Penelope Rosemont is a surrealist painter, writer, photographer, and collagist. In 1965, she and her husband Franklin Rosemont co-founded the Chicago Surrealist Group, following a trip to Paris and meeting with French surrealist André Breton. The group, known for its radical politics and revolutionary aesthetics, went on to hold numerous exhibitions at the Gallery Bugs Bunny and the Gallery Black Swan. Penelope edited Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (University of Texas Press, 1998) and is the author of Surrealist Experiences: 1001 Dawns, 221 Midnights (Black Swan Press, 2000) as well as several books of poetry. In the course of our conversation at the Heartland Café (which has also exhibited the Chicago Surrealist Group), another Chicago (now Madison) surrealist, Lester Doré, stopped by. We began by talking about the short-lived Gallery Bugs Bunny.
Rebecca Zorach (RZ): 1968 was the first Gallery Bugs Bunny show?
Penelope Rosemont (PR): Yeah, that was 1968. It was in response to the show organized by William Rubin. We wrote a flier entitled “The Heritage We Reject: A Critique of the Museum of Modern Art ‘Surrealism’ Exhibition. We went downtown and passed out fliers on the stairs at the Art Institute; that actually worked quite well. It got people to come to the show, and the Sun-Times and the Tribune both reviewed it. It was pretty funny, I believe the Tribune reviewer talked to Franklin and Robert Green extensively, and the two of them wanted to be very political, ’cause it was 1968, so they kept emphasizing how anti-imperialist surrealism was. But, apparently, either the reporter was deaf or the editor got to it, and the article said that surrealists are definitely anti-materialist, instead of anti-imperialist. And so after that, they declared, “we will never speak to the press again. There is no point in speaking to them because they lie.” In any case it did get a lot of people to our tiny storefront on Eugenie Street. We followed it up with a surrealist objects show; things we found, various places in Chicago, rusted things, objects. Franklin’s favorite was an old-fashioned baby carriage, maybe even a toy baby carriage, and it was totally flat, like it had been run over by a steamroller. But you could still see all the characteristics of the baby carriage. He really loved that item. All sorts of different things.
RZ: What happened to it, do you know?
PR: Oh, I don’t know. I think Green just threw it out. Green was always making these wonderful objects and then just throwing them out or disassembling them, because he was always moving from one apartment to another. There were also revolutionary posters on the wall—we had a Huey Newton poster on the wall and all sorts of things.
RZ: And that was in the surrealist objects show?
PR: In the surrealist objects show.
RZ: Which was also in Gallery Bugs Bunny?
PR: It was also at Gallery Bugs Bunny. Then there started to be some problems between people, and between the landlord and various people. And Franklin and a few people left, but Robert Green and Larry Decoster did another show, devoted to Eros, I’m not sure what they called their show, it got a lot of publicity too, and it was extensively constructed, with a tunnel and velvet draperies. But, after that, the landlord really got tired of us and evicted everyone. We still would hang pieces up at the bookshop…
RZ: Was that used as a gallery also?
PR:. Not very much, but to some extent, because the books on the walls were in the way, but we were always hanging things up there, so there were always things on display. The next big show we organized was much later: 1976, the World’s Surrealist Exhibition. And we got a great place at Grand Avenue and LaSalle, it was 600 North LaSalle, upstairs, which later became Michael Jackson’s restaurant. It was a nice space. And we pulled together, surrealists from all over the world. It wasn’t just a Chicago show. This is the catalog. This was one of the pieces by Gerome Kamrowsky, who knew Breton in New York in the 1940s, and it is a gigantic piece. If you were standing there you’d be probably about that big.
RZ: Wow, so that was a big space.
PR: It was a big, big loft, it had maybe 30-foot ceilings. I think it was once a hayloft, or a carriage house. So anyway, we put that show together that year, we put Arsenal together that year, and then we had a show at the Hyde Park Art Center.
PR: And a show in Gary, which included two of Henry Darger’s pieces. We were actually the first people to show Henry Darger, because we knew Nathan Lerner [Darger’s landlord], and actually, I should have begged and pleaded with Nathan to give me those two pieces, but at that time he did not want to divide up the Darger material; he had this idea that it was all going to go to Switzerland in one piece. So I couldn’t get him to part with those two pieces. But, let’s see, where have we been since then. We were in shows in Europe, largely sponsored by Edward Jaguer, publisher of Phases. We did a show near Milwaukee in 1978, devoted to the hundredth anniversary of hysteria.
We had shows at Heartland, Surrealism Here And Now. We have a little talk at the opening party. I had a show there also, and we did a show entitled Totems Without Taboos, that got good publicity.
RZ: It’s always funny with posters you never put the date on because it’s obvious what year it is!
PR: Well, late in life we started putting the date on them, but it was already too late. But, I do have a list somewhere.
RZ: Yeah! So, I wanted to ask you about the Picasso.
PR: Oh, yes, the Picasso protest, right! I should have brought that leaflet, but I did not.
In spite of the hostility of it, we weren’t that hostile to Picasso. He obviously didn’t understand the situation here, and he in fact had sent a drawing to the Madison Kaleidoscope. ’Cause they asked him for one. And he sent them one! And they were able to sell it and raise money to keep printing their paper. So, we thought he was just not reading where the situation here. But it’s always a good excuse for a demonstration.
RZ: So, how would you describe how he misread the situation, I’m curious.
PR: I haven’t read the leaflet in a while, but he obviously didn’t realize that Mayor Daley was the scoundrel he was, and thought that he was giving something to the people of Chicago, which in fact we do enjoy, but it was not precisely the right moment.
RZ: And did you demonstrate at the unveiling?
PR: Yeah, we did. In fact, there is a movie of the unveiling—
RZ: Tom Palazzolo’s?
PR: Yeah, you can recognize Franklin’s shirt, but that’s about all, I think. He may be handing out a leaflet or something but you can’t see it.
RZ: One thing that I wondered actually in watching that movie, was, there’s a sign that says “Picasso’s Colossal Boo-Boo,” and I wondered, “does this have anything to do with the Surrealists? I don’t think so,” but it was saying that the sculpture was, like, mentally ill—
RZ: And therefore was a reflection of Picasso’s views about Chicagoans being mentally ill, or something like that! [chuckles]
PR: No, that wouldn’t have been us!
RZ: Yeah, I didn’t think so, but it was unusual, so!
PR: We wouldn’t have described the Picasso as mentally ill because for one thing, Surrealists tend to value mental illness.
PR: Mental illness has a little bit more insight than the normal sometimes. So sometimes surrealists tried to provoke mental illness, and one of Dali’s contributions was the paranoid critical method, to really look at something and try and come up with the strangest interpretation and sometimes they really fit well.
RZ: It seems like it’s a really distinctive feature of Chicago Surrealism, that it’s so connected to radical politics, in such an overt way. I wondered whether you came to surrealism through radical politics, or the other way around, or both at the same time…?
PR: Me, personally?
PR: Through politics. I transferred down to Roosevelt University because I heard it was where all the revolutionaries hung out. Sure enough, it really was. It was a fantastic place, because the cafeteria was big, there were plenty of tables, and all of the groups had their own tables, and lunch was a big deal, ’cause you would discuss the issues of the day or whatever you were reading at your various tables, and then sometimes you’d walk over and argue with the other people at other tables. The first day I walked through the cafeteria, somebody rushed up to me and said, “What’s your position on the Soviet Union?” I thought it was an unusual greeting. [chuckles] He said, “is it state capitalist or degenerate worker’s state?” and I said “state capitalist” and he said, “would you defend the Soviet Union if it was attacked?” I said “of course!” He said, “oh, okay.”
[both laugh] That was Ray Chase, I can’t quite remember what group he belonged to at this point, but apparently I passed muster there, I at least had a running chance with the political types. I had already met Franklin and he was in the IWW, and affiliated with anarchism, and while I really liked Marxism, I don’t like the way it has solidified into political groups. Us surrealists have our odd traits too, but there’s a broad spectrum of things you can think and do, and there’s a broad political perspective in surrealism that I feel much more comfortable with. I just hate it when people rush back to something Karl Marx wrote during the Civil War, and think it’s going to apply to today, because they didn’t even have electricity or gasoline back then, which has totally disrupted everything in terms of value. So, I don’t care for the “quote Marx as proof” type of thinking. And if I pick up the Proletarian News from 1933, it will read just like some Marxist papers today. That’s bad. You gotta do better than that. So, it’s better to take a chance at being wrong, like the New Left did. I think they came up with some interesting strategies and relevant things. They were wrong on a lot of things too or their timing was off, but at least they were trying to grapple with them, for that reason, it was very lively period. The discussion of racism in SDS was very good. Maybe got a little out of hand, but it was good.
So, I was political originally, and I never had time for art although I loved it. I guess I’m a very visual person and I’ve always loved poetry, particularly William Blake, who was a pre-surrealist. But, I never had time for it, because I was always a very busy person. I was a chemistry major originally. When I got political, it was because of the Hungarian Revolution and because of nuclear warfare. In high school I happened to hear about a civil defense course that I could be part of. So my friend and I sign up for it, and we find out: everybody else in the class is at least 35. We’re both 17. But, I stuck it out, she didn’t, and it was very interesting, it was about what would happen if Chicago was hit with nuclear bombs. And it was very revealing what would happen. If you died, you’d be lucky, because there just, would be so much radioactive contamination of everything, who knows what would happen, you’d just really suffer. So, all these older people and I wanted to be anti-nuclear, and I think ultimately most of them were in one way or another, but I joined the Student Peace Union out in my country town—
RZ: Where was that?
PR: Lake Villa, Illinois. And I also sent money to the 26th of July movement, I found an address in a newspaper, and I sent them money. They wrote back to me, which was nice, but they wrote in Spanish…. So anyway, when I was a chemistry student, I really thought that “better living through chemistry” was a reality, that in fact it would help people: I no longer think that. I don’t know what they’re doing anymore and I do fear that innovations have taken place too fast and too carelessly. After that DDT experiment, in which it seems, “well, okay, one DDT is bad, but if we have a million different toxic chemicals, nobody’s going to notice, it won’t have the same effect.” Well, I don’t buy that anymore. I’m glad I didn’t stay with chemistry, but it has at least, I think, given my thinking a little bit of freedom. I wasn’t subjected to a lot of the propaganda that perhaps you get in high school and college if you take the history classes or the sociology classes. I didn’t take them for the most part, so they didn’t influence me. But I did do a lot of reading, I was very influenced by the Haymarket martyr speeches, and I loved Nelson Algren’s book Chicago: City on the Make. So, I said, whatever I had to do, I had to go to Chicago, and I had to see what Chicago was like. Growing up in a country town, I didn’t have any idea.
RZ: How in your country town did you come across the Haymarket Martyrs?
PR: Oh, I didn’t, I came into them in college. The really funny thing is that my grandmother, who it seemed to me was always speaking in riddles, knew about it well. Whenever we would go past a McCormick plant that was on strike, we’d always circle the block and wave. They were on strike a lot. And my grandmother would say, “now, remember, your relatives were beat up on the Black Road in front of McCormick’s plant.” Okay, great, what does that have to do with anything? So of course that was the pre-Haymarket strike; the Haymarket meeting was held because of the strikers being beaten at the McCormick’s plant, so my relatives were there, but they didn’t bother to explain it to me!
RZ: So you had to figure it out for yourself, later?
PR: Yeah, I have the feeling that most of my relatives were pretty political at one time, but, this was the McCarthy era that I was growing up in, and they didn’t talk about it very much, they didn’t think it would be that helpful to me. However, my grandmother and I did have one other funny incident—when I went off to first grade, in class they asked, “what religion are you?” and they went down, one by one, “what religion are you,” and they finally got to me and said, “what religion are you?” and I said, “well, I don’t know!” “You don’t know?” “Well, no!” So then they went on: everybody else knew. So I came home and I ran to my grandmother and said, “Hey, what religion are we?” She said, “why do you want to know?” “Well, they asked me in class.” She said, “well, they can’t ask you that in class! They can’t ask you what religion you are!” and I said, “they can’t?” “No,” she said, “they’re not supposed to.” “So, well, what religion are we?” she said, “Well, tell them we’re Free-Thinkers.” [chuckles]
RZ: That’s great. So you didn’t have time for art, but at some point you did start to have time for art—how did that happen?
PR: Well, maybe I did a little doodles and Japanese brush painting, but really when I met Franklin and the people at Roosevelt who were forming a surrealist group, they thought that they should provoke their imagination in all sorts of ways. You should try to draw, you should try to write, you should do manifestos, do all of it, keep your mind active. And so, I started to do little experimental things. I did like to experiment with ink and paper and photography, more than I actually liked to draw, because my hands aren’t that skilled. I’ve written a little piece on my experiments too, I experimented in photography when I was working at the SDS darkroom. You know, shake out the chemicals, throw them on the film, see what happens, it was fun. And then of course you look at it and see if you see something; you always see some sort of image or an infinity of images or something; that’s just the way the mind works.
RZ: Was there an aesthetic component to the IWW in Chicago?
PR: Well, in Chicago there was Carlos Cortez, and of course there were great cartoonists in the IWW all over the place, I love William Henkelman cartoons, he was based out on the West Coast, Ralph Chaplin was here in Chicago but he was long dead by the time we came along. But Carlos Cortez had come down from Milwaukee, he was the youngest of the IWWs though he was considerably older than us. Maybe 15 years older than us. And when I went up to the hall, which was at Halsted and Fullerton, and there were some windows Carlos had painted and they were really horrible. And I kept saying, maybe we could paint out those windows. But Carlos just did not let this dissuade him, and when he learned to do woodcuts that was the thing that worked for him, he was just a genius at woodcut. Painting…no, but woodcut yes, so I’m glad he stuck with it, ’cause who would have thought! And his poetry, too, was excellent. His parents were socialists, and he had worked at a bookstore in Milwaukee, he was a beatnik. He was a good guy; he was always a friend to us, and he edited the Industrial Worker for a while, it was a really good newspaper during the years he edited it. The IWW did have quite a resurgence then. But we were members while we were at the bookstore and at Roosevelt. So that would have been maybe ’64-67, then after that we were active in SDS and then after that we wanted to do a uniquely surrealist activity, so we were working on putting together enough money for our journal, which really came out in 1969, but which says 1970 on it. So that was Arsenal #1.
RZ: And how did you make that decision to do a uniquely surrealist activity?
PR: We went to Paris in 1966, and we liked the group there so very much. We met André Breton. We were very impressed by him. Franklin was always fascinated with surrealism, and I was rather fascinated with it too. I wasn’t sure that we shouldn’t do something, and call it something different, and still be related to surrealism, for instance, Jaguer did something surrealist, he called it Phases, but that isn’t nearly as good a name. And other people had done things, given themselves names, there’s the Surregionalists in New Orleans, but, sometimes then you get a little bit lost, and particularly if you want to affiliate it with like-minded people, it’s good to call yourself a surrealist if you think you are. Because then you can find each other. Surrealism at this point is almost a hundred years old, and I don’t know how much longer it’s going to go on as surrealism, maybe something else will come up, but surrealist ideas are very flexible. I’d say the major problem with it, in a sense, is after all this time, is that it accumulates a history, and then the young people are interested and they tend to compare their writing to, let’s say, the best of André Breton, and they feel they don’t compare to it. So, you have a harder time getting younger people interested, because there’s just so much that has been done in the name of surrealism. So, I worry about that. But I’m hoping that can be overcome, because one of the things we do feel is that each person is amazingly unique and has their own unique contribution to make. The Arab surrealists and some of the French surrealists once did an experiment they called Parallel Collage. They cut different pictures out of newspapers and gave everyone the same identical pictures, and asked, “now, each of you make a collage.” There were about twenty-some people—nobody duplicated anything, even though they were working with the same raw materials. Pretty amazing.
RZ: Yeah. Just thinking about that, the way it accumulates a history, because it also accumulates a set of interpretations within disciplinary art history…
RZ: The ’68 show was also a response to the Art Institute show, right?
RZ: Which had come from MOMA, right? And so, it was trying to present a more authentic view.
PR: An alternative. Surrealism is political, always has been political.
RZ: Yeah, ’cause art history isolates objects from their contexts and creates a narrative of progress where things get left behind…
PR: Well, they do label things, and in the case of surrealism, its ending date was put at a certain point specifically. It’s been stretched a little now and then. But after the war the surrealists were still political, and still active and apparently New York critics and other people did not like that, and they started promoting Abstract Expressionism. In fact there’s even some implications that somehow or another, money was given to the abstract expressionists through government agencies, such as the CIA, so that they would represent the U.S. You know, no criticism, no weirdo politics.
RZ: Some of them were leftists, but they kept that quiet.
PR: Yeah, they didn’t mention it. So after the war, existentialism was pretty rife in France, it was very hard for the surrealists to gain an initiative there. They did, they published several magazines, but things definitely had changed after the war for them. They weren’t unhappy about it, because in some ways surrealism has never really aspired to be a mass movement. If you’re attracted enough to it to find it and you want to do the things, the experiments in life that surrealism requires, and be a creative person, well—you find surrealism. The situationists never aspired to be a mass movement either, and they’re very much influenced by surrealism. We met Guy Debord when we were in Paris, and we liked him. But there was a complicated thing going on between them.
RZ: Yeah, I’m curious about that. So, your surrealism, was it, would you say it was influenced by situationism?
PR: Well, we were already pretty much surrealists by the time we met him. But, we came across that Address to the Revolutionaries of all Countries, at Le Vieille Taupe Bookstore and we really liked it. They hadn’t been translated much into English at that point, soon there would be Society of the Spectacle, Totality For Kids. We did like some of the things they had to say, we did like some of their critique of architecture, or at least considering architecture and the way it operates on the mind. And we did like their détournements, which were very good, and we liked Debord very much. I’m pretty sure he wanted us to join the situationists, but they were very determined to stay a very small group of carefully chosen people, although in some senses they didn’t choose carefully enough. And they had a lot of splits and scandals, but that got them publicity, so I don’t know, in a sense some of them did not want surrealists in their group. The surrealists would have let us be in the situationist group, that would have been okay. But they weren’t sure they wanted committed surrealists in their group. And anyway, we were going back home to Chicago. So we brought back a ton of their stuff to Solidarity Bookshop, most of it was in French, but there were some things in English, so we sold stuff there. So we were probably the first promoters of situationism in Chicago, if not the US. I think other people had maybe run into them a little, but we certainly were the first to sell their books. I think they were good revolutionaries.
RZ: Were you reading and/or selling Fanon at that time?
RZ: I was curious about the reception of Fanon in Chicago. I’m not sure how early he was being read, do you have a sense of that?
PR: Well, as soon as the book came out we had it at the bookstore. Now, I’m not sure when it [Black Skin, White Masks] came out. Was it ’67?
RZ: I think it might have been ’67.
PR: Okay, yeah. It was a very important book for everybody. It was widely read, widely discussed, we probably had to reorder it many times.
RZ: And what, I’m curious about when and how the black liberation movements became important to you and to the surrealists?
PR: I’m thinking that was probably ’67-’68, because Bill Corbin went out to the West Coast and brought back the Black Panther newspaper, and so we printed a note about it in Surrealist Insurrection, which was a wall poster we were doing at the time, I think that was in ‘67. And we got Black Panther newspapers for the store. Now, Fred Hampton came into Barbara’s Bookstore, and you know Franklin worked at Barbara’s, and so he knew Fred at least casually, and they would give them a “movement discount”! But it’s important to remember that we were students of St Clair Drake and admirers of C.L.R. James. But, for some reason we didn’t know the Chicago Black Panthers as well as we should have. We knew one fellow named Cosmo who claimed to be a Black Panther, but later, I’ve never seen the name Cosmo appear anywhere, but he would keep us informed to some extent on what they were doing, so he must have known them somewhat. He’s this very tall African-American guy, stayed at our house for a while. Wish we had known Fred and all those people better. They used to come into the SDS office, I remember them coming in there, talking to people, it was nice. But on the other hand, I was working in the print shop, so I didn’t spend a lot of time talking to people. No, I’m not sure whether Michael Klonsky was National Officer yet or whether it was still maybe Carol Neiman. So anyway, they came into the SDS office, and I have to admit, he was a charismatic person.
RZ: Fred Hampton was?
PR: Yeah. He was always great. Oh, here is Lester! Hi, hi Lester!
PR: Yes, this is Rebecca Zorach, this is Lester Doré, and I see Lester is in the show. What do we have of yours, there, Lester!
LD: Oh, yeah, and that is very old! [laughs]
PR: And then he did a lot of the covers for Heartland Journal. Can you remember anything about Gallery Bugs Bunny?
LD: Well, for one thing, I was arrested there!
RZ: Oh! Yeah, that’s a good story! Let’s hear about that. You’re being recorded, by the way!
LD: Oh, okay! Well, yes, in 1968, I had returned to Chicago from San Francisco where I had been living, that’s when I met Mary Lou Hendrickson, and she was a friend of Dick Gruver’s. And he was living at the Gallery Bugs Bunny. So you know Mary Lou and I kinda hit it off and I’d been there for a month, maybe not even a week yet when—no, it was probably longer than that—when the pigs raided the gallery. And they found some pills in somebody’s jacket, and I was like, “they weren’t mine!” [laughter] But anyway, I was hauled off to jail, Mary Lou ran out and found bail for me and got me out of there.
RZ: Did they give any reason why they raided the gallery?
LD: Well, they were looking for drugs. I was lucky that I didn’t actually have anything on me at that time. And I actually, I lived in the gallery for a while there and made art. And Mary Lou wrote poetry, I think I have a photograph of her that was taken in the gallery of her sitting there with her arms crossed like this, she wrote a wonderful poem for that summer, I don’t know if that’s directly related to the gallery, but she wrote a wonderful poem for Manuel Ramos, who was a Young Lord who was killed by the cops. Gosh, I mean, she could write. What else in the gallery, well, there was that show, and my book was in the show, that sketchbook was like, up on a platform. And Mary Lou wrote a great poem that was about the show and for the show, and I illustrated it.
RZ: So were you living in the same space that exhibitions were taking place, or was there a separate space?
LD: There was, I’m trying to remember how it was set up, I mean, it was like a, was it a storefront or an apartment, I can’t remember?
PR: Well, it was odd, because there was the storefront, and then there was this whole big room that was separate that was kind of like an apartment.
LD: Yeah, I lived right next to the exhibition space. And then it seems to me like there was another room in the back, where people were making art.
LD: Gruver, I’m still, I’m still not positive about the spelling of his last name, but I think it was g-r-u-v-e-r.
PR: Yeah, I think so.
LD: Yeah, he was a, he was the first of what we called “meth monsters,”
that I met in Chicago, and he was a brilliant guy, he had been a student at the University of Chicago when he was first arrested for being a cat burglar. He was so smart.
PR: He’s been dead for a long time, too.
LD: Yeah, he died—
LD: Trying to—no, no, he died trying to swim across the Columbia River or something, something crazy like that.
PR: Oh yeah?
LD: Yeah, I had heard that he had died, that he had drowned while working on a fishing boat off Alaska.
PR: [laughs] Well, obviously there’s a lot of rumors, he’s probably still alive and well!
LD: No, I’m pretty sure he died trying to swim across a river because Mary Lou was the only, like, next of kin address that they had for him. He was friendly with, like, a lot of the people that were into the Chicago School, before they got famous, Karl Wirsum and those people.
RZ: Oh, the Hairy Who.
LD: The Hairy Who, yeah. And he was friends with Joffre Stewart, he’s another guy I knew from around there.
PR: We were all friends with Joffre. But let’s stick to the Gallery.
LD: To the Gallery! Don’t know why he was living there. But he was. And after that bust, nobody was living there. Only other thing about, I can tell you about the gallery is that later on, when I was working on the Chicago Seed with Jim Rossloff, his wife Laura and I put together a group show, that was in the gallery, it was in the middle of the winter, and there never was an opening. We got it together and like the night that it was all up, I got really ill from something, from an overdose of something, of methadrine, and so, the stuff was up in the gallery, and if you ever went into the gallery you saw it, but there was no, like, it wasn’t like, out there in the world.
RZ: So you worked on the Chicago Seed also?
PR: Lester is the reason for the whole civil liberties change in Illinois, because he did a drawing of a small nude woman, and the police used it as an excuse to arrest Barbara Siegel, of Barbara’s Bookstore.
PR: And they arrested somebody else at the headshop, and a very famous attorney, Elmer Gertz, took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, at least, I don’t know if it got to the regular Supreme Court, and they declared, “no, no, that’s censorship, you can’t do that,” so ever since then censorship has definitely been different in Illinois.
PR: They wouldn’t even deliver the mail to Barbara’s Bookstore afterward.
PR: No mail, for weeks. Because of your little drawing, about this big, a tiny little drawing. Otherwise, you tended to do bigger psychedelic patterns, didn’t you?
LD: Yeah, and I wish I could remember more about those times. But you know, it’s like “the sixties, if you can remember them you weren’t really there?” Actually, I did do a lot of amphetamines during that period of time, although that was what in a way, that opened—just as LSD did—it opened the doors of perception for me. Yeah, I mean there were a lot of people in that particular milieu, you know, like, there were people, Del Close and some of the other Second City-type people, you know, it was a little culture of speed freaks who were doing this pharmaceutically-pure amphetamine, and when I did it, I found that I could dream on paper. In fact sometimes…
PR: Well, with amphetamine, not LSD
LD: Right, with amphetamine. No, it was pretty hard to draw on acid, I mean, I’d start something and then it would….Although, the things that I, you know, the hallucinations and/or visions would make their way back in. It was pretty amazing. You know, I’m lucky I’m still alive. I do have a liver transplant because of liver cirrhosis from Hepatitis C, which almost certainly came from a dirty shared needle back there.
PR: He’s presenting the downside of the sixties!
LD: No, hey, it was all one thing, you know. Like I was saying, I’m lucky I’m alive. But also, I think that I’m lucky that I had those experiences.
PR: To tell you the truth we all took drugs. We just didn’t take as much as Lester did.
RZ: So, can you say a little bit about, like, the crowd you would get at Gallery Bugs Bunny, like, what people would come?
PR: Oh, it was movement people, for the most part.
RZ: So not Chicago art scene, type people.
PR: Oh, I suppose some of them. The Hairy Who people came. And…what Chicago art scene? There wasn’t hardly any!
PR: So, they really got stuff from New York, and there really wasn’t much of a Chicago art scene. There was Tristan Meineke, who we encountered later, and he was a 1950s artist, and he joined up with us, we were showing his work in our shows. Meineke would make these really large sort of shadowboxes. And I mean large: 15 feet tall and 30 feet wide shadowboxes. So, that wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that people would have in their living room. He got a lot of publicity in the 50s for it, but he was a real quirky person and never really did get a permanent name in the arts scene, although there was a show for him, on Halsted Street at that gallery that’s affiliated with the Art Institute. And I think later they had one for him at another gallery, I can’t think of the name. But anyway, there was Meineke, and a woman named Eve Garrison, who was also a fifties artist, and she showed in our 1976 show, she did a lot of very abstract work, but it was quite interesting, I don’t know what happened to her paintings, there was a ton of them. But the worship of New York and to some extent Paris was so great that for the most part people were collecting things from there.
I think that Ruth Horwich on the South Side probably did play a big role in collecting Chicago art, through Don Baum she started collecting the Hairy Who, and we did have that show at the Hyde Park Art Center. She started collecting outsider art, too.
In a sense, all outsider art is surrealist art, and we really appreciate it, and it would be interesting—we’ve been trying to urge a friend for years to write about the connections, because the surrealists discovered the postmaster Cheval and his work in France quite early, and they celebrated quite a few other outsider artists there. So, it’d be interesting, the affinities there.
LD: I didn’t really know much about the connection between, or if there was a connection, between the Hairy Who and you guys?
PR: Not much.
RZ: But you knew each other a little bit, or?
PR: We knew Jim Fletcher. He lived in the neighborhood and we knew him pretty well. We didn’t know the others so well, they were at the Art Institute.
LD: Yeah, okay, that’s why. They weren’t community. I mean like, there was some surrealist work in Madison around that time, who some of them I’ve studied with since, and we never were really labeled that way, academically, you know.
RZ: Did you know any of the AfriCOBRA artists, or the group?
PR: Oh yeah! I liked their work and we liked their work. I think we met a couple of them, maybe at Barbara’s Bookstore or something like that, like, but never did anything with them, which was too bad, cause I really, really loved their work. We knew the Black Graphics International people in Detroit, Ibn Pori, and I think we showed some of Ibn Pori’s things either at Gallery Bugs Bunny or in later shows, or stuck it in some of our things, but we were in touch with him for a long time.
RZ: When I think about what’s interesting in art in Chicago now, a lot of it’s political, and a lot of it has sort of a surrealist tinge to it, and I’ve wondered a lot if there’s a line that can be traced from the Chicago surrealists to other artists or whether it’s a place that’s conducive to similar kinds of things growing up at different times.
PR: Who knows? The Art Institute has a great surrealist collection, which obviously influences a lot of people. I do know that when we went to hear Octavio Paz, we met Encarnacion Teruel, who was with the Mexican Museum of Fine Arts, and he had said that as a teenager he had read our magazine Arsenal. And that was one of the reasons he was interested in art, because he really didn’t think art could have any kind of influence or significance until he read our magazine, and then he thought, “Yeah, you can do a lot with it.” So he was with the Mexican Museum and I think now he’s with, oh, some other cultural institution in Chicago. So, we know we influenced him, I don’t know if we influenced anyone else.
LD: Resurgence. Did you talk about the Resurgence Youth Movement? Do you remember those people?
PR: Of course I remember those people! They were the young people in New York who we knew were interested in surrealism.
PR: And they called themselves the Resurgence Youth Movement. And it was quite political and quite surrealist, and they were here especially in 1966, they came in 1966, spent the summer, and what else did they do, at that point, they maybe a little earlier in the year, they encountered Robert Anton Wilson at Solidarity Bookshop, and he mentioned the bookshop and a composite of Resurgence and us in his bookIlluminati, that starts in Solidarity Bookshop.
RZ: I read those books so long ago that I’ll have to go back and take a look. That’s funny.
PR: Oh, okay! Nice.
LD: Yeah, I do have some, I’d forgotten that some of the photographs from some pages of the book are here on my iPod.
RZ: Oh wow, so this is the notebook that you made.
LD: It was the sketchbook that I started working on in the Gallery, when I was living in the Gallery, which I exhibited in the Gallery. Surrealist Insurrection. I’m not sure that the page that became the poster for that particular exhibition is in here, it started with a poem by Mary Lou, that the first line of it is, “let us go wild.”
RZ: So, how long was Gallery Bugs Bunny in existence?
PR: Oh, not very long. Just a couple years. I’m sure the landlord got tired of us, or them. ’Cause I was living in a different apartment.
LD: I wasn’t living in the gallery then, we’d moved to an apartment that Bill O’Brien had sublet to us, $55 a month, on Larabee, near Armitage.
RZ: Since this series of interviews is fundamentally about the relationship between art and politics, what does a surrealist politics do—what does the art of surrealism add to politics? Does it change revolutionary politics?
PR: No. At least, I don’t think so. Because, it’s an individual reflection of what the individual was thinking and doing, it’s an individual experiment, it’s not surrealist, not like doing propaganda. And in fact, one of the big problems in the 1930s with the Communist Party was socialist realism, they detested it. And they were for the individual exploration of their own imagination. Now, what does the individual elaborating their imagination contribute to society? Quite a bit, because it shows the value of the individual and the fact that the image that every person creates can communicate to another, can build a kind of rapport and communication among people. That I think is really significant and important. But, I think they tried to keep their political statements political, and their art separated from that in the sense that it was a creative experience.
LD: I can speak to that. What surrealism did for me was that it liberated my imagination and then that being so, I was able to, well first of all, if your imagination’s liberated, then you can imagine a different society, you can imagine different kinds of relationships between people. You can imagine freedom, you can imagine an end to authoritarianism. And that’s been the touchstone of my political views and work, my whole life that I’ve been a political animal. You know, there’ve been times when I’ve been allied with more kind of doctrinaire stuff, but today I consider myself, like Joffre, an anarcho-pacifist.
PR: But no, there are some more political things that are interesting. For instance, surrealists really like John Heartfield, really like Hanna Höch.
LD: Oh, he’s so good!
PR: He is so good. And of course the films of Buñuel are surrealist but they’re also very political. But, the tie-ins are subtle. Often people have said, “oh, you’re an artist, you can do a nice poster for us, for this demonstration.” And we all cringe. It has been done occasionally, we did an anti-Franco poster once, which had a surrealist picture on it.
LD: I’m glad you mentioned Heartfield because I think that his exposure to surrealism opened him up to those incredibly strong ideas which, in surrealism in general, it went both ways. People like Heartfield injected it into his political work, his life work, and other people injected it into…advertising. You know, so you’ve got this kind of surrealist, “surrealist,” influence in advertising of the 40s, 50s and that.
RZ: So not something that can be directly applied to political action, but it’s a liberation of the mind?
PR: Yeah, although you could apply that to political action, but mostly in our works, you’d get a surrealist drawing here and you get the message there. We try and be pretty clear about what the message is. Here this one by Eugenio Granell entitled, Personages Knocking at a Burning Door, so the title connects it to something mysterious. But Granell, himself, was a participant in the Spanish Civil War. He came to New York after the Civil War and published a newspaper called España Libre, for many years, and then when Franco finally died, he was able to go back to Spain and they restored some of his property, and they gave him a space for a museum, so his works were at a museum in Spain, and I think his library is there now also. But he lived in New York for years and we knew him well. He knew Lorca and Durruti and many Spanish revolutionaries. But it’s just, not a simple crossover at all.
LD: Well, yes, and what would you call the image of Bugs Bunny holding a tommy gun? A Thompson submachine gun? I mean obviously that’s a revolutionary image, in his constant baiting of and fooling Elmer Fudd, you know, the bourgeois capitalist domineer of, attempting to dominate the earth and all creatures in it. Rebel. That’s it, surrealists are rebels, in general.
PR: But some people have a real talent for combining things. So I don’t want to be too critical of today in terms of art and politics, Eric Drooker has done some interesting pieces that combine a kind of fantasy with what’s going on. I wouldn’t do that kind of thing myself but he’s managed to work it in.
RZ: What about the component of laughter and pleasure?
PR: Ah yes, so important. Humor, black humor, all those things, very important to surrealists. Now, Franklin of course was the champ in terms of talking about black humor, probably talked about it in his book on Jacques Vaché. I am probably not an expert on that, but I really do enjoy it.
LD: Was Franklin a fan of the Firesign Theatre?
PR: Firesign Theatre, what’s that?
LD: They were a group that was based in San Francisco, they had these strange stories, I mean, it was all audio stuff. Sound effects and people, maybe somebody would be on a journey and then all of a sudden they’re like in another dimension and what’s going on here and oh, what’s it coming at me, you know, like this stream of consciousness kind of riffing, which was funny and scary and weird. They had a few albums out. I think one of them, the cover of it was maybe the first time that the Groucho Marx and John Lennon images were used together, “ah, yes, we’re into Marxist-Lennonism.”
PR: So I probably can’t say much more about black humor. Now in terms of magic, surrealism really wanted to restore magic to the world. The sense of wonder and the sense of discovery and that combination of things they considered really important. I was writing something about the Mayans lately and I had to quote Benjamin Péret who called, “Magic, the flesh and blood of poetry!” And so, we really admire that period in time when people combined magic and art and poetry and it all came together in a unified experience, ’cause today things tend to be so very fragmented. People do a remarkable job of bringing them together, themselves, and surviving, and maybe even, who knows, maybe even computers will make it easier for people to bring things together that they like, but computers do both. They put a lot of information at your disposal, but it takes so much of your time to get it that you end up being isolated. So, I just don’t know what to think about it. My criticism of television back when we had television was “what’s the point of watching TV, you just sit there, a helpless victim!” You look at it, so when computers were invented, oh my god, you’re no longer the helpless victim, you’re entirely tied to the machine. Maybe I should have been happy being a helpless victim!
LD: Maybe Chester Anderson, in San Francisco—he wrote a poem with an interesting view of technology, and that was that, to think that there would be someday machines of love and grace. That would take care of so many things for us that we would have the freedom to…
PR: Oh, yeah, I heard this in college too.
LD: But, capitalism doesn’t really want that.
PR: No, this essay reminds people that they should, they have to get away from that 40-hour week.
RZ: I’m also interested in experiments in reimagining public space—not necessarily connected to the surrealists on a personal level, but on a conceptual level.
PR: Now, after we had left the bookshop, bookstore, I think in 1968 or 1969, there was a vacant lot right opposite the store and they declared that Chicago People’s Park.
RZ: Oh, I didn’t know that!
PR: And they held out for, they fixed it up and held out for the park, for a few years, and then the city got rid of them. Do you remember People’s Park at all? Who was doing that, it was the IWW and who else?
LD: I don’t know, but I bet Patrick Murphen might remember. He was one of the younger Wobs.
PR: Okay well, Penny Pixler would remember too. So. She knew Carlos really well, chances are that Carlos Cortez was involved in it. Because he was editing the Industrial Worker at the time.
LD: I really wish I had gotten to know Carlos better, you know, I met him a few times, but, I really came to appreciate his woodcuts. I make a lot of woodcuts now.
RZ: Was it opposite where the bookstore had been?
PR: It was at Halsted and Armitage on the, let’s see, northeast corner.
RZ: So I bet that’s not a vacant lot anymore.
PR: Not at all. There were so many vacant storefronts in the 1960s, and vacant lots, it was really cheap to rent things. So you didn’t have to reimagine spaces too much, you could just rent one. So that was good. But of course after urban renewal it became much more difficult, our bookstore had to move four times in just a few years, and then they moved many times after we left, in ’67. So, it was rough going.
RZ: Was there a surrealist mural, or murals? Were there any muralists who were associated with surrealism?
PR: I don’t know. Carlos probably had something, there was the Cricket Hill events, people were occupying that for a while, they used to consider the Garibaldi statue in Lincoln Park a free speech center. And then…
RZ: Cricket Hill, did you say?
PR: Cricket Hill, by Lawrence Avenue. There was also Bughouse Square, of course, that was the old one.
RZ: And Bughouse Square was really active in the 60s?
PR: Mm, not so much in the 60s, it was fading out then.
LD: Yeah, occasionally. Bob Green got busted there.
PR: Yeah, well, that’s in any area. He got arrested there once, and one time he was speaking on top of a trashcan that was turned upside down, but there was still some paper in it. And some sailor came over and lit the paper. But, Karl Meyer used to occupy the vacant lot right south of Barbara’s Bookstore, which I think was 1644 Wells, and that was a big thing, every weekend he’d have pacifists out there talking. Really, long time, they would talk. If there were any other kind of free speech centers…people would pass out leaflets at Maxwell Street, which was always constantly recreating itself in some weirdo way.
RZ: Mostly when I’m thinking about public space, I’ve been thinking about murals, especially on the South Side. And I was thinking about the Picasso and reactions to it in terms of public space, and the Wall of Respect was unveiled ten days after the Picasso, and was kind of in some ways was kind of a response to it, and a way of kind of reclaiming space on the South Side. I don’t know if I can do very much on graffiti from that period because it’s so—it’s undocumented, it’s lost.
PR: There was “Free Jomo” graffiti that was done by Kenya Eddie almost exclusively.
PR: Kenya Eddie, [Eddie Lamacka]. And he was kind of a crazy guy, a little bit of a monomaniac. He got in touch with Jomo Kenyatta when he was in jail, and he sent him a little money now and then, kept up a correspondence with him, and was kind of a one-man campaign to get Jomo out of jail. Who knows, maybe he helped. But he certainly made people aware, of what was going on. He was at all the demonstrations passing out flyers, and he had a dog who wore a little signboard saying “Free Jomo.” Well, eventually, Jomo got out of jail, and he invited Eddie to his inaguration, or whatever it’s called, for the president’s installation. And so, he went to Africa and was there. But Eddie didn’t say much, I mean, he just, he was happy to be there, so.
RZ: Was he black, or white, or?
PR: No, he’s a white guy. Polish.
PR: It’s funny, a lot of singular people like Karl Meyer and Eddie Lamacka make a big difference. Joffre Stewart was important in the early Civil Rights days, he would sit-in, all by himself. A courageous guy, good poet. He was involved with the IWW at Roosevelt, talked about internationalism, came in and burned some flags, and [chuckles] got everybody suspended. But he had really good days.
LD: No cops, no courts, no jails, no taxes.
PR: But Karl Meyer with his tax resistance and resistance in court and work with the Catholic Worker was more productive. Let’s see if there was anything else.
PR: So, the murals—no, murals were never really too much of a surrealist activity, We did like graffiti, but I can’t tell you what the graffiti was. But we’d stick to revolutionary slogans. And we’d write those on the walls all over the place.
LD: Oh, and we put up Wobbly stickers.
LD: Little gray stickers with the guy coming up over the factories…
RZ: And coordination with more people.
PR: Yeah, more coordination. A little more money too, in some way, for paint.
RZ: They may have started out being more guerrilla operations, but some became more official.
PR: So, in some ways I suppose we should have taken our art more seriously, and tried to work with galleries more permanently and get it out, to an extent. But, we were a pretty political bunch, at least our group was, and after Solidarity Bookshop and starting the surrealist activity, we did get affiliated with the Charles H. Kerr Company, and we were working with that, that took a lot of time. It’s time well spent, but it didn’t leave us time to establish a gallery or even seek out connections. Now I think there are a lot more opportunities there, because for one reason or another, there seem to be people who are opening galleries that are doing interesting things. There’s the people in Bridgeport—the Co-prosperity Sphere, and Maria’s and Lumpen? They’re always putting together events, especially Edmar with a lot of enthusiasm, they just do nice stuff. I think he gets a lot of young people and it’s very lively.
RZ: Yeah, I agree.
PR: The people I tend to know are my age or just a little bit younger. And they tend to be scattered all over the place: Prague and Chile and Paris and London. It’s nice. But not so many in Chicago at the moment. Why, I don’t know, but maybe I don’t really have that much of a public presence. We used to have more places to sell our books. We used to sell them at Barbara’s Bookstore extensively. And that really helped. And even Kroch’s used to carry our books, downtown. Now Michael at the Heartland carries the books, which is nice, and—
LD: Rainbow Books in Madison?
PR: Yeah, Rainbow carries them some, but they’re in Madison.
PR: In Quimby’s sometimes, yeah. So there’s just really isn’t much of an outlet for books, and on top of everything else, people get so much of their information from computers, and I haven’t really looked into that, the way I should. And I don’t know if I really want to either. But I’ve been going to book fairs, I went to the San Francisco book fair and the book fair in Montréal, sold a ton of books and distributed some stuff, and so now I’m in contact with a group of wonderful surrealists in Montréal, this particular group decided to do collective paintings, every week for thirty years. These collective paintings were so great and so wonderful, I said, “well, who did them?” and they said, “well, we didn’t sign them!” “you wouldn’t want us to sign them and spoil them!” Well…I do think one wants to know who did them. But they’re only gonna sign as a group.