Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, Vol 9, No 1 (2016)

Radio Transmission: Electricity and Surrealist Art in 1950s and '60s San Francisco

R. Bruce Elder


This paper deals with a version of Surrealism that emerged in San Francisco in the late 1940s, and its influence on Wallace Berman’s film Aleph (1966) and Harry Smith’s Early Abstractions.

Many San Francisco poets of the 1940s through the 1970s understood poets as a visionary company possessing a nearly sacerdotal authority arising from their capacity to put aside the individual self and open themselves to influences from beyond—in a peculiar turn, these influences came to be understood as energy waves that are transmitted through the ether and operate the poet/artist—and cinema and the radio became models for these transmissions. The collage art that resulted was understood as anemic, cobbled together from insecurely apprehended fragments of thought carried in radio signals nearly drowned out by static. I conclude with comments relating the idea of artists’ feeble imaginations being operated by remote control to film and electric media.

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