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Arts & Culture

Painters, Poets, Pipe Smokers

Untitled print from "The Painter's Notebook," Guy Williams, 1961 (printed by Irwin Hollander)
Courtesy photo
Untitled print from "The Painter's Notebook," Guy Williams, 1961 (printed by Irwin Hollander)

At the 2005 opening of Richard Allen Morris' retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), the local painter read several of his poems aloud. Some of them dated all the way back to the 1960s. At times his delivery was slightly hesitant, both shy and a little mischievous, like a kid who has figured out a way to end his haiku with a punch line.

Known as a fiercely principled artist with an ascetic lifestyle, Morris nevertheless generates work that is fundamentally optimistic, often coaxing expressions of sheer delight from both words and painterly gestures. As a young man, Morris was also known to smoke a pipe.

As part of San Diego's early-60s counterculture, Morris and his friends, Guy Williams and the recently deceased Malcolm "Mac" McClain, were painters as well as prolific poets who gathered in bookstores run by Lafayette "Lafe" Young, John Storm and Larry McGilvery. In fact, there was quite a tradition of local painters working or exhibiting at the Bargain Bookstore and Vroman's downtown, and the Nexus in La Jolla.

Born in San Diego, Guy Williams (1932-2004) was a largely self-taught painter with particular strengths in composition and design. He was good friends with Lafe Young, who, in turn, was friendly with writers such as Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski.

While teaching at the Art Center in La Jolla in the early 1960s, Williams published two artists' books; the first, "The Painters Notebook" (1961) was printed by Irwin Hollander (before he became a major figure in American printmaking). It contained three jewel-like original prints, together with Williams' prose and poetry. Williams' sense of humor is put to use in such pieces as "A Note On Art Criticism," a parody of vacuous critical writing that offers mock reviews of his hapless Art Center colleagues. This review of the fictitious Frederick Funk is meant, in jest, to suggest his fellow painter, Frederic Holle:

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Reviews and Previews

Frederick Funk (Apostle: to May 21). Best known for his paintings of row boats and abstract rain, Mr. Funk is presenting to us a series of hard-edged paintings for Mexican restaurants that he has recently completed. This compelling new work by a well-known artist is at once large and small, warm and cool and dark and light; how easily one feels at home in this atmosphere. The off-center gravity of "Tooth" proves once again the lyric sensibility of this painter. Funk's pictures may allude to what Freud called feces, but such evocations are not explicit. Whatever their meaning, his canvases are more arresting and vital than ever. Prices unquoted
In Williams' next book, "Poems for Painters" (1963), he turned type and ideas into visual compositions, or concrete poetry. The book is made up of what he called "typewriter drawings," each dedicated to a well-known artist. In tribute to the Japanese artist Hokusai's famous series of woodcuts, "
Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji," Williams cleverly arranges the words "fuji" and "SNOW" into the triangular shape of a mountain. Positioned this way, the individual words dissolve as you regard the poem, forming new patterns and blurring into a meditative visual drone.

While teaching at Pomona College in the early 1970s Williams revisited his typewriter drawings, including some of them in a new booklet called "Random Notes On Painting." Not yet into his 40s, Williams' prose in "Random Notes On Painting" is wearily eloquent:

I find in my life fragments of happiness and delight, more doubts than I can account for, empty and restless afternoons spent bumping off the walls, a vainglorious awareness of my own ambition, a fondness for books, maps, seashells, Black Blues Artists, the habitual use of noisy prose, the pretense that making art is a way to interfere, if only for a moment with death, shame at the forbidden memories that reveal themselves in the dark belly of aberrant dreams, outrage at hunger and sickness and the loneliness of men, anger at my own uneasiness in the world, my fear of being wrong, and my daily confessions of incomprehension.

One tries to work with care, with sagacity, to make things with calm. I would wish my paintings to be abundant, generous-nothing dim, no shadows; to stand in the full light of summer. I would wish my paintings to illuminate.
Geoffrey Young, a respected poet and small press publisher (and the son of bookstore owner Lafe Young), released Williams' "Poems for Painters" yet again in 1974 as "Stooge No. 10"—an issue of Young's scrappy poetry zine, which included Richard Allen Morris and Charles Bukowski in its other issues. Guy Williams reportedly arranged Bukowski's first reading at Pomona College.

Mac McClain (1923-2012) taught sculpture and pottery in La Jolla during the early 1960s, but spent most of his academic career at California State University, Los Angeles.

McClain was a Southern California native with full-fledged Beat Generation cred. He fought on the front combat lines in World War II and then spent a year painting in Paris, where he was discharged after the war, followed by studies in New York and Mexico.

It was there that McClain started learning about pottery in what he calls "a rudimentary way, digging clay out of caves, building a rough, wooden throwing wheel and building our own small kiln." McClain says it's "too prosy," but out of those years comes his poem called "Mexico Mio":

leaping past calcimined walls of nostalgia

recalling those names in Spanish: yeso blanco

full moon rising over volcano, aerial rockets

when the children die, tiny caskets in the morning

carried to the churchyard in the crowded, echoing dawn

all the words for corn and cornfield: ejotes, milpas

almost like worship, the language

where I exiled myself, luckily, I was alone:

art student, aventurero, outlaw poet,

sensitized to madness, literature, ideology

with a small, short-term income.

The best way to go.

Started digging clay and the Libreria Brittanica

Talking about New York, not thinking about California

riding the campesino's gray stallion on the foothill trails,

finding Margarita, starting to get straight

cantinas, mariachis, corridas de toros

watercolors, sculpture, nights on the Tres Estrellas

through Irapuato became a part of me

a primary color lesson, a festival of idiomas

architecture and awareness, they were all eyes

of dignity and pride, the sacredness of mothers

held the nation together in its fierceness, it's venganzas,

tragic, their imprisoned anguish quite justified.

Later in his career, McClain moved to Tijuana and joined the faculty of the La Jolla School of Arts at the Art Center. He smoked a pipe and made a lasting impression on his students. Over time McClain earned a reputation as a poet as well as a visual artist, writing and giving readings around Southern California.

Among others, McClain cites Richard Allen Morris as a key figure where San Diego's painting and poetry scenes overlapped in the 1960s. Here are two poems written by Morris in 1961, with characteristically literary and art historical references:

For E.E. Cummings

When reading the poems of the E.E.

Sometimes there is a he-he

But mostly there's think

For Raoul Dufy

With the morning work

Going on in the studio

Stirring paintings into mud

Thinking of his sky

I stopped

And made


Cerulean Blue


For lunch

The notorious Cleveland-based artist and publisher, D. A. Levy, took an interest in Morris' poetry, eventually publishing a small volume called "Brushed Poems and a Little Putsch" in 1963. Levy, a celebrated literary underground figure whose writings were called obscene and confiscated by Cleveland police, was a champion of the "Mimeograph Revolution," when access to low-cost production techniques resulted in a surge of small press magazines, fanzines and literary publications.

For many years Morris maintained a studio in Balboa Park's Spanish Village. He actually lived there, in number 26, even though you weren't supposed to. But that's Richard for you, a mix of Depression-era values and outright rebellion. And from his studio emerged a curious document of the times: a local aspect of the Mimeograph Revolution.

DUCK DUCK was a pamphlet of mimeographed pages that Morris edited and sold for 15 cents each. Three staple bound issues were edited by Morris and published "irregularly" during 1967 as collections of poetry. He only included one example of his own writing in the first issue, which he describes as "like a list of grievances" that was, he admits, "not very poetic."

In conclusion, here's a poem by Morris' friend, former pipe smoker and fellow artist, John Baldessari, as published in DUCK DUCK #2:


(For Aunt Coria)

I want to make a painting / (on black velvet or palm bark)--

not one of those modern-art paintings of:

glint on waves, pink clouds, sage brush, squint-eyed tigers,

flower carts, wash on line, bullfighters, bulls, sand dunes,

red farm house, lady in gypsy costume, ducks by old well,

oaken buckets, the U.S.S. Missouri "Always Ready", a panther

with beady redeyes, a sad doggie, a Mexican cart, a burro,

a Mexican asleep under a cactus, a Eucalyptus tree with leaves

that look real, high lights on raven black hair, an all-the-

world's-a-stage clown, dancing Hottentots with sunset, sleepy

lagoons, dewy roses,