Heads of the Hydra: An Interview with Allan Graubard

by Paul McRandle
Allan Graubard photo credit Ira Landgarten

Surrealism in the United States has a labyrinthine and explosive history. Forced into an uneasy exile in New York City by the ravages of the Second World War, the group around André Breton (including Max Ernst, Luis Buñuel, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta, and Marcel Duchamp) managed to pull together major exhibits and three surrealist journals, but also suffered permanent divisions. André and Jaqueline Breton divorced, Ernst and Breton split and Ernst withdrew to Sedona with Dorothea Tanning, Buñuel faced expulsion from MoMA’s film division on political grounds, and Wolfgang Paalen bid farewell to surrealism to launch the Dynaton movement in Mexico. Although its influence would long be felt in America, at the war’s end surrealism swiftly gave way to the powerful alliance of abstract expressionism and existentialism. The drama of the Surrealists’ exile in New York has long been fascinating, yet it remains an open question why they weren’t able to establish a movement in the U.S., whereas surrealist groups had sprung up in England, Spain, Chile, Peru, Japan, Romania, and many other countries, often in the face of active repression. The wartime group may have made headlines, but surrealism’s U.S. presence remained almost invisible for decades, its poetry and publications circulating in subterranean passages. One of the most inexplicable cases of neglect is that of the artist Eugenio Granell, who having served with the POUM during the Spanish Civil War, went into exile, moving from country to country until in 1957 he found himself in New York City, where he would spend the following three decades producing extraordinary paintings that are now scarcely to be seen in city museums, though he’s well regarded in Spain. Two surrealist groups emerged in the early 1970s—one in San Francisco around Philip Lamantia and Stephen Schwartz, editor of Anti-Narcissus, and the other in Chicago around Franklin Rosemont and the journal Arsenal. Allan Graubard joined the San Francisco group in 1973. Although their collective activity faded away after a time, many of the artists, writers, theoreticians, theater and dance-theater creators, and musicians continue to collaborate, and this dedication to working across fields is among their most admirable traits. With Invisible Heads: Surrealists in North America, an Untold Story (Anon, 2011), Allan Graubard and Thom Burns, who edited and designed the two-volume work, have gathered a rich collection of the discontinuous history of surrealism as they and their colleagues lived it, providing a remarkable overview of forty years of collective activity and the works of dozens of artists, writers, and performers. I spoke with Allan Graubard about his years within these collectives, their innovations, and difficulties on a recent summer afternoon at his midcentury apartment on New York’s 57th Street.

Paul McRandle: How did you first get involved in surrealism?

Allan Graubard: My introduction to surrealism as a collective movement began with the San Francisco group that circulated around Philip Lamantia and Stephen Schwartz. When I arrived, Philip’s book, Touch of the Marvelous, had just been republished by City Lights. Philip was also a physical and historical link to almost everybody of importance to us as younger surrealists. He worked with Charles Henri Ford in New York, met Breton there (who acclaimed his poems) and circulated among a group of exceptional creators like Paul Bowles, Maya Deren, Bruce Conner, Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, and many more. Now Philip was a tobacco fiend and he could talk for hours on end about experiences and issues of significance for him as for us. At the usually weekly meetings at his place, we would smoke pot and hash and listen to music, talking until two or three in the morning. It was a vivacious interaction. He was handsome guy then, too: The photo on the cover of Blood of the Air, taken by Gerard Malanga, is the Philip that I knew. San Francisco was a dreamscape city for us, and we lived that dream. We wandered around a good deal of the time, open to what chance brought us. Situationists used the term dérives. We didn’t, but it was the same thing, and just daily life for us. We were living on the margin economically, so it was intense, umorous, a rich, open, reciprocal interaction. Drugs were involved, too, as I’ve mentioned, and now and then LSD and sometimes opium. Joining the surrealist group, however, came after previous meetings with poets whose work had inspired me but which, by that time, were less and less important. It also meant that I cut relations with those same poets: Robert Duncan, Michael Palmer, David Bromige, Stephen Fredman, and people who associated with them. Of course, we didn’t participate in any activities other than those we originated, including games and those wild evenings at Philip’s flat in North Beach. When we met in cafes—a favorite was Mario’s just across the street from Washington Square Park—we avoided the Trieste where the poets of San Francisco gathered. There was a moment when it was important to say “no” to the left in the San Francisco Bay area, which was principally Trotskyist, “no” to the legacy of the Beats, and “no” to a burgeoning portrait art scene. In retrospect, some of those artists were quite good. Some of the major poets in the post-Beat scene were important and I enjoy their poetry now, but I didn’t then. I was writing and seeking a kind of poetry that they skirted but didn’t engage completely enough. Poetic evidence, along with elective affinity and friendship, were leading values then. And the same holds today.

PM: What neighborhoods were you all living in?

AG: Philip lived in North Beach as did Schwartz. Laurence Weisberg and Alice Farley lived on the other side of Nob Hill on Pine Street, where I had my last apartment in the city. Their place was also a nexus. Tom Burghardt came into the scene later on and lived way out on the avenues toward the ocean. His place was a nexus as well, and he and his wife, Kathy, were generous hosts. I lived on Buchanan Street then, near the old San Francisco Mint, then on Frederick Street in the Haight. So our walks usually took place in North Beach, Nob Hill, downtown San Francisco, and sometimes out near the beach. You have to remember that South San Francisco, which is now quite developed, was the Tenderloin, which was fairly down-and-out. There were a lot of bums and warehouses, some empty, some used as work spaces. Once you got out of the downtown area, with all its glitz and money, you were in real-life, economically deprived neighborhoods. There was an immediate contrast between the wealth of the city and people who didn’t have much money at all There was also a corresponding collective, musical scene that I participated in. I had come from Paris, was a jazz pianist, and many of my friends were musicians. That house by the Mint, above UC Extension on Buchanan Street, was also on the edge of the old Fillmore—a black neighborhood. Because it was somewhat crime-ridden, you knew where you were when you where you there; you were careful. I was living on the top floor of a walk-through Victorian and had a piano in the basement. We had jam sessions, musicians came through; an incredible time. So, at that moment, there was the surrealist group and my musician friends—parallel interests that fed each other. I played piano very seriously then and it was a really good scene for a while.

PM: What led to the split with the Chicago Group of Surrealists around Franklin Rosemont?

AG: The split was precipitated by a very real sense of asphyxiation, of diminution of individual eccentricities and inspiration by the leadership of Arsenal, of hierarchical valuing of people and their contributions, and by a desire to open a discussion about these issues that the Rosemonts met with distaste. Well, this discussion, had it happened, would have compromised their control over the journal, which they believed they owned. In a way they did because they fronted more money than anybody else for its publication, but you don’t own a journal in a surrealist group. Everybody contributed what they could. Very simply, a meeting was held in Chicago at which Franklin Rosemont came to exclude Jack Dauben, an editor of Arsenal, from the group. He did it in a heavy-handed manner and with little reason. Jack left. Why stay in that circumstance? Thom Burns, who left with Jack, tried to salvage what he could, but the Rosemonts wouldn’t have it. And that was that. When we got word of this in San Francisco, who were our friends? Who were the really interesting people? They were these younger artists, not the Rosemonts and those few others close to them in Chicago for whom control was something to protect, whether you wielded it or not. But in fact we had entered a movement covered in ashes. Breton had died. His group in France had frayed into three active strands, one of which simply referred to the term “maintenant” (now). But what was surrealism in 1976? Yes, there were groups in different countries that were vivant and you might find a wealth of inspiration within them. In the U.S., however, the heavy accent on critique and revolutionary politics had strangled the Arsenal group. Certainly, our later break with the term “surrealism,” didn’t sit well with Eugenio Granell, but it also didn’t affect our friendship and I know he would have collaborated with us had we asked him—as he had previously in the Harvest of Evil exhibition. Granell grew up in a different era. In his time, especially during the Spanish Civil War and after, being a surrealist was risky business. It could mean privation or prison or assassination. In our time and place, the risk had shifted, and it was less. He participated in a revolution that failed. We dreamed of a revolution that didn’t happen. We also understood that “revolution” implied a wall spattered with blood. Legalized murder is usually a concomitant of the assumption of power in a revolution.

That was the real issue: power. What does power mean in a group? How to wield it? And how to wield it poetically and artistically in the most efficacious way? Surrealist groups generally avoided the issue of power if only by virtue of the legitimacy and the brilliance of Breton and Péret and other elders of the movement. Of course, there was a lot of political infighting in Breton’s group, especially in the last years when he offloaded responsibility to younger people he hoped would take over. Power is divisive. Those who have it don’t want to give it to those who don’t have it. There’s nothing in surrealism that militates against the normal convolutions of power.

PM: So how did you move on?

AG: We continued. What was there to stop us? The period after the split, when we were in different cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Columbus, Ohio—presented difficulties because we were so spread out. Every group had its own thing in its own city and also responded to the culture of the city. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, there’s no street life so dérives and street interventions were of little interest. Quite the opposite is true in New York, where there’s a rich street life and an intervention can mean something.

PM: What led to the entire group finally rejecting surrealism, with some moving near the Hopi reservation and you forming Group Hydra?

AG: Magnets of the Polar Horn was an exhibition of the entire group—Columbus, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and some others—in San Francisco at Project Artaud. It’s a former can company tooling plant, a big place. Thom Burns and Tom Burghardt had arranged this vis-à-vis their attending a lecture on surrealism by Michael Bell, a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Art. They disagreed with Bell (his views on surrealism were quite confused), but when they talked to him and he invited them into a large exhibition he was curating in that site, Project Artaud, they took the offer as an opportunity but with certain requirements. Bell agreed that the group that Burghardt and Burns spoke for, our group, would have the top floor and its own entrance. It would be physically distinct, and we would have complete curatorial control over this intervention. In my eyes, the exhibition was a success. The work in it was exceptional: paintings, collages, drawings, boxes, poems, and a central floor site designed by Thom Burns that imaged the title. There was a wall dedicated to our recently deceased friend, the photographer Clarence John Laughlin. Clarence endured the difficulties he met as a photographer but kept to his vision. He became a great surrealist photographer (and a noted landscape and portrait photographer), and finally found renown in Louisiana, his home state, and in other countries. He was extraordinary: an inspiration, a friend, constantly pushing us to dream more, write more, do more artistically. We felt his death poignantly and honored him. But because of the possibility of confusion between the much bigger show downstairs on the ground floor and our smaller group show upstairs, Jack Dauben, Timothy Johnson, Terri Engel, Thom Burns and his wife Mi Sook Kim, announced that they were no longer interested in the arc of surrealism as we configured it then, and were going to Flagstaff to engage with a ceremonial culture, the Hopi. Thom had been instrumental in reorienting surrealist possibilities towards ceremonialism. He took that genial phrase of André Breton, “Language has been given to man to make surrealist use of,” and changed it to, “Surrealism has been given to man to make ceremonial use of.” That illuminates the crux of the problem. Surrealism is a prefatory movement, a movement like Gnosticism or the Cathars that people live and believe in during their time and that their children and their children’s children might hopefully carry on in some fashion. They are the seeds of a greater collective culture. But Hopi, the oldest continuing culture on the continent, was completely formed and in this way similar to the Oceanic culture that inspired Jean Benoît and Vincent Bounure. They went there to live. Given my previous experience with ceremonial culture in Berber Morocco, I understood the allure and the magnetism. What bothered me was that it gave them the possibility of leaving this collective in a way that I felt was a bit abrupt. Did they give up on what we had constructed so far? Perhaps. Was it too difficult to continue on like this, as we were? Perhaps. Clearly, they wanted something more intimate and immediate. They were tired of dealing with the term “surrealism.” We were, too. So after that split, as I remember it, that night, those of us who remained in the group went back to Richard Waara’s flat. While we were there, Brooke Rothwell called from L.A. He asked how many people were there. I told him around eleven. He said, “Wow, it sounds like the heads of the hydra." And that became the name of the new group, Group Hydra. We didn’t go into any depth about it in terms of what it meant in Greek mythology with the Hydra and Hercules. We were just determined to sustain what we had but shrug off the historical legacy of surrealism, which was a weight. Group Hydra had a three- or four-year run and some of our various projects came to fruition. The owner of Bockley Gallery on East Seventh Street had given us the keys to the gallery, so we held the Secret Face of Scandal exhibition, which was a definitive, collective exhibition, the first exhibition of Group Hydra. Several more exhibitions at Bockley followed, though they were curated by the gallery owner, not us, and weren’t collective. We met fairly regularly, played games, including a parallel walk with Tom Burghardt in San Francisco and then with Jon Graham in Paris. Peter Whitney joined me in New York for that walk with Tom. I can’t recall now if we exchanged maps by mail with a route indicated, so I followed one of San Francisco and Tom followed one of New York, but we took our walk on the same day at about the same time (given the time difference). We documented the walks with photos, which we exchanged, and then wrote texts suggested by the photos, creating a synthetic vision of an imaginary city: “The City of the Sun,” as Burghardt called it. And our discussions, at least in New York, centered around the issue of desertion, and what that meant to us as creators.

PM: What would you say were the group’s innovations, whether surrealist or not?

AG: I don’t know if I can identify any particular innovation that Group Hydra might claim as a collective except perhaps its critical sensitivity to group dynamics. But if you mean individuals in the group who also presented their works outside of the group, then there’s Alice Farley’s oeuvre as an exceptional creator of dance theater. She took the Graham dancing technique, Alwin Nikolais’s mise-en-scene magic, inspiration from Indonesia and other Asian cultures, circus techniques, a sensitivity to surrealist and natural images, and made a personal synthesis through her stagings, costuming and choreography in theaters and in public spaces—all in all, a breakthrough for dance theater fed by ceremonial sources. I learned a great deal by working with her, sometimes as a dramaturge and on her board of directors. Remember: I am a poet, a man of words. But with dance theater, the “words” are gestures and the language choreography and staging. And through Alice and her creations I learned something of this language, which was new to me as it ever is.

Image from Modette rehearsal, music by Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris; lyrics and libretto by Allan Graubard; directed by Caroline McGee; with Dion Graham (as Ben) and Elizabeth Van Dyke (as Dette), P.S. 122, New York City, November 4 1985. Photo courtesy of Alan Graubard

In terms of theater, yes, I can say there was a certain innovation I engaged in, initially with the use of language, principally dense metaphorical language as dialogue, and in regard to music theater with my collaborator Butch Morris, the great conductor/ composer who died in January. Modette, our first major work, you can call it an opera, was staged several times at P.S. 122 with different arrangements given the money we had, at other performance spaces in New York, and finally at Aaron Davis Hall as part of the “New Voices, New Visions” series. In 2009, Butch redid sections of Modette in concert version at large theaters in Modena and Lugo, Italy, with a leading orchestra. And we were discussing its revival before his death. In terms of visual art, there was José Sanchez and Yo Yoshitome. Jose did something quite unique with a sewing machine and industrial burlap, “Lautréamont’s Sewing Machine,” as he called it. He built up delirious, lyrical works with needle and thread, going through many sewing needles in the process and not a few sewing machines. Yo was a master painter and his works consistently fascinated me but near the end of his stay in New York something of his Japanese heritage took over and he used the white of the canvas as a place for evocation, stillness, and a kind of silence that took my breath away. Jon Graham perfected a technique using rubber stamps. Peter Whitney constructed large, baroque collage boxes with different levels of glass, and had several major exhibitions in New York. Other artists in the group—Richard Waara, Wayne Kral, Brooke Rothwell, Jhim Pattison, Byron Baker, David Coulter—did they break new ground with their creations? I don’t know if that matters much. It was new for them, and they revealed images and relationships that were striking and poignant. Poetically? I can only speak for myself. And, again, this came through my collaboration with Butch Morris and his Chorus of Poets. From several performances at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, we devised a unique piece: Erotic Eulogy (the opening feature of the Visions Festival in 2009). The title, not my title, Butch’s title, gave me the space in which to consider what obsesses us most: sex and eroticism. For sources, I went to medieval French trouvère poetry and Hindi erotic poetry, which is quite beautiful. In Erotic Eulogy the chorus uses language as an instrument. It becomes part of the evolving Conduction, with Butch wielding the baton. Language is exploded, recombined, revived, thrust out, exploded again.

PM: So are the chorus members given phrases that they can combine and reform?

AG: It took me a while to learn how to work with the Chorus of Poets in terms of their capacities as performers and with what Butch was doing. The first thing that’s necessary is for a poet to give up a sense of owning his language, because it’s now in the hands of the chorus, and even more so because Butch pays less attention to cognitive meaning than to how the words, phrases, and texts that I wrote for the chorus entered as sonic elements in the overarching movement of the piece. He didn’t lose cognitive meaning; he transformed it. Add in eight strings, and there it is: eight voices, eight strings, and a maestro creating a unique event in real time.

I think it’s important to understand that a surrealist poet, any poet worth his salt, feels in touch with mythic powers through language—as Alice Farley felt through her theater pieces and I felt also when working with Butch Morris and his ensembles. The larger issue is the alienation involved: The performers perform, the audience observes; a staple of western culture. It’s not exactly the same in other cultures, indigenous cultures, where performance has immediate mythic and community significance. Indonesian Shadow Plays take place in the dreamtime, they don’t need to get there. The Hopi Katsina ceremony does something similar in their way for their culture. Surrealism recognized this difference but, of course, except in strictly defined events, such as Jean Benoît’s “Execution of the Last Will and Testament of the Marquis de Sade,” offered little in the way of a solution. The dis-alienated, ceremonial culture that surrealism envisioned has yet to appear. I don’t know if it ever will, and I certainly won’t be alive to find out. That creators give us glimpses of it now and then throughout the arts is enthralling. It’s not enough for me. Is it for you? But that promise, that reality, that drama taking place right there before me, certainly keeps me going.

Graubard’s most recent works include the poetry collection And tell tulip the summer (Quattro, 2012) and Targets (Anon Edition, 2013), a collaboration with the collagist David Coulter. Forthcoming is a special issue of the journal Hyperion edited by Graubard and published by Contra Mundum Press devoted to the Romanian surrealist Gherasim Luca.

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