Penniless Press Publications 2014
Jim Burns’ fifth collection covers an extraordinary range of artistic, literary, film and music activity through a series of interlocking essays that show extensive reading. Written in an engaging, clear and non-academic manner they were first published in magazines between 1973 and 2013. The topics range from the history of Paris Dada, the Cornish coastal artistic communities, Sven Berlin, the letters and lives of Jackson Pollock’s brothers, the American radical documentary film tradition, the stories of Dorothy Parker, Jack Kerouac’s magazine writing, the history of Black Mountain College, the work of literary magazines, such as Origin, The Noble Savage, Art and Literature, the music of Billie Holiday and West Coast jazzmen, the Objectivists, Olympia Press, early Beat criticism, and the Bohemian scenes of Tangier and Soho, and so on.
Burns is adept at debunking generalized overviews of literary and artistic movements, uncovering key figures, lost connections, neglected links and understands that there are those that find prominence and others that do not but might well be of equal stature or interest. He gently points out some of the beautiful failures, the underdogs, and the omissions of critics and anthologists. He is brilliant at uncovering contrary readings, positions that offer less conventional viewpoints, the role of marketing and magazines, and has a healthy disregard for official versions of literary and artistic movements and periods.
The essays take the reader on a journey through the prominent points of understanding and analysis as well as suggesting other viewpoints. They are perceptive, highly informative and, at times, personal. His essay, ‘Words For Painters’ on the impact of abstract expressionism has a wonderful personal slant that helps the reader appreciate the impact more profoundly. He writes:
‘It is the personal effect that the paintings have had which interests me. I’ve always found in much of Willem de Kooning’s work a wonderful reaction to the city. I recall coming out of the Tate Gallery in London after a de Kooning exhibition in the late-1960s and realizing how alive I was to the colour, noise, vitality, and variety of the streets. In Dore Ashton’s fine book, The Life and Times of the New York School, she says of de Kooning. “He loved the complexity of the cosmopolis, and he found in its physical appearance an excitement and beauty that he consciously tried to reflect in his paintings.” I read that a few years after first encountering de Kooning’s work, and it confirmed what I’d felt about the paintings.’
The essay is beautifully constructed, effortlessly moving from the personal to the critical, to apt use of sources and quotation, from general to localized reading.
‘With a painter like Franz Kline, possibly my favourite of all the abstract expressionists, it similarly struck me that his large black and white canvases were also representative of urban life. It maybe a tougher street-wise version of it when compared to de Kooning, whose European sensibility still came through despite his years in America. Kline was once described as “a night person, drinking with friends first, painting later, and sleeping during the day. Kline’s nighttime joy, his love of night as a congenial time permeates the warm, expansive blacks in several of his abstractions. Like night itself, these paintings are filled with unpredictable encounters with light: incandescent flashes and glowing reflections.” Interestingly, it always seemed that Kline was the least talked about of the abstract expressionists, both in terms of conversational focus and critical evaluation.’
The essay, which is typical of the collection as a whole, moves economically forward covering a lot of ground on Kline, his contemporaries and their work, and leaves the reader wanting to view the paintings and read more about the painters.
This is an exceptionally strong collection of diverse essays, which serve to illuminate and widen understanding. The reader finishes the book in a happier and more informed mood.
David Caddy 17th June 2014