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Beats In Kansas: The Beat Generation in the Heartland


The Wichita Group

by James Johnson



The Fantastic Fifties: Part I

Bombers and Bohemians
Kansas’s Beat History


America changed in the 1950s. After decades of hardship and sacrifice born by the Depression and World War II, our culture exploded into the dominant economic and artistic forces that has shaped the entire world.

With the post war conversion to a consumer society, the American identity that we understand emerged with gusto. Defining characteristics such as Suburbia, Materialism, and Conformity produced a "Donna Reed /Leave it To Beaver" identity spread by television and held dear by a largely white, educated middle class.

But there were other forces at work — an alternative personality seeking another definition of American life. They were called the Beats.

Often thought of as a coastal movement (New York and San Francisco), the Beat Generation grew from all parts of our country — including Kansas. In fact, so many well-known Beat era artists and writers came from Wichita, the poet Allen Ginsberg made a famous visit in February 1966 to "see where McClure and Conner came from" and wrote one of his most powerful works — WICHITA VORTEX SUTRA.

Michael McClure and Bruce Conner (along with publisher David Haselwood) played such important roles in the art and literature of the American Beat scene that they are called "the Wichita Group". A product of East High and Wichita University, they were the first of many young Kansans who would be a part of the new culture that would shape the artistic future of America.



"Ghost Mother Poet Vision" © 2001 Michael McClure
Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.


Michael McClure was born in Marysville, Kansas in 1932. He moved to Wichita from the Seattle area in 1945. Although a writer, McClure always produced art. Influenced by the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollack, McClure’s artworks exhibit the psychological power of pure human emotion — the animal within — that characterizes his poetry. In his work GHOST MOTHER POET VISION we see the "drip" style of Pollack combined with a sketchy, dream-like drawing. The work is very personal, but not literal. These are symbols — or impressions of symbols — that recall the universal power of Motherhood. In the drawing BLACKSILVER WATERFALL; SONATA FOR BRUCE CONNER we see a slightly different McClure, this one autobiographical, referring to his friendship with Wichitan Bruce Conner which has endured for over 50 years.



"Blacksilver Waterfall; Sonata for Bruce Conner" © 2001 Michael McClure
Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.


Bruce Conner was born in McPherson in 1933. His father moved the family to Wichita in 1937 where he became the Wichita regional manager of the Dillons grocery stores. Bruce attended Hyde Elementary School, Robinson Junior High, East High School, and Wichita University. He moved to San Francisco in 1957 at the height of the Beat Renaissance. Already an exhibiting artist (his first New York show was in 1956) Conner would soon redefine two different artistic mediums — sculpture and films — and become one of this country's most influential artists.



"Untitled 1954" © 2001 Bruce Conner
Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.


Prominent as an assemblage artist Conner made art from materials at hand, often using debris from the surrounding San Francisco neighborhoods. The work UNTITLED 1954 is an excellent example. The Victorian frame becomes a part of the work generating a sense of mystery or past memories that are reflected in the drawing. This is one of the earliest extant examples of his assemblage process.

For all his fame as an artist, Bruce Conner may be more important as a filmmaker. His first film, A MOVIE (1958), was constructed from discarded film stock from old movies, newsreels, and government films. Conner edited the unrelated film stock into a coherent, profound movie. It immediately changed the way we look at films and became influential to later filmmakers like Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Peter Sellers. More importantly he is credited with being the progenitor of music video, a distinction he reluctantly accepts. In 1988 Bruce Conner was awarded the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement for independent filmmakers and in 1992 A MOVIE was inducted into the Library of Congress Film Registry just ahead of Walt Disney’s PINNOCHIO.

In 1983 the writer William Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas. becoming the final Beat giant to be associated with Kansas. He, along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac are the original Beatniks. Each became larger than life, with legions of admirers worldwide. Their successes and tragedies are repeated as a kind of cultural myth that approached religion. This is illustrated in Burroughs graphic work SOMETHING NEW HAS BEEN ADDED. This work is a lithograph by the English illustrator Ralph Steadman which Burroughs has modified by adding 18 bulletholes, all documented as to the weapon and ammunition. It is reference to his lifelong fondness of guns and their role in his sometimes tragic life.

America changed in the 1950s. Brilliant minds burst forth and expressed ideas that shocked and inspired. Nothing would ever be the same. Art, music, literature and lifestyles began a trip that lead down the post modern highway that would travel from the Beats, to Hippies, Punks, Grunge, Xers, etc. It is impossible to imagine the freedom of these ideas without the enormous first step of the Beat generation, whose honesty and bravery in the face of a hostile culture opened the doors of what is acceptable for all who followed.



The Fantastic Fifties: Part II

The Wichita Art Scene Comes Alive

The decade of the 1950s was a time of growth and maturity for the city of Wichita. Driven by the commerce of the Cold War, the city grew in population, developing tastes similar to larger American metropolitan areas. It was during this time period that the Wichita arts scene exploded, producing some of its most noted artists and creating for the first time dedicated art galleries and artists’ cooperatives. Two galleries led the way — the indeX Gallery, formed by Wichita University faculty members, and somewhat later, the Bottega Gallery formed by WU students.

indeX Gallery:

The first exhibition of the members of the indeX Group was on October 12, 1958, at the fine arts building at Wichita University. Seven artists participated, all associated with the university. In December, five of the original group opened an art gallery at 116 1/2 South Broadway — above the infamous Fairland Cafe — to exhibit their works as well as others. This was Wichita’s first dedicated art gallery.



“Persistent Forms” by Enrique Riveron (1947)
Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.


The idea for the gallery came from Enrique Riveron, who had access to the location. Born and educated in Cuba, Riveron studied painting in Paris (where he was friends with many artists and writers) and worked for several years in New York before moving to Wichita in 1934. He was joined by WU professors David Bernard and Bob Kiskadden, Southeast High School art instructor Rex Hall, and WU teaching assistant Paul “Pablo” Edwards. All of these artists were Modern painters interested in bringing to Wichita high art on par with current international styles.



“Coelacanth” by David Bernard
Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.

In a review of their opening show, the Wichita Eagle noted, “The indeX group at present is concentrating on abstract art — so abstract that it will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But America right now leads in this particular phase of art life, and it is only natural these men would be concentrating their efforts in what is now the main stream of art in this country .“



Untitled by Rex Hall (1956)
Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.


Being in a prime location next door to the fashionable Henry’s Clothing Store the indeX brought a new professionalism to selling art in Wichita. Although the enterprise lasted less than two years, it defined the standards for future local commercial galleries and set the stage for the next gallery that made a mark in Wichita — the Bottega Gallery.



“High Country” by Robert Kiskadden (1959)
Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.



Bottega Gallery:

The Bottega Gallery, like the indeX Gallery, was a product of Wichita University. The difference being, it was organized by students (and graduate students) instead of faculty members. The Bottega was a cooperative gallery with studios as well as an exhibition space. Founded by James G. Davis, Eugene “Skip” Harwick and his mother Gladys (a puppeteer), and Ken Jones the group eventually included most of the serious young artists in Wichita. Located at 110 East Douglas, the gallery opened in 1959 and remained open until 1962.




by Jim Davis
Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.


Bottega was an edgier place than the indeX in terms of the art as well as the personalities of the artists. Its members were the “young Turks” of the Wichita scene, ready to make their mark on American art. Openings were often loud parties where little commerce occurred — a situation now understood as standard operating procedure. Although not a commercial success, the Bottega gallery remains historically important. Of the 10 or so young artists who exhibited during its brief time, at least 8 became professors of art, a tribute to the Wichita University graduate art program, and several, notably James G. Davis, and Mary Joan Waid, became important artists whose work is still shown internationally.



“Moonscape” by Skip Harwick
Emprise Bank Collection, Wichita.


The history of the indeX and Bottega galleries is important because they illustrate the dynamics and the structure of modern art history. The indeX, formed by nationally recognized artists in their 40s and 50s, wanted to exhibit serious work they felt was largely ignored by the Wichita institutions, where tastes, they felt, were too conservative. The Bottega, formed largely by artists in their 20s (and students of the indeX artists), wanted to distinguish themselves from all established art groups, foreshadowing the individualism and independence of youth movements of the 60s. This tension between established art tastes, academic interests, and the emerging avant-garde is what drives art forward.


The Magic Locals

“The only way to end the brain drain of artists and other free thinkers is to make an end of present politics, invite the wild ones back, give them lots of money and set them loose on the town.”
— Allen Ginsberg, Wichita, 1966


Allen Ginsberg was drawn into the Vortex. A fate known by the original Magic Locals, the people who are called “the Wichita Group”. They were the first to repeat the myth of the Vortex, the story that became both a description of dire circumstances and the name of a place.

Bruce Conner, David Haselwood, and Michael McClure were/are “the Wichita Group”. They met in the time of Truman and began practicing magic that would expand our minds. They didn’t invent the Vortex, but they gave it real meaning. It came from Streiff’s science-fiction, Ezra Pound, the Wichita University Homecoming, and way too much cheap wine. They described a physical force that held the Outcasts against their will in a culture that didn’t want them. It explained their presence in a place that was alien to their desires and thoughts.

Soon, one by one, each found the formula for escape — McClure in 1953, Conner in 1954 and Haselwood in 1955. Looking for a place where they could practice their magic, near others like themselves. After many travels and searches each, independently, found home in San Francisco.

The myth of the Vortex grew as the words and the images of the Wichita Group gained fame and stature. Hipsters spoke of it often in the shrines of North Beach and the galleries of the Haight. So when another wave of Magic Locals arrived in the Bay Area, (Branaman and Pewther, Todd, Plymell, and more) they found recognition and a common bond — each had escaped the Vortex.

But not all made it. Many could not find the formula of escape. Of those who stayed, some recognized the myth of the Vortex and named a holy place, a beanery, to signify it’s power — The Magic Theatre Vortex. There, the remaining Magic Locals practiced the words and the images of their earlier kin. It was here that Allen Ginsberg found the “center of the Vortex” on his Guggenheim road trip of 1966. A place of magic in the midst of the “radio aircraft assembly frame ammunition petroleum nightclub Newspaper streets.”

Ginsberg knew of the myth of the Vortex from the Magic Locals in the Bay Area. He wanted to see the city that produced so many great minds and so many weapons of Death. “On to Wichita to Prophesy ! O frightful bard ! Into the heart of the Vortex,” he cried, for he knew well the forces he would encounter. The poet entertained police at the beanery, and Birchers in the roadhouse Showboat. At the University that would not pay him, he chanted his newly completed WICHITA VORTEX SUTRA. Calmness prevailed. His words stumped the establishment and lifted the spirits of the Resistance. Now all that read know Wichita as the Vortex.

From the science-fiction minds of young poets, spinning through collegiate illuminations and abuse, going public on the streets of San Francisco and in the words of Our Great Poet, the myth of the Vortex is now a part of our American history. “Proud Wichita, vain Wichita cast the first stone!” — JWJ


“And that’s the Vortex in Toto!“
— Bruce Conner, 1987


Credits: Special thanks to Lee Streiff and Bruce Conner. — Quotations: Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980, © Harper & Row, New York, 1984.

© Copyright 2000-2011. James Wallace Johnson. Wichita, Kansas. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission, posted 16 March 2011.

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