Beat Filter of the Wichita Vortex: The Continuing Impact of Robert Branaman’s Films, Text, Paintings and Assemblages by Marc Olmsted
I first heard of Bob Branaman from L.A. performance artist Milo Johnson, who said to the effect that I “had to meet this guy, he knew all the Beats.” I have to admit to a certain cynicism – such claims of Beat friendship are made by people who might’ve waved at Allen Ginsberg across the room, let alone had a few sentences with him. My cardinal sin here rebounded in my face like an elastic band with an iron anvil on the end: “Well, how come I don’t know about him if he’s so fucking great?” Not only do I now stand corrected, but it proved a profound teaching for my own poet’s obscurity dark to the horizon as well. That Acme Dynamite roadrunner cartoon moment – the whites of my eyes blinking from a sooty, burned carcass in a moment of clarity – if you can’t make this American culture money, accidentally or otherwise, it has no interest in your droning commentaries. You are a ghost.
Allen Ginsberg wrote his Vietnam poem-critique “Wichita Vortex Sutra” in 1966, itself a collage of conversation and radio snippets from a portable tape recorder Bob Dylan gave him. Less known is that the term “Wichita Vortex” was a phrase Ginsberg heard from his friends Michael McClure, Bruce Connor, Charles Plymell and Robert Branaman, all who migrated to East and/or West Coast from this strange Kansas center of America. For the most part, these figures also experimented outside of both poetic and artistic disciplines they were often pigeon-holed in. Film, collage, stage plays, and photography were exploded through the shifting paradigm of the 1950s/60s Beat phenomenon.
Of all of these artists, Branaman is a seminal (and at the same time, perhaps the most obscure) figure of this period. Known well by his contemporaries, Branaman’s own wild trajectory from alcoholism and addiction to recovery fused with a near-cursed lack of self-promotional skills shoved him under the radar. (His good friend, Charles Plymell, suffers a similarly shocking lack of recognition, if for no other reason than his refusal to be his own publicist, even with an astounding novel like Last of the Moccasins.)
Branaman’s numerous contributions and collaborations with William Burroughs, McClure and Ginsberg now seem to be finally getting the cultural and historical place they deserve, helping to examine the larger multi-media aspect of the Wichita Vortex in its filtering of American mind – deconstructing and reassembling its artifacts in ways that are now part of mainstream media culture.
Enter Bob’s garage in Santa Monica, California for some of these artifacts. He is still very active in his late 70s, this man Allen Ginsberg called “one of the most exquisite visionary artists in America.” Bob’s running out of room. His assemblages are stacked like hubcaps. His paintings are piled together. His seriagraphs lie on a work table – you might get one free if he feels like it. Bob’s energy is exceptionally cheerful. He practices the Chinese energy work Qi Gong and is a long time practitioner of Arica (Oscar Ichazo’s mystery school – see John Lily’s Center of the Cyclone for a good account) as well as a follower of Garchen Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master of high regard. The result: it can be quite giddy to be with Bob, a feeling similar to just arriving in your childhood friend’s back yard. The potential for fun is limitless. There is much laughter. I usually like to go to a little Santa Monica coffee shop with him for breakfast. It’s his place. Cheap pancakes, eggs, bacon and coffee. There will always be a few people coming along. Bob’s stories begin and they are uniformly hilarious. He DID virtually know all the Beats – except he once saw Kerouac, drunk, surrounded in a bar and thought Jack wanted to be left alone. Other than that, he can tell you stories about anyone you bring up.
Poet S.A. Griffin might be along. Without S.A.’s promotion, Bob might still be a ghost. S.A. listens. Poet Carlye Archibeque never shows the pot she’s smoked– she plans to organize Bob’s garage.
Also, poet Richard Modiano, Executive Director of the Venice Beach art /poetry venue, Beyond Baroque, might come along, where Bob is now official artist-in-residence. Richard saw that Bob had his first show there in 2010, which is when I met Bob. Richard, like Milo, knew I had to meet this guy, and he arranged it when I was in town with my writer wife Suzi. We were all standing in Beyond Baroque’s entry hall looking at Bob’s seriagraphs, when Bob and I, after a bit of conversation, had this very eerie sense – we had known some of the same Beats, we were both clean and sober, and we were students of Tibetan Buddhism with many of the same teachers. What were the odds of this karmic showdown? Ever since, I have tried never to miss him whenever I am in L.A. He’s a hidden national treasure, and he’s my treasure, too.
Bob’s paintings can look like visionary buildings in a Hendrix-like purple haze Pure Land. “Shambhalan,” Carlye Archibeque called one of them, referring to the mystical hidden kingdom of Tibet that Shangri-La took its name from. His drawings sometimes look like crude napkin doodles, though his early self-portrait shows he completely understands representational perspective. In September 1964, Artforum took him to task when he began drawing like this, a sort of Zap Comix nuttiness that would later adorn the San Francisco Oracle in the Summer of Love with bright mandalas of merging mouths and bodies. It was if he didn’t feel he had time to get the visions down before they evaporated from his feverish brain.
When Bob had his second show at Beyond Baroque, I began meeting his kids, Bianca, James, Rustum – and it was almost tearful how much they loved him. By all accounts, this former dope fiend was quite a Mr. Hyde…but that was almost 30 years ago. They love him more than a lot of kids show their fathers. He did something right. Beautiful children, too – though now very grown up. Bob, by his own account, had four wives. Now he has a girlfriend. He is rarely without one for long.
His first wife was a blonde hooker, and he was her bellhop pimp, back in Wichita, Kansas. The nickname “Barbital Bob” came from the Wichita police. Bob didn’t like Barbital, a barbiturate, but he staggered around like he was on it. Bob did time in reform school and prison. Since McClure and Connor had left Wichita 10 years earlier, he met them later on East and West Coast. Bob’s Kansas pal was writer Charles Plymell, who had his own nickname, “Hang-up,” according to Bob. If Charley got too out of his mind on speed and booze, you could give him some money to go get beer. You wouldn’t see “Hang-up” for three days. Bob progressed in painting at the local University, and under his promptings, Charley would also attend lit classes. College was not to get ahead – it just seemed a cool scene. I’m sure it had something to do with “chicks.”
Bob’s films, both 8mm and 16mm (such as Burn, Karma, Burn) reflect his interest in superimposed images as they occur in his seriagraphs – frames within frames over frames. Home movie elements, such as in the above-mentioned BKB, will likely be seen quite differently in 100 years, perhaps joining Woodstock in their document of hippie life. For Bob, this life included pioneer days in pre-Esalen Big Sur in the early & mid 60s, where he built a family-sized cabin. His visitors included some of the Hollywood mavericks like Dean Stockwell, as well as the usual Beat suspects and Dr. Tim Leary. A good deal of this is documented by Beat photographer and artist Wallace Berman, and can be seen in Wallace Berman: Photographs.
White Male didn’t go to Yale went to jail
Didn’t give good enough head
Not Gay enough
Don’t fit in the box
Gave head to good
Kissed the wrong ass
Such is the text of Branaman, in this case appearing on a seriagraph. Yes, “Gave head to good” is how he spelled it. Bob is dyslexic and his misspellings are part of his text, whether on the page or painting. His childlike reports suggest both Peter Orlovsky and the lyrics of Iggy Pop. At their purest, they definitely score (& I don’t mean in the dope sense of “Why are you a BAD ARTIST?”).
His seriagraph “Barbital Bob Rides Again” shows a photo of him standing in front of City Lights Books with Philip Whalen, actor George Goodrow, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Laurence Ferlinghetti, and Charles Plymell (on lap of poet Alan Russo).
It’s his rightful place.
(For a more complete article on the Wichita Vortex group as well as an extended interview with Bob, see the next issue of Beat Scene (#68 ) for my piece, “Mapping the Wichita Vortex: Conversations with Robert Branaman, Michael McClure and Charles Plymell.”)
–photos take n by S.A. Griffin