LIT. PAINT — LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI
by Anthony Torres
Lit. Paint, an exhibition of recent paintings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti originated by George Krevsky Gallery in San Francisco, is on exhibit at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock, New York (August 9–September 15). Ferlinghetti charts a new direction in this body of work, conjoining literary and art historical discourses through a fusion of abstraction, figuration and textualization.
Best known as a literary icon, poet, and publisher, Ferlinghetti is also a visual artist who began painting in the early 1950’s and developed an affinity for Abstract Expressionism and such artists as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and seems equally connected to the concerns of what became known as Bay Area Figurative, a movement associated with such artists as David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Nathan Oliveira. The paintings on display seem to share Abstract Expressionism’s concern with extreme subjectivity, emphasis on painterly process, and essentials of medium, as well as Bay Area Figurative’s union of figuration with these formal concerns.
Ferlinghetti’s new paintings function as existential utterances aimed at articulating a desire for social transformation manifested through gestural painterly intensity and placement of textual references, which allude to historical, social, and literary themes that inform the content of the work.
This conflation of pictorial elements is evidenced in a work like Promises Made in the Plazas (After S.F. Street Poet), 2002, formed by a torn paper poster of Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican peasant revolutionary, placed on a blackboard that exclaims in chalk, “Promises made in the plazas will be betrayed in the back country.” The work functions as a political placard, revealing a sensibility that many of the pieces share, a kind of angst, alienation and discontent with contemporary life, which feeds the way that many of the pieces in the exhibition work.
The Hand that Signed the Paper (after Dylan Thomas), 2002 (oil on canvas, 44×56 inches), juxtaposes the statement “The hand that signed the paper felled a city” with a dislocated hand that reaches out in a gesture of desperation from a white field of brush strokes. This work functions as an emblematic assertion that is more concerned with making an immediate personal statement than with concentrating on, or serving as a vehicle for, formal investigation of painterly structures. In fact, the impassioned expressionist gestures that are characteristic of much of the work reflect none of the subtlety or virtuosity that would suggest that they are constructed with an eye toward painterly sophistication, and never permit the viewer to be seduced by form, color, or technique. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to say that the paintings display the richness and complexity possible through a synthesis of a painterly dialectic of shape and color with figurative and formal elements, favoring instead the articulation of a personal sentiment that is social and countercultural.
Ferlinghetti’s utopian desire for social transformation is manifested in this work through the employment of art historical images and literary passages that bridge a gap to transgress demarcations between the visual and textual. The placement of text on these canvases reveals the nature of language as both material marks and socially legible symbols, simultaneously functioning as compositional elements and as slogans that infuse the images with historically specific references and meanings. This strategy, whether conscious or unconscious, speaks to the interrelationship between art history and literature, and in the process raises the issue of how textually-based construction of visual meaning is formed through literary interpretation and, conversely, the idea that paintings are texts which here can literally be “read” as personal and political statements.
This essay first appeared in Art Papers, November/December 2003.