Freedom News

Surrealism and anarchism, past and present

Last June, about fifty people gathered in the Eberhardt Press print shop in Portland, Oregon, to meet with legendary American activist Ben Morea and view a pop-up exhibition of his paintings. Morea was one of the founders of the anarchist affinity group Black Mask in New York in 1966 and also the catalyst for subsequent direct-action collectives like Up Against the Wall Motherfucker in 1968. He was a driving force behind the closing of the Museum of Modern Art in ‘66 and the occupation of the Fillmore East theatre in ’68, and his uncompromising anticapitalist and antiracist activism set the standard for what engaged radicalism could accomplish in the Vietnam War era. An artist since the early 1960s, his austere paintings and satirical graphics are everywhere visible in the distinctive pages of the Black Mask zine (ten issues; New York; November 1966–May 1968).

What most of those gathering for Morea’s exhibition might not have realized, however, is that what linked Morea to Eberhardt was not just a shared anarchist perspective but also a surrealist one. Since 2005, Charles Overbeck has been “printing for the people” in his DYI print shop in Portland, with a particular emphasis on publishing materials by contemporary surrealist anarchists from the United States, such as Ron Sakolsky and Penelope Rosemont. Although he was never a member of an active surrealist group, Morea always connected his painting practice and anarchist activism to surrealism, whether in the pages of Black Mask magazine or his experimental approach to daily life.

Why did surrealism, a cultural and social resistance movement founded a hundred years ago, matter to someone like Morea? As he has explained to me over many conversations, surrealists found a viable model for a social form of collectivity that attempted to unify art, anti-authoritarian resistance, mutual aid, and conscious living. Although Morea has as many critiques of surrealism as he does affinities for it, he still considers it an important key to the puzzle of how we might lead an engaged existence here and now. The paintings Morea displayed at Eberhardt Press in June exemplified this since they had been completed via the method of automatism, a surrealist method in which the maker attempts to divest themselves of control, intention, and any fantasies of creative genius. For Morea, the artwork is made in the moment and thus becomes the moment, unified.

A couple of months following Morea’s exhibition at Eberhardt, there was a book launch for Ron Sakolsky’s Surrealism and the Anarchist Imagination at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop in Portland. Published by Eberhardt Press, Sakolsky’s book brings together artwork by contemporary surrealists such as Rikki Ducornet (in Port Townsend, WA) with that of Portland anarchists like Jesse Narens, an artist and musician. The living connections between surrealism and anarchism were unmistakable at the packed launch event. Portland’s anarchist community turned out in force to hear Sakolsky’s thoughts on the surrealist re-enchantment of the word in imagination and the surrealist search for an “emancipatory mythology” via 19th-century utopian socialists like Charles Fourier. Discussing chapters of his book such as “The Marvelous Dance of Anarchy and Individuality”, Sakolsky emphasized that the surrealist revolution is inherently playful, poetic, and continually unfolding in an autonomous, decentralised way.

In my own study of surrealism as a form of social protest over the past decade, I have come to understand its importance to an entire generation of international activists after World War II. While Guy Debord and the Situationist International are best known for their disdainful yet deeply derivative appropriation of surrealism between the 1950s and the 1970s, there were many more young radicals in this period who looked to surrealism as one model for their resistance efforts.

In the United States, there was a concentration of interest in surrealism in ultraleftist groups during the 1960s and 70s, sometimes connected directly to the Situationist example, but in other cases not at all. The most obvious case is the formation of The Surrealist Movement in the United States in Chicago in 1966 by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont and some of their associates from the Solidarity Bookshop and beyond. The Chicago surrealists simultaneously explored anarchism, communism, and other forms of socialism, but ultimately, the anarchist orientation was the sustaining one, as can be seen in the books produced by Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company. A compatriot of their group, Bernard Marszalek, the mind behind Ztangi Press, never became a surrealist but remained attracted to surrealist anti-wage labour discourses and more.

Jesse Narens, autumn blossoms. acrylic, pencil, oil pastel & paper on wood, 24″x24″. 2023

By and large, most post-World War II activists who looked to surrealism never became surrealists themselves, and this is what is so fascinating. Surrealism persisted and expanded beyond itself. Surrealism was a companion approach for radicals seeking existing examples for lives of considered action and resistance. Beyond Morea and Black Mask, there are other histories of global activist surrealism after World War II that await rediscovery. Some of these involve anarchist activists, but individuals with Marxist communist approaches were also drawn to surrealism despite the movement’s definitive and unapologetic break from the Communist Party in 1935. Hardly anything has been written about the Situationist-affiliated Council for the Eruption of the Marvelous in Berkeley in the late-1960s, but in my recent conversations with CEM co-founder Isaac Cronin, it became clear that surrealism was a core source for their group.

One such story is that of Jonathan Leake, an anarchist who considered surrealism to be a crucial part of his oppositional arsenal. In 2023, I worked with Eberhardt Press to publish a book called Resurgence! Jonathan Leake, Radical Surrealism, and the Resurgence Youth Movement, 1964-1967, which anthologized selections from Leake’s rare anarchist zine Resurgence (twelve issues; printed New York, Chicago, San Francisco; autumn, 1964–March. 1967). Together with Walter Caughey, Paul Leake, and others, Jonathan Leake formed the Resurgence Youth Movement and its zine in New York City with the aim of undermining capitalist-imperialist white supremacy via oppositional direct action, public soapboxing, and the formation of solidarity networks through underground publishing.

This Sunday, April 14th, 2024, at 3 PM EST, the International Society for the Study of Surrealism will host a free online book launch for this text, featuring contributors to the book as well as an original member of the Resurgence Youth Movement, Paul Leake.

~ Abigai Susik

Abigail Susik is a Fellow of the National Humanities Center and Associate Professor of Art History at Willamette University

Image: Ben Morea / 3/17 UNTITLED SERIES 11 #1 / Paint and Ink on Watercolor paper

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