One Hundred Years of Pulchritude: Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Paintings

At age 94, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is as feisty as ever — certainly as feisty as he was in the mid-1950s, when he was arrested and put on trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems. Back then, after U.S. authorities seized copies of the book and claimed Ferlinghetti was promoting obscene language, he countered that the real obscenity was the sickening culture of violence and mass media that Howl and Other Poems spotlighted with a literary flourish. “The great obscene wastes of Howl,” Ferlinghetti wrote in 1957 at the height of his landmark San Francisco trial, “are the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms, billboards and TV antennae.”

Words are Ferlinghetti's forte. His own books of poetry, like Coney Island of the Mind, and his North Beach bookstore, City Lights, and its published works, are rightfully celebrated around the world. But how many people know Ferlinghetti is also an accomplished painter? Before he published a single poem, painting and drawing were Ferlinghetti's first artistic endeavors. A new exhibit, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Future Woman,” gathers 35 of Ferlinghetti's female portraits (some done in the past few months) which show that Ferlinghetti is still pushing the boundaries of his art forms. Ferlinghetti drew one piece, Woman #2 (Shiva), on a canvas window shade that he spattered with blue and red acrylic paint. In Home Was Never Like This, a hand reaches between the bare legs of its subject.

“My works on paper are better than my oil paintings,” Ferlinghetti tells SF Weekly. “You're freer, and the line is more dynamic.”

Ferlinghetti first began painting in the late 1940s while getting his doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, and has since drawn more than 5,000 images, many of them kept by major institutions like the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But he has found the greatest acceptance of his artistic interests overseas. In 2010, Italy's Museo di Roma hosted a 60-year retrospective of Ferlinghetti's art — an honor that still gives him chills because of the wide reception he received in that country's national media.

“In Europe, it's quite often the case that the artist is both a poet and a painter. That's the way it was with the French Surrealists, for instance,” Ferlinghetti says. “In this country, they want to put you in a pigeon-hole, where you've got to be one or the other. That's too bad. I get this all the time: 'Oh, I didn't know he painted!' It's like I'm stuck with this label as a poet who also paints.”

Not surprisingly, Ferlinghetti often blurs the lines between his politics and his art. In 1987, Ferlinghetti completed The Unfinished Flag of the United States, a depiction of American interventionism in which the U.S. flag's red stripes bleed across a map of the world. In his painting Don't Give Me, Ferlinghetti's take on U.S. immigration policy, the Statue of Liberty is looking at a saying, “Don't Give Me Your Huddled Masses,” that contradicts the statue's iconic ethos.

With “Future Woman,” his seventh solo exhibition with George Krevsky Gallery, Ferlinghetti leaves his politics at the door. And the paintings' women leave their clothing on the floor, revealing breasts and pubic hair and curvature that Ferlinghetti says is a celebration of the female form. Picasso, de Kooning, and other 20th-century painters distorted women's bodies into monstrous blobs, organs, and caricatures, says Ferlinghetti, who views his “Future Woman” retrospective as a chance to re-elevate women to a “pedestal of pure beauty and mystery.” The exhibit's oldest work, Battle With the Image from 1956, has an almost primordial feel, with a shadowy figure raising her arms in what could be surrender or triumph. One of the exhibit's newest works, Future Woman #4 (2013), depicts a faceless dark-haired woman who could be a descendant of the woman from 1956.

“My view of women, personally, has changed, but my depictions haven't changed,” says Ferlinghetti, whose longtime studio is in Hunters Point. “Most of these works were done from a live model. The title of the show, “Future Woman,” is a bit misleading because the future woman is actually the same as the present woman, as far as the form goes. As for my views, from my generation, we were still in the old world. Our generation experienced women coming down from their pedestal. My view of women changed because we became more realistic. The latest paintings on canvas in the exhibit show a more realistic woman. With Future Woman #4, the body isn't romanticized.”

As he gets closer to his 100th birthday, Ferlinghetti, who's written more than 30 books of poetry and prose, has had to think more about what he'll leave to his heirs. All the visual art that he's produced over the years has increased in value (Battle with the Image is selling for $75,000), and in researching inheritance taxes, Ferlinghetti has discovered another U.S. policy that agitates him.

“The way the U.S. government treats artists, it's really shameful,” he says. “I've just been reading the income-tax law and the estate tax on when you die; it's disgusting the way the artist is treated. If you read the law on the subject, and say you're 20 years old and contemplating being an artist, you'd say, 'Good God — I'm not going into that field!' It's so bad that an advanced lawyer who specializes in art estates advised the heirs of a famous painter in San Francisco to, as soon as he died, burn everything, to avoid this huge estate tax that would have wiped them out. It's disgusting what the government does.”

If Ferlinghetti had to choose between poetry and painting, Ferlinghetti says he would choose painting. “It's more to enjoy, especially with a computer. I have struggles with a computer,” he says. “I wish I had my old typewriter back. It's more work than painting. Painting is more like play than work.”

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