As 2013 is the 60th Anniversary of City Lights Books, I’ve been reflecting lately on its lost history. When I started working here, for example, I came across a catalog from sometime in the early ’60s, advertising City Lights publications to the rest of the trade, and I was immediately struck by the appearance, not just of the press’s own titles, but of the full lists of various Bay Area small presses—Oyez, Auerhahn, and White Rabbit, if I remember correctly—which often enough were only available in the bookstore’s then-downstairs poetry section. In a way, City Lights was SPD avant la lettre, distributing small poetry presses not because it made money but because it was a cool thing to do.
Considering the history of the place and having spent time here, I get the distinct impression of Lawrence Ferlinghetti making it up as he goes along, using City Lights’ success for the greater good of poetry, and I think this ethos endures even in today’s necessarily more professionalized era, where SPD is its own organization in Berkeley with a packed warehouse of small press titles of all genres and the poetry section at City Lights has moved upstairs because the downstairs is better bookselling real estate. The upstairs didn’t belong to City Lights back then, at any rate, as the store only gradually took over the entire building, but the biggest change in the basement has been the shelving, which now goes to the ceiling to maximize the retail space. Back in the day the shelves only went halfway up, and you could see the inspirational phrases painted on the walls and wryly retained by Lawrence from the basement’s pre-City Lights incarnation as a “holy roller” church, of which only “I AM THE DOOR” remains visible, because, of course, painted on a door. But since there was wallspace, Lawrence would sometimes permit artists to hang work, and I would give a great deal for a comprehensive list of all the shows staged in the makeshift gallery at City Lights’ basement. (Given that some of these exhibitions took place under the auspices of various employees over the years, I doubt Lawrence himself knows.)
One of the better-known City Lights shows was Apparitions: Paintings and Drawings by Marie Wilson, which took place in March 1984. Memory of this show has endured in collective consciousness in part because of two printed items of evidence, a small poster and a twice-folded broadside depicting several images along with a short biography and testimonials by surrealist poets Nanos Valaoritis, Thom Burns, and Philip Lamantia. Yet Marie Wilson herself remains obscure today, and researching her images on the web is continually thwarted by the existence of the namesake actress/pinup girl, best remembered as the title character of the radio, TV, and film versions of My Friend Irma (1947-54). Somehow even LACMA’s awesomely comprehensive and revelatory exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States (2012) managed to overlook Marie Wilson, despite the California-born artist’s active participation in the Paris surrealist group in the 1950s.
Born in Cedarville, California in 1922, Wilson received a BA from Mills College and an MA from UC Berkeley but afterwards fell under the influence of Jean Varda of the Wolfgang Paalen/Gordon Onslow Ford parasurrealist group Dynaton. She was introduced into surrealist circles in Paris by Paalen in 1952. After a 1954 stint as Picasso’s studio assistant, she worked in Paalen’s studio, and in 1955, André Breton included several of her works in an official surrealist exhibition at the gallery L’Étoile Scellée.* In 1957 he published a full-page photo of one of her paintings in the second issue of his most significant post-war periodical, Le surréalisme, même. During this period she met the Greek surrealist poet Valaoritis, whom she would marry in 1960, and they would spend the ensuing 50-odd years in Greece, Paris, and the Bay Area.**
I’d first learned of Wilson from Lamantia, whose 1970 volume The Blood of the Air (Four Seasons) has a frontispiece drawing by her. He also gave me a copy of the Apparitions pamphlet, and I later came across a double issue of Paul Mariah and Rich Tagett’s Manroot (6/7, April, 1972), for which she drew the front and back covers and section dividers for extended features of work by Valaoritis and Éluard, in addition to contributing her own portfolio of “9 Psychograms.” Apart from the abovementioned works, however, reproductions of Wilson’s art remain difficult to find, limited to a handful of illustrations for poetry books and a few catalogs in French and Greek. You can see examples of her work on the web, but I’ve yet to have the good fortune to see any original of hers in person. Based on what I’ve seen, I tend to favor her drawings over her paintings, though in truth they are fundamentally similar. As I understand, the symmetrical structures that dominate her work are the result of a spontaneous compositional process, one that starts in the center and works its way out by continually mirroring every mark on the opposite side of the central axis. I don’t know if paint mutes the dynamic effect evident in black ink, but the drawings seem to have an extra quivering dimension to them due to both the inexactness of a symmetry spontaneously executed by hand and the nervous energy of her line itself. But I would more than welcome the chance to be proven wrong by spending time with her paintings in person.
In recent years, Wilson and Valaoritis have permanently relocated to Athens and, now in her early 90s, she is too physically infirm to paint or draw. They are not especially easy to get ahold of, though fortunately my friend Peter Maravelis, the noir expert who moonlights as the events coordinator at City Lights, usually visits Greece once or twice a year on family business and is good friends with the couple. In 2011, when the press was about to publish Will Alexander’s Compression & Purity as volume 5 in the Spotlight Poetry Series and needed suitable cover art, I knew only a “real surrealist” would do, and was able to dispatch a note with Peter asking Wilson for the use of one of her drawings. Weeks later he returned in triumph with a pair of catalogs, and we ended up using an enlarged detail of The Creator (1964), the intricacies of which seemed to magically resonate with the title of Will’s book. Last year, the surrealist press Rêve-à-Deux published Will’s long poem for Lamantia, The Brimstone Boat, in an oversized edition featuring a color reproduction of an oil painting by Marie Wilson on the cover along with two interior drawings, plus a note on the artist by publisher Richard Warra. I’ve enjoyed seeing her work sitting on the poetry shelves at City Lights when I come in every week. It seems right at home.
* The year 1955 comes from the Apparitions pamphlet, though the gallery schedule indicated in the Pompidou Center’s comprehensive study of Breton as collector, curator, and critic, André Breton: La beauté convulsive (1991) suggests the exhibition was probably the show of 14 surrealist painters held November 18-December 2, 1954 (414). The book also includes a reproduction of an untitled gouache by her that Breton owned (436).
** Most of my information about Wilson stems from the Apparitions pamphlet and anecdotal conversation with Philip Lamantia, Nancy Joyce Peters, and Peter Maravelis. There’s one good interview online here from “winter 2000.”