the Five Spot that includes sculptor David Smith, painters Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, and Grace Hartigan, and poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. There are also iconic images of Jack Kerouac performing at the Seven Arts Café, and Frankenthaler and Hartigan with fellow painter Joan Mitchell at an art opening.
You can find these and many other fascinating photographs of these seminal figures in the Magnum Photos collection in the Artstor Digital Library. Search for upper bohemians to find Glinn’s 1957 series that includes writers and artists of the Abstract Expressionist scene, and beatniks to see his 1959 series on the writers and poets of the Beat Generation.