Sunday, July 6, 2008

Robert & Jack at the IMA....

"That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that's what Robert Frank has captured in the tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eig ht states in an old used car (on Guggenhiem Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genuis, sadness, and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film." - Jack Kerouac, from his introduction to The Americans.

It was a good 4th of July. Our friend Laura drove over from Indiana, PA ("I'd come more often if we could move Ohio") with her miniature Daschund, Dash, and we went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in the afternoon.

Laura is a fabric artist and interested in all related things; the museum had a display of a bunch of original Halston gowns, which were nice, but not my reason for wanting to go.

I wanted to see "the scroll."

Drawing on his notes and journals from his cross-country travels from 1947-50, Jack Kerouac wrote his first draft of On the Road over a three week period in April of 1951. Kerouac taped sheets of teletype paper together so they would run through his manual typewriter, enabling him to keep his flow of writing uninterrupted. The result was a 120-foot continuous “scroll” manuscript.

In May of 2001 Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts NFL team, paid $2.4 million dollars at auction for the original scroll. The purchase sparked some controversy in the Art World at the time and generated a very, very strange feature article in an August 2002 issue of The Chicago Tribune.

After a rocky start, Irsay has become a very responsible owner, first allowing the rare documents experts at Indiana University to take the fragile roll of paper and stabilize its condition, then sending the scroll, in effect, "on the road" across the US. The scroll began its official tour in Orlando in January 2004 and is scheduled to conclude at the end of 2009.

At the IMA the scroll is in a long glass case stretched out to a bit over half its length (for the second half of its stay it will be switched to reveal the last section). Off to the side of the gallery is a small room with a small desk and an old Underwood typewriter, the same vintage that Kerouac used, in which a scroll of paper has been inserted and visitors are invited to sit down and type whatever stream of consciousness words might come to mind. The keys of the typewriter are in dire need of some oil and stick together pretty much every time you type a letter which, I suspect, is intended to encourage brevity.

In 1959 Kerouac went on the Steve Allen television program and read a passage from his novel while Allen played a piano accompaniment. It is one of the many examples of why the 1950s were way, way hipper than we were lead to believe. I can't imagine what a comparable thing on network TV in 2008 could be.

Later, Kerouac wrote:

remembering that awful time only a year earlier when I had to rehearse my reading of prose a third time under the hot lights of the Steve Allen Show in the Burbank Studio, one hundred technicians waiting for me to start reading, Steve Allen watching me expectant as he plunks the piano, I sit there on the dunce's stool and refuse to read a word or open my mouth, "I don't have to REHEARSE for God's sake Steve!" - "But go ahead, we just wanta get the tone of your voice, just this last time, I'll let you off the dress rehearsal" and I sit there sweating not saying a word for a whole minute as everybody watches, finally I say "No I can't do it" and I go across the street and get drunk, but surprising everybody the night of the show by doing my job of reading just fine, which surprises the producers and so they take me out with a Hollywood starlet who turns out to be a big bore trying to read me her poetry and won't talk love because in Hollywood man, love is for sale.

But the big surprise for me was the exhibit of eighty-two original Robert Frank photographs that are set up to surround the scroll. I think Franks images are to the American landscape what Henri Cartier-Bresson's are to the streets of Paris. The photos on display all come from his collection, The Americans, described very well at a Yale website:

"In 1955, the Swiss photographer Robert Frank traveled throughout the United States by car and returned with a bleak portrait of what the American road had to offer. As Kerouac writes in his introduction, Frank's photographs had "sucked a sad, sweet, poem out of America," a sadness found in the forlorn looks of dime store waitresses, funeral attendees, and human faces rendered unrecognizable in the glare of jukeboxes. The slightly offset angles and the blurred focus of many of the photographs suggest the nervousness and dislocation of the people they capture. Frank dispels any romantic notions of the lingering pioneer spirit of America by presenting a landscape of people and places absent of hope and promise."

The third photograph above, the bell of the Sousaphone under the patriotic bunting, titled "Political Rally" violates most rules of photographic composition and presents a timeless image of the banality of the American political process. I don't like to play favorites, but it's the one to beat.


Jon said...

Hi, found you through Musical Family Tree. Thanks for pointing out 'Political Rally'. I agree with you. I tried my hand at photography a long time ago. I had a favorite picture, a portrait of a kid I knew. All of the teachers and fellow photographers in my life told me that it was a bad picture, the composition was all wrong. Then they would point to other pics and assure me that I showed real promise. Years later, that portrait is my favorite. It holds up better than anything else I did.

The San Francisco MOMA had a show on the beats a few years ago. It concentrated more on the followers, the beat 'scene' on the west coast. I really enjoyed it. I hope to see the Kerouac scroll.

I enjoy your blog. Stick around at MFT.

Stan Denski said...

Thanks! MFT is a pretty large and sprawling place but I'll keep looking around. Tell your friends about this blog, the more readers the better.

John Barlow said...

Morton Feldman once said, "What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment -- maybe, say, six weeks, nobody understood art. That's why it all happened."

Laura said...

Nice job on the Frank exhibit. I like museums. I like the way they display things, well lit on a plain background and so on. If the art is good, it really shows it off. You can't disguise bad art in a setting like that. As much as I liked the exhibit, it gave me this weird disjointed feeling because the photos, The Scroll, had been, I dunno, ripped out of context. The photos stand alone, no doubt, but I could almost feel them gasping for air in such a sterile environment.

Stan Denski said...

I agree that the gallery felt a bit odd, but I think it's because it is a challange for any museum to display a work that is eight and a half inches wide and one hundred and twenty-four feet long (the scroll). It makes sense to present the Frank photos with the scroll, but it forces it to be done in a room that can hold the 84 foot long display case for the Kerouac scroll and results in that odd setting for the photos.