The Beats: Pictures of a Legend

Gift of Gary S. Davis, National Gallery of Art, Washingon
Jack Kerouac; photograph by Allen Ginsberg, 1953. Ginsberg’s caption reads: ‘Jack Kerouac wandering along East 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad, passing statue of Congressman Samuel “Sunset” Cox, “The Letter-Carrier’s Friend” in Tompkins Square toward corner of Avenue A, Lower East Side; he’s making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om, first walking around the neighborhood, then involved with The Subterraneans, pencils & notebook in wool shirt-pockets, Fall 1953, Manhattan.”

Both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs discovered late in life that making works of art is the way to get money. Literature just doesn’t do it. Speaking engagements pay, but eventually they become tiring—or one exhausts the market. Neither of the two had ever been money-mad, but old age requires a bit of a cushion. Burroughs turned to painting. He would set up paint cans in front of blank canvases and then shoot at them; the splatter was the art. Although these paintings are his best-known artworks, they make up only a small part of his output: he did twenty-four shotgun paintings in 1982 and a few more before he died in 1997. According to his friend James Grauerholz, Burroughs turned out more than 1,500 artworks between 1982 and 1996—including stencils and targets, which were almost all brightly colored abstractions—and had his work exhibited in several museums and more than eighty galleries worldwide.

As Ginsberg said:

If you’re famous, you can get away with anything! William Burroughs spent the last ten years painting, and makes a lot more money out of his painting than he does out of his previous writing. If you establish yourself in one field, it’s possible that people then take you seriously in another. Maybe too seriously. I know lots of great photographers who are a lot better than me, who don’t have a big, pretty coffee table book like I have. I’m lucky.

Ginsberg had been taking snapshots of friends with a borrowed camera since the mid-1940s. In 1953 he bought a small Kodak Retina camera for $13 secondhand at a Bowery pawnshop, and for the next ten years he photographed all his friends and activities in a casual, spontaneous way. It wasn’t until 1983 that Ginsberg rediscovered these pictures among his papers.

As Sarah Greenough writes of Ginsberg in the catalog of “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg”:

Long a foe of American materialism and convinced that it was better to give to friends, colleagues, and worthy causes than to pay taxes, he found himself in the mid-1980s sixty years old and without much money in the bank. Until his death in 1997, he presented numerous lectures and workshops around the world on “Snapshot Poetics” and attentively worked with dealers and agents to sell his photographs and reproduction rights.
It was also in the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.