Beyond Beat: The late artist Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen, who died March 7, 2009 in Sweden at the age of 71, was a seminal Beat figure who inspired the famous “Turn On, Tune in and Drop Out” dictum of the “Human Be-In” in San Francisco in 1967.

By Marlena Donohue

(Marlena Donohue is Associate Professor of Art History and Critical Theory at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and Managing Editor of ArtScene in Los Angeles)

Michael Bowen recently passed away in Sweden after five decades of exhibiting art in major international art museums and private collections. He passes away before his career or work could be adequately evaluated in the context of history, particularly those epoch-altering years marked by the 1960s-1970s he is most closely associated with.

Born in Beverly Hills to a famous dentist into a legacy of great wealth, Bowen was the quintessential drop out from consumer culture long before the term was made popular in SF cafes. On the road, so to speak, from his teens, Bowen traveled the globe, engaging life and making art alongside some of the art world’s major luminaries.

Primarily self taught, Bowen coined an art style and remained committed to it for over forty years of changing art world styles and alternatively hip and conservative social mores. He is associated with a distinct visionary surreal art whose nearly hallucinatory intensity came to be identified with the Beats and with the drug and underground culture.

Bowen was a seminal Beat figure, and the gradual surfacing of letters and other primary archives that will surely follow his death will, one imagines, begin to indicate more clearly how his ideas and his person left their mark on nearly every iconic 60s event.

The artist was either at the hub of or directly influenced many of the major moments and ideas we now associate with those profound changes history calls the birth of counter culture. Certainly not for lack of originality, historical relevance nor intensity of intent, Bowen was never one of the highly hyped Beat names on everyone’s lips, such as Tim Leary, Allen Ginsberg or Edward Kienholz.

Wildly eccentric and transgressive even for intentionally shocking Beat standards, independent to the point of being fondly (or maddeningly) irascible, Bowen’s absolute inability to compromise on what seemed to him to be matters of personal, philosophical and aesthetic vision meant that he did not court, courted awkwardly, or often fully alienated the art market and art press.

In spite of this, his historical position cannot be easily disputed. Bowen organized the proto performance art happening called the “Human Be-In” in 1967, inviting Allen Ginsberg, Ram Das and Tim Leary to participate and inspiring the famous “Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out” dictum. Never one to shy away from the grandiose, his plan to rent a plane and drop flowers on war protesters confronting national guardsmen on the Washington Mall in 1968 was thwarted. Relentless, he drove a car load of flowers to the capitol steps, distributing them by hand to everyone, making Bowen the quirky force behind that now epoch-defining metaphor of “flower power.”

Bowen was an artist who went into his studio each and every day of his life, and while counter culture advocated tossing aside all artistic tradition so as to render “everyone an artist,” Bowen demanded of himself a rigorous respect for and study of draftsmanship, technical acumen, and an awareness of the legacy of art’s history from the Renaissance to Conceptual Performance Art. Bowen was an artist committed to intellectual curiosity, an artist who studied–not as fad or our tourist ideas of Yoga-on-Saturdays, but with intense, active engagement–everything from Sufi poetry to quantum physics, from Kali mysticism to the biochemistry of creativity.

Human Be-In January 14, 1967

Bowen will enter art history, one hopes, not for who he rubbed elbows with at love-ins but rather for his highly detailed dream-like, freely expressive paintings, assemblages and etchings of San Francisco, of life in the 60s, 70s, and experiences right up to his passing. The artist’s highly symbolic scenes—part true to fact, often totally intuited– of gritty city life, of travel and ritual in Mexico, India, Southeast Asia may well extend beyond the boundaries of any specific Beat era. At his best—and like every artist the work runs the gamut—Bowen was able to tap ties to expressive, imaginative forms from early pictographs, to Jungian mythic traditions, from Symbolism to German Expressionism.

Images done by or inspired by Bowen are transmitted globally thousands of times a day: so-called peaceniks placing flowers in gun barrels; Bowen’s “one world” visual messages done to illustrate early historical editions of the first free press publication, the Oracle in the 60s. These, ironically enough, become more and more timely in a world that recycles into chaos.

Irascible and demanding, unapologetic about a life style that required what he called “absolute freedom,” Bowen was as impossible as he was gifted. Acting out to the occasional chagrin of those of us who attempted to make a serious study of his life, work and times, ever the ultimate hipster, trying to sell you something or another–whether a painting or an idea—Michael Bowen was full of energy. He was indeed an artist who lived his art and his life to the very brink of exuberance and creative commitment; he leaves us an artistic and historic legacy that should not be ignored.

Marlena Donohue

Donohue is the co-Editor of ArtScene and Visual Art Source, and Associate Professor of Art History at Otis College. She is the author of hundreds of features, reviews, essays, and text chapters in a variety of international publications on art and culture.

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