Artwork by Suzanne LaFleur

Suzanne’s Circle: Spotlight on Gerd Stern, Beat Poet and Pioneering Multi-media artist

After years in New York City, one of the most interesting people with whom Suzanne has made a connection is Gerd Stern.  He was a guest at one of the first studio soirées and attended Suzanne’s solo exhibition at Bogardus Mansion last year.  Gerd is an excellent example of the modern day Renaissance man.  He is most referred to as a poet and multi-media artist, but historian, writer, artistic director, visual artist, philosopher, and artistic advisor suit him as well.

Gerd Stern was born in 1928 in Saargebiet, located right on the border of Germany and France.  The area was one of the first to be taken over by Hitler.  Gerd’s family, being Jewish, left for America. They eventually settled in Washington Heights in New York City where his father continued the family’s cheese import business.  Gerd attended Bronx High School of Science, eventually enrolling in City College of New York to study zoology.  He left CCNY after just a few short weeks, only to find his way in the art and music neighborhood of NYC’s East Village. There, he got to know a who’s who cast of characters that made up the city’s counter-culture scene.  During this time, he was given a scholarship to Black Mountain College where he wanted to study poetry.  Gerd’s carefree, unstructured nature led him to leave just two weeks after studies began.

He found himself on the West Coast in California in 1940s.  There, he moved through the art and literary scene that was erupting in Big Sur at the time.  Encouraged by the vibe and its people, he “accepted his role as poet.”

Gerd in front of Contact Is "The Only Love," the seven foot in diameter kinetic high way poem first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1963

Gerd in front of Contact Is “The Only Love,” the seven foot in diameter kinetic high way poem first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1963

Gerd emerged as a major figure of the 1950s beat movement, right alongside Allen Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, and Bob Kaufman. In fact, he joined Ginsberg and Solomon for a short stay in a Psychiatric Institute where they traded books.  Gerd’s story then goes on to move back and forth from the east to west coasts with some places in between. Capped of with numerous achievements, his artistic career has stayed a course to this day like none other.  An eclectic list of highlights include: Manager for Maya Angelou; writer for Playboy; producer of the Timothy Leary Psychedelic Theater, founder of the media art collective USCO (Company of US); leader of the late 1960s psychedelic art movement; pioneer of multi-media art; lecturer at Harvard University and University of California at Santa Cruz.  His solo work and collaborative multi-media projects with USCO have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Museum, Tate Museum, Vienna’s Kunsthalle, and Centre Georges Pompidou.

Staying true to his manic schedule after all of these years, Gerd currently has numerous poetry publications and projects in production along with a constant output of creative work.  He somehow managed to find time to do an interview for latest Suzanne’s Circle Creative Spotlight.

L to Right: Vern Bennett, Gerd’s wife Ann London, Gerd, Allen Ginsberg, standing Percy Heath, Mimi –Ann’s sister and in front Madge Bennett. Photograph was taken at Gerd's barge in Waldo Point, Sausalito in the 1950s.  By Gordon Onslow-Ford.

L to Right: Vern Bennett, Gerd’s wife Ann London, Gerd, Allen Ginsberg, standing Percy Heath, Mimi –Ann’s sister and in front Madge Bennett. Photograph was taken at Gerd’s barge in Waldo Point, Sausalito in the 1950s. By Gordon Onslow-Ford.

During the 1950s and 1960s, you were at the center of the literary and art scenes on both the East Coast and West Coast – Big Sur in California and The Village in New City.  Did you notice a major difference in attitude or vibe between the two?

Gerd: The hubs back and forth between the SF and NY (Apple) scenes were two way metabolisms with the laid back better off in northern california welcoming the hip eager to make it.  East coast and midwest migrants who flocked west encouraged the flow of  creative juices with open public opportunities.  We took advantage of  such offers.

 

How did you go from being a poet who works independently to a multi-media artist who works collaboratively? 

Gerd: How or Why? *** My immersion in the San Francisco poetry scene starting in the late forties brought me into contact, friendship, interaction with poets, artists, musicians and the ferment was already collaborative as in our “fifties “Seven Stray Cats”  group.  My visual arts and eventually USCO collaborations first grew out of the vibrant, extremely vital Rockland County New York and NYC scene of the beginning “60s  and my acquaintance through M.C. Richards and John Cage with the unpublished work of Marshall McLuhan.

Life magazine dubbed you “a pioneer of multi-media work.” How was your earliest multi-media work received?

Gerd: With interest and acclaim and it wasn’t just “mine,”  but of  our communal arts group USCO.  We were an integral part of the “then” action.

You taught media and communications at Harvard and the University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1970s.  These topics continue to be very relevant in today’s society and culture, though much has changed in the last 40 years.  What ideas and theories were you teaching students back then?

Gerd: Not just “ideas” and “theory,” but active use of technology, principally audiovisual to demonstrate the metabolisms of content and effect. At Harvard and UC Santa Cruz for education, business, art and philosophy, students learned the use of “hands on” production techniques as extensions to test and experience projections out of the personal into public arenas of research and discovery.

Eyes Closed, Eyes Open – a privileged opportunity. Overheard clichés,/Flow through my mind,/Becoming poetry. ©Mark Berghash, 2006.

Eyes Closed, Eyes Open – a privileged opportunity. Overheard clichés,/Flow through my mind,/Becoming poetry. ©Mark Berghash, 2006.

What is your view of social media and how it has affected the ways in which humans communicate? 

Gerd: I am most concerned regarding the moral and ethical lacks of restraint exhibited to excess within the replications and adventurism on the extreme edges of social media sites.

Do you yourself use social media?

Gerd: Yes, to a less  rather than more extent.

 

You recently visited Suzanne’s studio. Were there any particular qualities of her paintings with which you connected?

Gerd taking in Suzanne's paintings at  "Untamed," her solo exhibition at the Bogardus Mansion last year.

Gerd taking in Suzanne’s paintings at “Untamed,” her solo exhibition at the Bogardus Mansion last year.

Gerd: Suzanne, as a painter, is for me an example of an artist who is thoroughly imbued with painting as a profession. Her work within the various periods I have seen demonstrates both her capabilities in terms of composition and intention and she has acquired and utilizes a thorough understanding of the function of a professional painters materials. I consider those rare and precious talents.

 

Do you have any projects underway that you would like to tell us about?

Gerd: Habitually, I work on about six active major projects and many additional involvements.   Herewith a) A fourth book of poems of mine titled “E-DICTS” with painter Ivan Majdrakoff with whose work I published my “First Poems and Others” sixty years ago.  b) An anthology of contemporary and traditional poems titled “Hag Sameach -Poems For The Jewish Holidays” with my co-editor Judith Sokoloff to be published by Pleasure Boat Studio.  c) A series of seminars “McLuhan Plus” on prophetic technology to be given at ZKM (The Center for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe, Germany in June of this year.  d) Preparing for the acquisition of a two hundred plus boxed Intermedia Foundation archives by Stanford University.  e)  The funding of a major renovation of our  historic USCO church building studio in Rockland County as an artists’ residence and exhibition space for USCO history and artifacts.  f) As always creating collage works, video and writing poems toward exhibitions and readings at various venues.

NO OW NOW  

Gerd with Jordan Joseph, Suzanne, Sarah Ellis, and Tony Harnell at a studio soirée in January.

Gerd with Jordan Joseph, Suzanne, Sarah Ellis, and Tony Harnell at a studio soirée in January.

take the NO
out of NOW
then take the OW
out of NOW
then take the then
out of NOW
– Gerd Stern, 1964

As we were emailing back and forth for the interview, Gerd duly noted that the answers to most of these questions could fill a book.  If you are interested in learning more about his epic life and career, please read the oral history project “From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978.”

Leave a Reply

*