Julian Beck is better known as the co-founder and director of The Living Theatre than as a painter. But, as this exhibition of works on paper and canvas aimed to show, his experimental approach to theatre had its roots in an autodidactic painting practice. Born in 1925, Beck began painting and drawing around 1944, after cutting short his studies at Yale University. He stopped painting in 1958, however, deciding to dedicate his energies to The Living Theatre, which he founded with his actress wife Judith Malina in 1947 and which was beginning to gain recognition. He continued to direct the still-running company until his death in 1985. Despite the relatively short time span of his painting career, Beck was highly productive with some 1,500 works existing from the period. This exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Fondazione Morra in Naples (the official authenticators of Beck’s paintings and archivers of The Living Theatre), presented a fast-forward view of his artistic development. Thirty works spanning his time as a painter were hung close together across one wall of the gallery in a tight left to right chronology.
The Living Theatre was characterized by its experimental nature, often adopting an extreme realism in politicized productions aimed at shocking the audience out of complacency. We are introduced to its founders in the third image of the hang: a black and white photograph of Beck carrying Malina ceremonially into a New York courthouse in 1964, where they were subsequently convicted of tax evasion. They left the US in protest and went on to spend 20 years in self-imposed exile operating as ‘a nomadic touring ensemble’ before returning to New York in the early 1980s. Their lives continued on this unconventional path, resulting in 12 jail terms for Beck, in various countries, for acts of civil disobedience.
The works collected here exhibited a similar waywardness through colour and line, playing with non-objective forms of representation and quasi-Abstract Expressionism without ever wholeheartedly adopting either. A restless energy leads Beck swiftly from one style to another, resisting the development of a consistent or recognizable signature. Though these works clearly have one eye on the dominant modes of New York School Abstract Expressionism of the time (Beck showed in Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1945) they display less of the urgency and angst than that of his AbEx contemporaries. In the earliest works here, a dozen or so on paper in pastel and gouache from 1944 and 1945, thick wandering lines in black or blue dominate the compositions, and seem to paint themselves, pointing to Beck’s interest in automatism. By 1948, complex spidery forms had developed, which seem to hover tentatively on the paper surface, suggesting investigations into inner states and the unconscious. By 1953, in a gooey dark abstraction in which red and yellow tints emerge from a brown morass (The Mask, 1953), Beck seems to have painted parts of it with his fingers. This is succeeded in the hang by Julian the Hospitaler (1956) whose fleshy red and pink colours recall Willem De Kooning, while its motif is dominated by an imprint of Beck’s backside – early evidence of a performative approach. The final work in the show, The Sugar Industry (1958), reportedly Beck’s penultimate canvas, is more politically oriented, and includes collaged elements: tiny snapshots of Victorian-era pornography and statues of Abraham Lincoln. A large yellow butterfly in pastels prefigures Beck’s imminent metamorphosis away from painting and towards the stage.
The apparent finality of Beck’s decision to stop painting leaves a nagging curiosity about the sets and costumes he subsequently designed. But by choosing not to include them or their documentation, this show reclaimed the two dimensional works as precursors and evidence of Beck’s embrace of flux, chaos and the uncontrollable influences that life brings.