The John Rylands Library at The University of Manchester is close to launching “Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground,” a comprehensive exhibition of artworks, writings, correspondence, books, and little magazines produced by or associated with an “all-round genius” whose stunning countercultural career half a century ago is little remembered today. Jeff Nuttall was a painter, poet, actor, and sculptor, a performance artist, pioneer of “happenings,” cultural critic, and the author of nearly 40 books. The exhibition opens Sept. 8 and is scheduled to run through March 5, 2017. It’s also free (with the warning that due to the “adult nature” of the content it’s “not suitable for children”).
Dadaists, absurdists, surrealists had always believed that by striking an alternative aesthetic, by taking alternative pleasures, or by undermining the classical mode of representational painting, or establishing harmonic structures in music, by this you could change the face of society. What happened with the Beats was that by merging this transformation of standards and aesthetic pleasure with an actual attack on political structures you effect a sort of non-specific revolution, which was not programmed, which was not dictated and didn’t have an alternative set of rules. You’d scrapped the old rules and now, hopefully, a new set of rules would evolve from a way of life that had been established according to human pleasure and generosity. It erupted, I would say, with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
[But there was] a shift between 1966 and 1967 from poetry and art and jazz and anti-nuclear politics to just sex and drugs, the arrival of capitalism. The market saw that these revolutionaries could be put in a safe pen and given their consumer goods. What we misjudged was the power and complexity of the media, which dismantled the whole thing. It bought it up. And this happened in ’67, just as it seemed that we’d won.
— Jeff Nuttall (remarks in Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground, 1961-71, an oral history of the era collected and edited by Jonathon Green)
The curators of the exhibition, Douglas Field and Jay Jeff Jones, point out that one of Nuttall’s books,Bomb Culture(slow-loading PDF) — a seminal critique of social, political, and cultural developments in its day — rippled through debate at the British Parliament. They also note that as the editor of My Own Mag, an underground mimeo zine, “he was one of the few in the early 1960s to publish William S. Burroughs’s most experimental writing.” Moreover, it is “Nuttall’s combination of word and image, art and activism — and content that remains provocative and sometimes shocking — that made him a legend in his own time. As we face our own uncertain times, Nuttall’s work feels as prescient today as it did five decades ago.”