San Francisco’s forgotten avant-garde apartments

The most famous event in San Francisco’s avant-garde literary history was Allen Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore St. on October 7, 1955. This frantic reading, the later publication by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights “Howl and Other Poems” books, and subsequent arrests and obscenity trial launched Ginsberg’s career, put City Lights on the map, and made the Beat movement famous in national scale.

The period reading is commemorated by a raised plaque in front of the site of the long-gone Six Gallery, bearing a bronze bas-relief resembling Ginsberg and the famous opening lines ‘Howl’: ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterically naked…”

Ironically, the building that once housed the Six Gallery is now an upscale restaurant (it used to be a high-end carpet store) in the heart of the singles bar-smelling Bermuda Triangle in Cow Hollow , a neighborhood whose inhabitants are not known for their madness. , starvation or hysteria.

The Six Gallery site is one of San Francisco’s literary sanctuaries. But few realize that an unremarkable-looking apartment building just eight blocks up the hill from Fillmore Street, across from the Pacific Heights SPCA, was the quasi-communal home of many artists and writers. peak of the city circa 1950. to 1965. Painterland, as the building was known, helped nurture the artistic careers and social lives (the two were often hard to tell apart) of such figures as Joan Brown, Michael McClure, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Manuel Neri, Robert Duncan and Wally Hedrick.

Previous question: How many commercial ships enter and leave San Francisco Bay each year?

Answer: Over 3,000.

This week’s question: After watching the 1930 Big Game between Cal and Stanford, who told a reporter, “Your game of football is splendid, thrilling, beautiful… great living picture, spontaneous unconscious art“?


Painterland was located at 2322 Fillmore St. between Clay and Washington streets in the main commercial area of ​​Pacific Heights. Pacific Heights had been San Francisco’s most prestigious neighborhood since the 19th century, but rents, even in the city’s uptown areas, were reasonable until the 1970s, allowing artists with limited incomes to live in neighborhoods that they could never afford today. As Anastasia Aukeman writes in “Welcome to Painterland: Bruce Conner and the Rat Bastard Protective Association”, a number of artists and musicians lived in the building before 1956, including Bay Area Figurative School painter James Weeks, musician and future gallery owner Jim Newman. , painter Sonia Gechtoff and saxophonist and artist Paul Beattie. When Beattie and his wife moved out of their second floor unit in early 1955, entertainers Hedrick and his wife, DeFeo, took over the Beatties’ apartment for $65 a month (about $700 today).

The following year, 23-year-old poet McClure and his wife, poet Joanna McClure, moved into a top-floor apartment.

McClure would become a central figure not only in Painterland (a name he coined) but in all of San Francisco’s literary, musical, and artistic circles. Nicknamed “the prince of the San Francisco scene” due to his good looks and many creative connections, McClure dated and occasionally collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Jack Kerouac, Jerry Garcia, Ginsberg, Isamu Noguchi and Terry Riley. One of the things that drew McClure and other artists to the neighborhood was its proximity to the vibrant black music and cultural scene of Western Addition, a few blocks south of Fillmore Street, yet to be destroyed by redevelopment. As McClure told writer Rebecca Solnit, “We appreciate black stores, black vibes, black music. We had our faces towards them but our butts towards Pacific Heights.

The apartment took a decided turn towards the avant-garde – and towards the serious party – in late 1957 and 1958. It was then that the young newly arrived artist Conner, who had briefly lived with the McClures in Painterland before moving to a nearby apartment on Jackson Street, formed what he called the Rat Bastard Protective Association. The irreverent name was inspired by the epithet “bastard rat”, the favorite cuss of a friend of McClure’s, and the name of one of the city’s two biggest trash companies, the Scavenger’s Protective Association (which later to become Golden Gate Disposal). Conner sent letters to a number of young artists linked to Painterland, including Brown, Neri, Hedrick and DeFeo, informing them that they were members of the Rat Bastard Protective Association, that he was its founder and president, that they should pay their dues. right away, and that the first date was next Friday at his house.

It was the start of an artistic and social circle that would have a major impact on the San Francisco and national art scene – and have a lot of fun along the way. Their artistic interests and practices varied widely, but a common thread was a Dadaist, playful, irreverent and non-commercial approach to art. Conner said he and his friends saw themselves as “people who made things out of society’s detritus, who were themselves ostracized or shunned from any involvement in society.” Conner and a few other artists in the circle practiced assemblage, the art created by found objects, often bric-a-brac; they tended to reject the conventional “success” of the art world and often simply destroyed their works. Others, like Brown, worked in more traditional genres and achieved critical and commercial success. Many were serious musicians and played in jazz bands, including the Studio 13 Jass Band. Others opened alternative art galleries: poet Duncan and artists Jess and Harry Jacobus opened the short-lived King Ubu Gallery, the predecessor of the Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore. All pursued an uncompromising personal vision – an approach embodied by DeFeo, who worked on his now legendary enormous painting/sculpture “The Rose” in his large apartment in Painterland for seven years.

In the age-old bohemian tradition, the artists in the circle formed close friendships and partied hard. Duncan and his partner Jess became close friends with the McClures and helped them move into Painterland. After Brown and her husband, Bill Brown, moved into Painterland next door to DeFeo and Hedrick, the two couples drilled a hole in the wall between their apartments so they could come and go easily. Hedrick has built a roof terrace so they can all sunbathe naked. The two couples, and others in the building, threw endless parties. When the McClures moved out of their top-floor apartment, DeFeo and Hedrick took over that apartment as well, “and the place became a bigger party zone than ever,” DeFeo recalled. “We really had everything.”

The Painterland era ended on November 9, 1965, when DeFeo’s “The Rose” was forklifted from the building and shipped to the Pasadena Art Museum. That same day, DeFeo and Hedrick left the building and went their separate ways.

One peak artistic circle had faded, but another arose at almost exactly the same time and place. A few young people who had been involved in the legendary summer ur-hippie Red Dog in Virginia City lived in an apartment at 2111 Pine St., a few blocks from Painterland.

They called themselves the family dog. On October 16, 1965, three weeks before DeFeo and Hedrick left, the Family Dog held the first rock dance ever held in San Francisco, at Longshoremen’s Hall. In the artistic underground of San Francisco, an invisible witness had passed.

Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco.” His most recent book is “Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City”. All Portals of the Past material is original to The San Francisco Chronicle. To read previous portals from the past, go to sfchronicle.com/portals.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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