The most famous event in the history of avant-garde literary San Francisco was Allen Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore St. on Oct. 7, 1955. That frenzied reading, the subsequent publication by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books of “Howl and Other Poems,” and the arrests and obscenity trial that followed launched Ginsberg’s career, put City Lights on the map and made the Beat movement nationally famous.
The epochal reading is commemorated by a raised plaque in front of the site of the long-gone Six Gallery, bearing a bas-relief bronze likeness of Ginsberg and the famous “Howl” opening lines: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”
Ironically, the building that once housed the Six Gallery is now an upscale restaurant (it used to be an upscale rug store) in the heart of the singles-bar-redolent Bermuda Triangle in Cow Hollow, a neighborhood whose denizens are not noted for madness, starvation or hysteria.
The site of the Six Gallery is one of San Francisco’s literary shrines. But few people realize that an unremarkable-appearing apartment building just eight blocks up the hill on Fillmore Street, across the street from the Pacific Heights SPCA, was the quasi-communal home of many of the city’s cutting-edge artists and writers from around 1950 to 1965. Painterland, as the building was known, helped nourish the artistic careers and social lives (the two were often hard to distinguish) of such luminaries as Joan Brown, Michael McClure, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Manuel Neri, Robert Duncan and Wally Hedrick.
Painterland was located at 2322 Fillmore St., between Clay and Washington streets in the main commercial strip of Pacific Heights. Pacific Heights had been San Francisco’s most prestigious neighborhood since the 19th century, but rents even in upscale areas of the city were reasonable until the 1970s, making it possible for artists with limited income to live in districts they would never be able to afford today. As Anastasia Aukeman writes in “Welcome to Painterland: Bruce Conner and the Rat Bastard Protective Association,” a number of artists and musicians were living in the building before 1956, including Bay Area Figurative School painter James Weeks, musician and future gallery owner Jim Newman, painter Sonia Gechtoff, and saxophonist and artist Paul Beattie. When Beattie and his wife moved out of their second-floor unit in early 1955, artists Hedrick and his wife, DeFeo, took over the Beatties’ apartment for $65 a month (about $700 today).
The following year, 23-year-old poet McClure and his wife, poet Joanna McClure, moved into an apartment on the top floor.
McClure was to become a central figure not just at Painterland (a name he came up with) but throughout San Francisco’s literary, musical and artistic circles. Dubbed “the prince of the San Francisco scene” because of his good looks and wide-ranging creative connections, McClure hung out with, and sometimes collaborated with, the likes of Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Jack Kerouac, Jerry Garcia, Ginsberg, Isamu Noguchi and Terry Riley. One of the things that drew McClure and other artists to the neighborhood was its proximity to the vibrant Black musical and cultural scene in the Western Addition, just a few blocks south on Fillmore Street, not yet destroyed by redevelopment. As McClure told writer Rebecca Solnit, “We were enjoying the black stores, the black ambience, the black music. We had our faces toward them but our butts toward Pacific Heights.”
The apartment took a decided turn toward the avant-garde — and toward serious partying — in late 1957 and 1958. That was when newly arrived young artist Conner, who had briefly lived with the McClures in Painterland before moving into a nearby apartment on Jackson Street, formed what he called the Rat Bastard Protective Association. The irreverent name was inspired by the epithet “rat bastard,” the favorite cuss of a friend of McClure’s, and by the name of one of the city’s two largest garbage companies, the Scavenger’s Protective Association (later to become Golden Gate Disposal). Conner sent out letters to a number of young artists connected to Painterland, including Brown, Neri, Hedrick and DeFeo, informing them that they were members of the Rat Bastard Protective Association, that he was the founder and president, that they should pay their dues right away, and that the first meeting was next Friday at his house.
This was the start of an artistic and social circle that would have a major impact on the San Francisco and national art scene — and have a hell of a lot of fun along the way. Their artistic interests and practices varied widely, but a common thread was a Dadaist, playful, irreverent, non-commercial approach to art. Conner said that he and his friends saw themselves as “people who were making things with the detritus of society, who themselves were ostracized or alienated from full involvement with society.” Conner and some other artists in the circle practiced assemblage, art created by found objects, often junk; they tended to reject conventional art-world “success” and often simply destroyed their works. Others, like Brown, worked in more traditional genres and enjoyed critical and commercial success. Several were serious musicians and played in jazz bands, including the Studio 13 Jass Band. Others opened alternative art galleries: poet Duncan and artists Jess and Harry Jacobus opened the short-lived King Ubu Gallery, the predecessor of the Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore. All of them pursued an uncompromisingly personal vision — an approach epitomized by DeFeo, who worked on her enormous, now-legendary painting/sculpture “The Rose” in her big Painterland apartment for seven years.
In the time-honored bohemian tradition, the artists in the circle formed close friendships — and partied a lot. Duncan and his partner Jess became close friends with the McClures, and helped them move in to Painterland. After Brown and her husband, Bill Brown, moved into Painterland next door to DeFeo and Hedrick, the two couples cut a hole in the wall between their apartments so they could come and go easily. Hedrick built a deck on the roof so they could all sunbathe nude. The two couples, and others in the building, threw endless parties. When the McClures moved out of their top-floor flat, DeFeo and Hedrick took over that apartment as well, “and the place became a bigger party area than ever,” DeFeo recalled. “We really had everything.”
The Painterland era came to an end on Nov. 9, 1965, when DeFeo’s “The Rose” was removed by forklift from the building and shipped to the Pasadena Art Museum. That same day, DeFeo and Hedrick moved out of the building and separated.
One cutting-edge artistic circle had faded away, but another one sprang up at almost exactly the same time and in the same place. A few young people who had been involved in the fabled ur-hippie Red Dog summer in Virginia City, were living in an apartment on 2111 Pine St., just a few blocks away from Painterland.
They called themselves the Family Dog. On Oct. 16, 1965, three weeks before DeFeo and Hedrick moved out, the Family Dog put on the first rock dance ever held in San Francisco, at Longshoremen’s Hall. In the San Francisco arts underground, an invisible baton had been passed.
(Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco.” His most recent book is “Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City.” All the material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read earlier Portals of the Past, go to sfchronicle.com/portals.)