Over the past six decades, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has established himself as one of the most renowned poets and publishers in the world. A founder of City Lights Books and a noted Beat writer, he is commonly considered one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century. But Ferlinghetti has been painting for almost as long as he has been writing. Spark visits Ferlinghetti in his studio as he prepares a series of works for a show at San Francisco’s George Krevsky Gallery.
Ferlinghetti first took up painting in 1948 while living in Paris on the G.I. Bill, at a time when French artists were heavily influenced by Spanish surrealism in general and the work of Pablo Picasso in particular. Like many American painters at the time, Ferlinghetti interpreted these influences to produce abstract expressionist works. But the artist quickly became dissatisfied with nonobjective painting, abandoning it in favor of works that incorporated both figuration and the written word.
Now in his late 80s, Ferlinghetti still paints fervently, and most mornings he can be found working in the Hunter’s Point Shipyard studio that he has kept since 1979. All the paintings that he is preparing for his show at the Krevsky Gallery combine provocative, sometimes mystical imagery with written words: some of his own, others from canonical wordsmiths such as Blake and Eliot.
Though he began painting early in his career, Ferlinghetti didn’t exhibit his work until the 1980s, after George Krevsky himself approached the poet following a reading. Krevsky complimented Ferlinghetti highly on his writing, and the poet/artist responded that the gallery owner should see his paintings. Krevsky’s visit to Ferlinghetti’s studio began a relationship that has lasted more than 20 years.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. Returning to New York, Ferlinghetti earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a doctorate from the Sorbonne, in Paris. While living in France, he met the influential poet Kenneth Roxroth, who encouraged Ferlinghetti to move to San Francisco, where he eventually came to be known as one of the founders of the Beat movement. In 1953, Ferlinghetti founded the City Lights bookstore with Peter D. Martin; the publishing house was founded two years later, in 1955. Ferlinghetti has since published more than 25 books of poetry and has won numerous literary awards.