Beat Museum Director Jerry Cimino interviews Joe Lee by telephone on October 25, 2021. Lee’s collection of Beat Generation artworks will soon be on exhibit at John Natsoulas Center for the Arts in Davis, California. The exhibition, The Beat Goes On: Poets as Painters opens on November 10th.
Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jerry Cimino: How did you get started collecting beat generation era artwork?
Joe Lee: In November of 2000, I was visiting San Francisco to celebrate my sister Katie’s birthday. I had previously read about the annual exhibition of baseball art at the George Krevsky Gallery on Geary Street. In April of that year, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had read his “Baseball Canto” at the opening. I went there to see if they still had any baseball artwork they could show me. They took me into the back office, and in there they had a large 1980s charcoal portrait of Jack Kerouac by Lawrence Ferlinghetti titled Kerouacque Later. I had been collecting Beat Generation books for a while, and decided to buy this portrait.
JC: You have a number of works by the painter Robert LaVigne in the exhibition. How did you come about acquiring them?
JL: All except one were purchased from the artist. Robert LaVigne lived in Seattle for at least the last 20 years of his life. I live an hour south. I had read about a show of his work at the Black Lab Gallery in Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle, in early 2001. I was unable to attend, but later contacted the gallery owner, Sandra Valencia, and told her I was interested in seeing his work. On September 12th she took me and my friend Patty Finnegan over to his apartment above the Seattle Public Market and introduced us. Robert had earlier moved out of his studio and had a lifetime’s worth of paintings and drawings in his small two-bedroom apartment. It was hard to find a place to sit. It was not only the number of works, but the fact that he had quite a few large paintings. During that initial visit I purchased a 17″ x 24″ pencil double-portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. This was later reproduced in Straight Hearts’ Delight, love poems and selected letters of Ginsberg and Orlovsky. Over the next twelve years I visited Robert nine or ten times, usually buying a drawing or painting each time. We would often meet for breakfast at his favorite spot, the Pike Place Grill, before we would look through his drawings. A couple times we went to the movies. My girlfriend Beth and I took him to both Big Sur and Kill Your Darlings in the U District.
JC: When did you acquire Nude with Onions?
JL: I had always assumed that some museum or private collector had long ago acquired Nude with Onions, and it wasn’t until 2008 that I asked Robert what had happened to the painting. He said that it was stacked up in his hallway entrance behind a number of other paintings. It was there still in the shipping crate that the Whitney Museum had shipped to him after the 1995-1996 Beat Culture and the New America exhibition. I asked him if it was for sale and he said “Who would want it?” I made him an offer that he accepted and borrowed my bother-in-law Rick’s pickup truck to get it home.
JC: Tell me about some of the other works in the collection and how you acquired them.
JL: There is a 1956 pencil self-portrait by Jack Kerouac that was drawn in Mexico, and later given to his then-girlfriend Helen Weaver. She sold it, and it ended up with the bookseller Ken Lopez, who sold it to me in 2003. I wrote Ms. Weaver to confirm the provenance of the drawing and we ended up corresponding over the next 18 years, She talks about the drawing in her memoir, The Awakener.
I corresponded with Carolyn Cassady for a number of years, starting in 2000. She sold me two portraits she did of her husband Neal in 1952, both of which are in the exhibition at the Natsoulas Gallery. The first is in red ink, and the second one was drawn in 1952 and colored in 2001. There is also a portrait of Allen Ginsberg she painted in 2003.
I was familiar with John Natsoulas because of his work putting together the book The Beat Generation Galleries and Beyond. I was honored that he was interested in including a number of artworks and photographs in the exhibition: The Beat Goes On: Poets as Painters. It is fitting that the public can see these works, a number of which were created in the Bay Area.
Some info on some of the pieces in Joe Lee’s collection, which will be on display at the Natsoulas Center for the Arts:
The most well known work is Robert LaVigne’s Nude with Onions.
It was last shown in public at Sotheby’s NYC last June, prior to the “BENT” auction to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.
The painting has also been exhibited at:
- The Whitney Museum of Art, 1995
- Mt. Holyoke College, The Art as a Muscular Principle, 1975
- The Keller Gallery SF, 1954
- The Walker Art Center, NYU , 1994
- Minneapolis, 1996
- M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, SF, 1996
Among the Beat literature history books that include an image of this painting are: Beat Culture and the New America, edited by Lisa Phillips, I Celebrate Myself, the Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, by Bill Morgan, The Beat Generation in SF, by Bill Morgan, Peter Orlovsky, A Life in Words edited by Bill Morgan, The Late Great Allen Ginsberg, A Photo Biography“, by Christopher Felver.
William Carlos Williams: Descent of the Image, by Robert LaVigne, along with Nude with Onions was part of Art as a Muscular Principle, Mt. Holyoke College, Amherst, MA. 1975. This group show included works by Bruce Conner, Jay Defeo and others. The fifteen other works by Robert LaVigne were acquired from the artist.
The 1979 double portrait of Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg by Robert LaVigne is reproduced in the book Straight Hearts’ Delight, Love Poems and Selected Letters of Orlovsky, and Ginsberg, edited by Winston Leyland.
The William S. Burroughs self-portrait was included in William S. Burroughs Paintings and Bill Daniel Photos, at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, TX, 1995. Purchased from the Webb Gallery.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Kerouacque Later was part of his Love in the Days of Rage exhibition at The George Krevsky Gallery, SF, in 2000. Purchased from the George Krevsky.
Brion Gysin’s Sidi Slimane is featured in the 2004, Xochi 23. Acquired from publisher Theo Green.
Edie Parker Kerouac’s 1943 portrait of her then-husband Jack was first shown in public at Sotheby’s NYC, prior to its acquisition at the Sotheby’s Allen Ginsberg estate auction, 1999.
Robert LaVigne’s 1954 portrait of Hope Savage, Sura, was purchased from Steve Chandler, Seattle, friend of LaVigne.
The Peter Orlovsky 1954 self portrait was acquired from Robert LaVigne.
The Jack Kerouac self portrait was acquired from bookseller Ken Lopez, Hadley, MA (from Helen Weaver).
Harold Norse drawing was acquired from artist Soheyl Dahl, friend of Norse.
Two works by Mohammed Mrabet were exhibited at his show at the Gotham Book Mart and Gallery sometime prior to 2006. Both Mrabet works and the Corso still life were acquired from Andreas Brown, Gotham Book Mart and Gallery.