Making my way through Denver’s new Clyfford Still Museum, I was delighted to find the name of Weldon Kees on the famous “irascibles” letter of 1950, declaring the non-participation of New York’s most “advanced” painters in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of new American painting. In the 1930s Kees worked in the central Denver Public Library, just across the street from the new Still museum, filling a number of roles while studying for a degree in library science at the University of Denver. A wry and merciless observer of others – and of himself – he wrote to friends of “Shy virgins wanting to reserve Married Love by Marie Stopes… The deaf and dumb lady who handed me a piece of paper with this legend: ‘goon with the wing.’”
An elusive and haunting figure, best remembered for his poetry, Kees had taken up painting only six years prior to signing the “irascibles” letter. By 1949, he had succeeded Clement Greenberg as art critic for The Nation. By the fall of 1950, he would abandon New York for San Francisco, where the “Poet’s Follies” he organized, mixing burlesque, jazz, and poetry readings, starred a young Lawrence Ferlinghetti. (Kees was a skilled jazz pianist with a passion for early blues and ragtime). Seemingly the archetypal young man from the provinces (he was born in Beatrice – pronounced Be-AT-rice – Nebraska, in 1914. The pronunciation comes first hand from a Beatrice native of my acquaintance), Kees complicated the trajectory of his career by leaving the cultural capital of New York for California, and by foraying into painting, jazz, and film making.
In 1955, a year after divorcing his wife, Kees’s car was found abandoned near the Golden Gate Bridge, keys still in the ignition. Despite the occasional rumor that he had in fact run off to Mexico – one of the alternatives he proposed in the last weeks of his life – he almost certainly jumped to his death. Friends searching his apartment after his disappearance found a curdled saucer of milk left out for his latest cat, Lonesome, and copies of Dostoievsky’s The Devils and The Tragic Sense of Life, by Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamono, at his bedside.
When I first thought of writing about Kees, I intended to use his movement from east to west to demonstrate how the west coast held its own cultural significance in midcentury America — as the proving ground for the Beats and later for the counterculture. Stills, as I noted in my review, spent several formative years as part of the Bay Area art scene. And when abstraction began to emerge as the key style of postwar American art, the “Northwest Mystics”, dominated by Seattle artist Morris Graves, were taken as seriously as the New York School painters. Kees himself wrote that “the jazz, some of the painting, the landscape, the temperature, have it all over the E. seaboard.”
The standard view is to contrast California mysticism and hedonism with New York radicalism and intellectualism, to the detriment of the former, but the movement back and forth of figures like Kees, Stills, and the Beats undermines this easy dichotomy; Kees’s colleagues in San Francisco also included Pauline Kael, just making her name as film critic. Another such bicoastal figure is Harry Smith, the “Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel” and creator of the influential Anthology of American Folk Music; Smith arrived in New York, having spent his own formative years in the Bay Area’s bohemian circles, bearing an impeccable left-coast pedigree – a native of Bellingham, Washington, he claimed his real father was the notorious ceremonial magician Aleister (sic) Crowley, who had supposedly encountered Smith’s mother while swimming in Puget Sound.
Yet when I sat down and read Kees’s poetry, another theme forcibly asserted itself – the deep pessimism, the sense of looking into the void, that played such a part in the midcentury state of mind. From his first poem, “Subtitle” — “Kindly consult/ Your programs: observe that/ There are no exits. This is/ A necessary precaution” — through “For My Daughter” – “I have no daughter. I desire none.” – to the “Robinson” poems with their chilly, almost offhand evocations of modern anomie, Kees balances sly detachment against “yawning existential horrors” (to quote an internet comment on an article on Kees).
This is very different stuff than the angst of later confessional poets such as Lowell and Plath, whose despair is essentially personal, rooted in disappointment and disillusionment. Kees, by comparison, proposes that this is simply how it is, and does so with enough coolness and elegance that it comes as no surprise that Wallace Stevens wrote to Kees ordering a volume of a limited edition of his verse. Yet Stevens rarely provides anything like the visceral tug of dread supplied by the lost and nameless dog of “Dog,” or the legless beggar of “La Vita Nuova.” “Crime Club,” perhaps my favorite, juxtaposes a suburban corpse, found with the note “”To be killed this way is quite all right with me’” with the detective, now “incurably insane,” “Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues/Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen.” The closest thing to it may be the bleaker fiction of Shirley Jackson, whose story “The Lottery” was published in 1947.
Kees’s painting is not quite so intense an experience, though it does exhibit continuities with the poetry. A reviewer for the New York Times, seeing some of it in 1999, observed: “It isn’t particularly innovative work, but its dark pessimism, very much in the character of its time, has a polished, personal edge and is cumulatively forceful.” A Boston critic, employing a candor Kees himself would have admired, said of a 2010 exhibition that “I find second- or third-tier abstract expressionism as depressing as anyone, but Kees is better than that.” As others have noted, Kees’s painting carries echoes of Picasso and, especially, Miro as much as of his New York contemporaries (though his painting “After Hours,” with its hieroglyphic-like surface patterns, evokes the work of Adolph Gottlieb). The sleek, faceless gray figure of “Monument” distantly suggests the unnerving biomorphs of French surrealist Yves Tanguy.
The importance of Kees’s painting does not lie in any claims to innovation, so much as in the connection it provides between his poetry and the work and thought of the artists around him at the moment when Harold Rosenberg spoke of “the void” as the only certainty of modern life. It is the unflinching directness with which Kees gazed into the void that makes his best work memorable. Pessimism has a very bad name in American culture, but it is hard for me not to admire the willingness of Kees and his contemporaries to name the discontents of a war-battered world faced with the threat of nuclear annhilation. Kees was willing to suggest that perhaps this is not the best of all possible worlds – or that, if it is, we’re in deeper trouble than we ever imagined.