SAM BENDRIX’s Artistic Atmosphere

Posted by Isabel Smith-Bernstein, Dramaturgy Assistant 

Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir , written by Keith Bunin, directed by Mark Rucker and starring Luke Mcfarlane,  begins previews this weekend at City Theatre. We’ll be posting some information and interviews over the next several weeks in order to provide some background and context to help open windows into Sam Bendrix. 

Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir is set in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. During this time, the Village was alive with modernist art movements. The energy in New York City in this period was influenced by the Beat Generation, the New York School and other artists. These artists operated out of Greenwich Village so the village acted as the pulsing heart for 1950s creative movements in New York City. In Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir, Sam Bendrix lives and works in Greenwich village– so he lives his life fully immersed in the art world of his era.

 Art Movements of the 1950s 

At the close of World War II, The United States emerged as one of the most powerful nations in the world. America’s new elevated stature was reflected in the arts, as American artists began to lead art movements which became recognized across Europe– even in Paris. World War II had shocked the world with its devastation and scale, leaving traditional values and systems shaken and exposed. The emerging generation of writers, artists and musicians reacted to what they had experienced either serving in the military or watching their friends and family serve. Many of these artists lived in New York City. As a result, New York City artists became leaders in the cutting edge and avant-guard, forging paths for modernist artists.

The Beat Generation

“I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.” — Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac first introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” in 1948 in order to characterize and draw awareness to a perceived underground, anti-conformist youth movement in New York. Colloquially “beat” could mean “tired” or “beaten down”,  but Kerouac expanded the meaning to include the connotations “upbeat,” “beatific,” and the musical association of being “on the beat”.

The Beat Generation were a social and literary movement of the 1950s and 1960s characterized by a rejection of society, experimenting with taboo sexuality, use of drugs, rejection of materialism, nonconformity and spontaneous creativity. The Beat Generation became notorious for their bohemian hedonism. Jack Kerouac was a founding member and a spokes person of the Beat Generation; one of his most notable works is On the Road first published in 1957 and still in print today. Other famous beat writers included Allen Ginsberg (Howl, 1956), William S. Burrough (Naked Lunch, 1959), Gary Snyder (Myths and Texts, 1960).

The New York School

The New York was an informal group of American poets, dancers, musicians, composers, artists and painters active in the Post-War period in New York city. The group included the individual movements and artists mentioned throughout as well as many others.Within the “School” the artists from all fields influenced and fed off of what others were doing. The painters were firmly rooted in the 1950s while the poets reached their zenith about a decade later. For this reason, the poets were more influenced by the artists than the other way around. However, the New York School artists all worked within a similar socio-political atmosphere: Greenwich Village. In The Village, the artists were able to meet in such locations as the Cedar Tavern to discuss and debate similar social and political ideas.

Why I Am Not a Painter

Mike Goldberg, 1955

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

The New York School of Painting

The New York School of Painting or “Abstract Expressionism’ was the first art movement that began exclusively in the United States. As a result, it elevated New York’s importance in the world art community. Abstract expressionism combines the lessons taught by Picasso and Matisse, Surrealism, Cubism and Fauvism.

Photographer Hans Namuth extensively documented Pollock's unique painting techniques.

Jackson Pollock was a leader in the abstract expressionist movement and revolutionized how paintings could be painted and approached– he was one of the first to recognize that the artist’s journey is as important as the final product. Abstract Expressionism has an image of being rebellious, anarchistic, idiosyncratic and nihilistic. However, these are sweeping generalizations applied to many different artists painting in New York City around the same time. The art movements of the 1960s built upon the foundation of abstract expressionism: Fluxus, Neo-Dada, Anti-Formalist Movement.

The poster from 1951 for the 9th Street Art Exhibition

The abstract expressionists of this era commenced in 1951 for the 9th Street Art Exhibition. This massive exhibition was the stepping-out for the avant-guard artists. The exhibit was a big success and radicalized art forever.

The New York School Poets

“I don’t … like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.'”- Frank O’Hara on formal poetic structure

These poets were classified by their light, violent or observational subject matter. The poets wrote in a direct, immediate, spontaneous manner of writing that was directly influenced by paintings. New York School Poets wrote many stream of consciousness works which used vivid and highly visual imagery– also reminiscent of an abstract expressionist painting. Many of these poets shared certain life experiences in common as most of them attended Harvard, served in the military, were homosexual, were art critics and lived in New York as they were developing their poetic voce.

Frank O’Hara was the lynchpin of this group, holding them all together until his death in 1966. O’Hara wrote autobiographical poems based on his observations of New York City. Other poets include John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Ron Padgett, Kenneth Knoch and many others.

Jazz

Like most other art movements, jazz changed in the 1940s-1950s. Bebop and cool jazz became the favored styles. Bebop is a style of jazz which focuses on tempo and improvisation based on the harmonic structure and melody. Bebop is now what we associated with modern jazz. Some famous bebop musicians include: Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

Charlie Parker performing “All the Things That you Are”:

Cool jazz is characterized by its relaxed tempos and lighter tone. It contrasts with the bebop style and often includes formal arrangements and incorporates elements of classical music.

Duke Ellington performing “Reflections in D”:

Jazz performers such as Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Miles Davis created sounds for painters, minimal artists, pop artists and other artists of the 1960s.

New York’s Legacy

The Post-War period in New York helped to solidify New York City as a world trend-setter and leader in the arts, stealing the title away from Paris with its avant-gaurd, modernist artists.

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