GERD STERN with Raymond Foye
Gerd Stern is a poet, painter, sculptor, and media artist. His oral history, From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist: 1948–1978, was published by The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. He is a founder of USCO (along with Michael Callahan and Steve Durkee), one of the first arts/technology cooperatives, active since the early 1960s. Based in a church building in Rockland County (NY), their interdisciplinary approach to creating art includes poetry, painting, sculpture, and multimedia projects involving film, light, motion and sound. The group had an important early influence on the culture of light shows and psychedelia, as well as computer programming and software development. Stanford University recently acquired USCO and Gerd Stern’s archives for the special collections library. USCO’s work has been shown in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Tate Liverpool, Centre Pompidou, and the Guggenheim, and was recently featured in the museum exhibition HIPPIE MODERNISM: The Struggle for Utopia, organized by the Walker Art Center and the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (2015). He is represented by the Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.
Gerd Stern was born in Saarland on the German/French border in 1928, and emigrated to the United States with his family as the Nazis rose to power. They eventually settled in Washington Heights in New York City. After a lifetime of wide travels and accomplishments, he returned to New York, where he lives in Chelsea with Judith Sokoloff, who publishes and edits the magazine Na’amat. This past month, at the age of ninety, Gerd Stern set up a new art studio in Chelsea’s London Terrace building.
USCO, (Gerd Stern, Stephen Durkee, Michael Callahan), Spheres-Time (Tabernacle Painting), 1965, oil and screenprint on canvas, 112.5 x 110 in (285.8 x 279.4 cm). Courtesy of Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati
Raymond Foye (Rail): You’ve known so many interesting people in your life. When you look back, who are the few that really are outstanding?
Gerd Stern: It’s easy: Jaime de Angulo, Marshall McLuhan, Rabbi Zalman Schachter. Those are people who are names in some other constellation.
Rail: I’m happy to hear you mention Jaime de Angulo, he’s not as well known as he should be. Harry Smith spoke about him a lot. How did you meet Jaime?
Stern: A strange story. I got my father to give me airfare to California ostensibly to go to college, which I never did. Some friends picked me up at the airport in San Francisco in a 1928 Model A Ford with a rumble seat and we all drove down the coast to Big Sur. I felt fully alive for the first time in my life. I was bumming around Big Sur when I encountered this wild man wandering through the mountains there, probably around 1947. He was basically naked, except for a loincloth and a bandana, sunburned, with long hair and a beard, and he yells at me, “Shalom.” That was Jaime de Angulo. I had no idea who he was. Then after I say hello he says, “You come from Germany near the French border, but you’ve grown up probably in New York City, but not Brooklyn…” Of course he was a great linguist so he understood these things. (I grew up in the Bronx.) He knew many European languages and several Native American languages from Northern California.
Rail: There’s a great book called Children of the Sun (Nirvana Press, 1998) by Gordon Kennedy. It chronicles all the weird naturalists who lived in the wilds of California in the early decades of the 20th century, who followed various paths of vegetarianism, raw foods, nudism, making their own housing and musical instruments. Many of them were originally German, followers of people like Rudolf Steiner and Hermann Hesse. It’s a fascinating lineage because it’s just a handful of true eccentrics, but the influence they had on our culture is enormous. Jaime de Angulo was definitely one of these people.
Stern: All I can say is he was an outcast, totally outcast. I went into his little house and in the middle of the room was this huge fireplace with a fire in it and the smoke goes up through a hole in the roof. Jaime and I became very close friends. I saw a lot of him down through the years. He gave me use of a cabin on his ranch in Big Sur. I used to go there with Philip Lamantia and we’d trip on peyote, which was legal back then. We ordered it through the mail, from Texas. You had to order quite a lot and it came in a cardboard box by railway express. Later when I worked for KPFA we broadcast Jaime reading his book Indian Tales. In fact he wasn’t even reading them, he was just reciting them. I think the poet Robert Duncan was responsible for transcribing them. Later I was responsible for getting that book published: I sent the manuscript to A.A. Wyn at Ace Books, who I knew through his nephew Carl Solomon—Allen Ginsberg dedicated Howl to him. Carl, Allen and I were all in a mental institution together for several months in the late 40s—Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. That’s another story.
Rail: I’ll say. You studied at Black Mountain College?
USCO, (Gerd Stern, Stephen Durkee, Michael Callahan), Triple Diffraction Hex, 1965, Surplus IBM parts, diffraction gratings, circuitry, plywood, board, brass eagle, 32 x 20 x 18.75 inches (81.2 x 50.8 x 47.6 cm). Courtesy of Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.
Stern: I got a scholarship through Isaac Rosenfeld, whom I’d met at Four Seasons Books Shop in Greenwich Village, where I naturally gravitated to at a young age. But I was only at Black Mountain for a very short time because I had a bad relationship with Josef Albers and his wife, who were running the school. He was a kind of severe German whom I had worked hard to get away from. He had the same German accent as my father.
Rail: Were you exposed to John Cage there?
Stern: Not at Black Mountain, but later when I was in Rockland County, he was living across the street from me.
Rail: That must have been a nice way to relate to John Cage, as your next door neighbor in the countryside.
Stern: It was, but not just John Cage, because there was a group of houses on a hill in three different spots of the land with people living next to each other and somewhat communally, a lot of interesting people who had all met at Black Mountain—like M.C. Richards, and Merce Cunningham was with John. So I was getting acquainted with them and living across the street. You know, the consequences of the sequences are hard to establish.
Rail: But that’s what a life is, isn’t it? The way these connections happen.
Stern: It is. It’s a real circuit and it’s a wonderful experience.
Rail: And people moving around, and locations. I mean, that is what a culture is, a bio-organism.
Stern: Yeah, definitely analog. We were basically analog technicians, USCO, not digital—
Rail: Okay now what happens there, what’s the shift from analog to digital? And I wanted to ask you, how do you feel in the digital world?
Stern: I’m not as familiar and I feel somewhat illiterate.
Rail: Do you feel somewhat hostile toward it?
Stern: No, not really. I wouldn’t say hostile.
USCO, (Gerd Stern, Stephen Durkee, Michael Callahan), Shiva, 1965, Paint on canvas, electric lights, 108 x 108 in (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Courtesy of Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.
Rail: When does Marshall McLuhan enter into the picture? Because for me the importance of USCO was the way you subjected art to all types of media, including advertising.
Stern: McLuhan fits in through John Cage, who had gotten a copy of the Report on Project in Understanding New Media prepared for the Educational Technology Association, in Washington, D.C., in 1960. It was vast grab bag of ideas which turned into the book Understanding Media(1964). M.C. Richards had read it and she thought I needed to see it because she knew I had an interest in technology and so forth. So she lent it to me. And ah, yes, it turned me on, like, totally.
Rail: Why? Because here was a theorist of media who seemed to understand the very blueprint of how it functioned, its structure?
Stern: Exactly. A philosopher, scientist, poet. He wasn’t all those things, but he had those minds. Later I met him. To me he was ultimately likeable. Listening to him was a privilege. We corresponded for a good ten years.
Rail: In Understanding Media, McLuhan has a chapter titled: “Chapter Four: The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis;” now doesn’t that really describe where we are today?
Stern: Absolutely. He was more or less 60 years ahead of his times, prophesying technology. I figure right now if we’re 15 to 20 years ahead it’s a lot. But we’re certainly not 50 or 60 years ahead.
Rail: Some of my favorite artists are prophets. Do you have any feelings about who is a prophet today?
Stern: Not the way I felt about McLuhan. He understood how technology was going to change consciousness, and it is.
Rail: His writing from that time is highly exploratory and very process-oriented, that seems to have influenced you as well.
Stern: It did. Originally his expertise came out of studying the Middle Ages and medieval manuscripts and then on to Gutenberg and forward from there. He hated technology—he told me he didn’t even like the pop-up toaster.
Rail: You were good friends with Jordan Belson and you attended many of the Vortex multimedia concerts at the planetarium in San Francisco in the ’50s. Was that an influence on your Intermedia work later on?
USCO, (Gerd Stern, Stephen Durkee, Michael Callahan), Silver Sphere, 1965, oil on shaped canvas, 72 x 60 inches (182.9 x 152.4 cm). Courtesy of Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.
Stern: Oh of course! I think Belson is unique in that he’s an artist who moves back and forth between filmmaking and painting, in discreet groups of four or five years spaced apart, and he creates masterpieces in both those realms. I don’t know any other artist in the 20th century who does that. He was unique because the characteristics of his personality and his reclusiveness are part of what made him into a brilliant artist/technologist, so that’s an unusual combination.
Rail: Do you consider Jordan Belson a great artist?
Stern: Whatever that class is, yes. You know, it’s hard to value on that scale when you’re used to valuing on the scale of friendship and closeness. I think I knew more about him than most people do, and the sense that he and I had in common a Jewish middle class background and family relationship. And he, more or less, forgot or neglected or didn’t want to get near that at all. I met him originally through a poet who was the first person I ever knew in San Francisco, Philip Lamantia, who was my friend off and on for the rest of his life.
Rail: Lamantia was certainly one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known. He was also a great conversationalist, he could really take it out there. Eight hours later he’d still be talking.
Stern: Really? I didn’t even know you knew him. We were very close for a long long time. He introduced me to most of the important people I knew on the West Coast.
Rail: How would you describe the function of jazz in the artist’s scene in those days?
Stern: In those days jazz was the main network. As you moved around the country it was the main way you met people and hooked up and stayed in touch. I was at the clubs every night, the Blackhawk, Jimbo’s Bop City, you name it. I saw Charlie Parker many times. I drove Chet Baker across the country once, from Mill Valley to Philadelphia, because he had a club gig with Lester Young.
Rail: I didn’t know those two even played together.
Stern: Everyone played with everyone in those days. There are thousands of gigs no one knows about. And everyone was an equal, there were no stars. Well, maybe Dizzy Gillespie.
Rail: You spent many years working with Harry Partch, helping him build instruments, and getting his music performed and recorded.
Stern: I was very close with Harry Partch. We were gentle friends. I felt that same closeness with McLuhan, even though I might not see him for six months or a year.
Rail: Very few people ever formulate an entirely new conception of music the way Partch did.
Stern: Well, Partch took his non-tempered music from the Greeks. You find these scales in many other societies and social settings, but in the period that we grew up in, what he did was totally out of place with anybody. When I met him, he only had about three instruments. He and I built quite a few of the instruments together. Neither of us were very good carpenters to tell you the truth. But he was very picky about the way things looked. After we built the Marimba Eroica, a huge instrument, I arrived at his studio a couple of days later and there were redwood strips all along the edges. And I asked him, “How come?” and he said, “You screwed it together and the heads of the screws were still visible, and they were not the same distance apart. That is why I put the redwood strips over them.” That was very Harry. Everything was about measurement and proportion.
Rail: Visually those instruments are very beautiful. They’re like sculptures. Which works of his would you recommend?
Stern: I’m particularly fond of what he was working on at the time I first encountered him, the ones we recorded: Plectra and Percussion Dances (1953). But I know practically everything, starting with the settings of the Chinese poets. I was in the original cast of U.S. Highball (1958), an “opera” about his days as a hobo, riding the rails, and I appeared in it again at Carnegie Hall recently. I consider that work a masterpiece.
Rail: It must have taken an incredible amount of effort and wherewithal for him to realize the vision of music he had, creating those instruments and teaching people to play them. How would you describe Harry Partch’s music to someone who wasn’t familiar with it?
Stern: Totally different. It’s based on principles which have nothing to do with what we’re used to, because instead of tempered music it’s non-tempered, and the scale that he used mostly is 43 tones to the scale, rather than the usual number, but they are natural temperament, so you can test it with an oscilloscope and an audio oscillator, which is how we ended up building some of his instruments, like the Marimba Eroica. Harry had a hard time understanding the technology. When I was working with him we were all living with a bunch of people in kind of a communal setting, including old Bill Loughborough and his wife Pam. Bill was an electrical engineer from M.I.T. and he worked for the government at the Navy Yard on radar systems. He was in Chet Baker’s band, a percussionist. He was a pothead at a time when that was quite a big deal, hah! When I explained to him who Harry Partch was and what his scene was, and the challenges we were having with the building of this Eroica, he volunteered to bring the technology that eventually made it possible. Out of that connection came an interesting little business that Bill and I started. We made bongo drums from huge bamboo logs and they were tuned very precisely. We called them “Boo-Bams,” which was bamboo spelled sideways. They became quite popular for a time. You can even hear them on some of the records of the time.
Rail: Did you notice a big difference coming to the West Coast from the East?
Stern: Oh yeah, it was much more receptive than the East had been for poetry and for art. And there were more people who had money. And they were sociable, some of them. Enough of them. The networking was a lot better. People all knew each other. I mean, just thinking about those people who were in the film the other day… [Autobiography (1951) by Jordan Belson, screened at Anthology Film Archives on May 6, 2019].
Rail: Chris MacLaine, Hy Hirsch, yourself, Harry Smith, Philip Lamantia, Jordan Belson—
Stern: It could have been, you know, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, Larry Ferling, later Ferlinghetti, and David Meltzer. I could go on and on. Bruce Conner. Bruce was remarkable.
Rail: Yes he was. He was one of the few contemporaries I ever heard Jordan speak of with total respect and admiration.
Gerd Stern, NO OW NOW, USCO Two Mantras, 1966-70 / 2017, Vinyl, 84 x 84 in (213 x 213 cm) Edition of 10. Courtesy of Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.
Stern: Oh, that’s interesting.
Rail: It’s funny to think of Inkweed Studios at Lionel Ziprin’s kitchen in New York where three artists are sitting around a table designing greeting cards: Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, and Bruce Conner.
Stern: It was very timely.
Rail: Was Jordan an easier person to get along with than Harry Smith?
Stern: Hey, the difference was monumental. Harry was really crazy, and explosive and not necessarily very likable. Jordan, when I first met him, was totally likable and social and interested in letting you know who he was and what his work was, but not egotistical.
Rail: Very refined, I mean, I always found him that way.
Stern: His reclusiveness didn’t evidence until later in the years that I knew him. Although it was there in some way, I mean, the whole apartment was painted black, which even in those days was pretty odd. And it was a long apartment.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about KPFA: do you see that as a precursor or forerunner to your media activities in USCO?
Stern: Oh, absolutely. It was about the same time as I was with Harry Partch. KPFA/Pacifica Radio in Berkeley was the first listener-sponsored radio station in the world. It was the creation of my very good friend, Lewis Hill, who was a poet. He and I used to print our poems together in his little letterpress studio on the Russian River.
Rail: You were program director at the station?
Stern: I was public relations director. But we had a major problem to begin with: FM was barely started, and very few people had FM radios. Since we were an FM station that was a basic problem. It took me some time, but I found a company from Japan named Granco, that made little FM radios. I arranged through some people who had some money to buy 100 of them, and we had a deal that people could become members if they bought the receiver. We sold them for exactly what they cost us, which was something like $40. All they had to do was pay that money and they not only got the radio, but they also got a year’s membership. It was a great deal. We got our first bunch of members that way.
Rail: So was that the origins of public radio?
Stern: Not public radio, but listener supported. And then we opened a sister station in LA, and eventually WBAI in New York. And, when I came east, the only person who reminded me of what the old station was like was Bob Fass. Bob is still a good friend of mine. When he was on the air on Thursdays, I used to go to the studio and hang out with him all the time.
Rail: How did it happen that you got Alan Watts on the radio?
Stern: That also had to do with Philip Lamantia taking me to a party in Mill Valley at the painter Gordon Onslow Ford’s house, and his wife, Jacqueline.
Rail: He was a British Surrealist. I like his paintings very much. Philip introduced you to a lot of people.
Stern: Lamantia and Kenneth Rexroth were the glue that held that West Coast scene together, for me. Philip also introduced me to Alan Watts. Most all of those tapes of Alan Watts that survive come from our KPFA broadcasts. Originally, he was a protestant minister in England and he ran off with the daughter of the head of his church and brought her to the US. And that’s how he arrived. He has such a great accent, and he talked onward and onward. I made sure that he was recorded well and everyone liked what he did right away.
Rail: KPFA was very left-wing from the start?
Stern: Oh god yeah. I produced a program where we got four or five of my pothead friends into the studio and for an hour we discussed why marijuana should be legalized, this was around 1955. It was an early act of media aggression and the authorities came after us big time. Fortunately everyone pleaded ignorant and they never traced it back to me. You have to understand, the radio was a real big thing in those days.
Rail: How did you come to be part of the houseboat scene in Sausalito?
Stern: Within a short period of time Gordon Onslow Ford and I became very close. He called me one day and invited me to lunch on his houseboat, the Vallejo, which he later gave to Alan Watts. He owned a whole strip of land on the waterfront in Sausalito. He didn’t have money, but his wife Jacqueline had plenty. He said how happy he was at what I had done for Harry Partch and he wanted to give me something. And so I thought, that’s very nice, maybe he’s going to give me some money. So he said, “You see where we are? I own so many feet of frontage, I will give you a berth for a boat. Rent-free for the rest of your life.”
Rail: That’s a nice offer. Did you have a boat?
Stern: No [laughs]. But I bought a disused laundry barge, which was more or less sunk on the mud. The barge was 135 feet long and over 30 feet wide. It had a house on it made of corrugated metal and huge windows and inside there was a copper-hooded fireplace. So I went down to the No Name Bar, which was the literary bar in Sausalito, and I got Calvin Kentfield and Evan Connell to help me fix it up by stuffing mattresses into the holes in the hull and pounding two-by-fours in, to hold them in place.
Rail: That sounds like a pretty rudimentary form of boat repair.
Stern: Yeah, well, it worked. After the second month when we patched the last leak, all of a sudden there was a tremendous sound, like thunder, and something happened and I nearly fell down. What happened was the barge popped up out of the mud. So we had it towed to Gordon’s berth at Gate 5, in the old Kaiser Shipyards in Sausalito. And I lived there rent-free for quite a few years.
Rail: Gate 5: so that’s where Harry Partch got the name for his record label?
Stern: Yeah, and his ensemble, too. There was a big office building there and Partch got a big studio there, thanks to Gordon. So now we were all living together in Sausalito, and it was quite a community, all the people I’ve just mentioned. Plus Jean Varda, a Greek collagist and painter who had spent a lot of time with the Surrealists in Paris, and he was a good friend of Henry Miller’s. Agnès Varda made a film in 1967 about him called Uncle Yanko, they were related. He had a rigged boat which he used to go sailing every weekend—all of the hoi polloi of arts in the Bay Area. We used to go out on that boat quite a bit, you could have 30 people on the boat easily. Of course there were multiple romantic adventures during all of these years.
Rail: You sailed yourself?
Stern: No, he sailed.
Rail: You just partied.
Stern: I just partied. [Laughter] And it was good partying. This was in the late ’50s, after Allen Ginsberg gave the first reading of Howl at the Six Gallery. I was at that reading, but I didn’t go there to hear Allen, although we’d known each other since the mental hospital when we were patients. I went to hear Philip Lamantia, who was reading John Hoffman’s poems, who had recently died in Mexico.
Rail: John Hoffman is one of the legendary early Beat poets I’ve always wanted to know more about. He died tragically, very young, aged 24. Do you have any of John’s poetry still?
Stern: Yes. John and I bummed around San Francisco, New York, Provincetown, and we shipped out together as seamen on the M.S. Bowhill. It was a long voyage down to South America, all kinds of ports in Brazil. We tried to score grass for the voyage from Bob Kaufman but he burned us. Strangely we both packed the same book—Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror. John was a skinny, tall, blonde kid, a wonderful poet but a real space cadet. He came from a well-to-do family north of San Francisco, I think.
Rail: We haven’t talked about Rabbi Zalman Schachter.
Stern: He’s important to me because he put me back in touch with Judaism. Like many German Jews, my father was not religious, he was completely secular. So finding a way back into that tradition was not so simple. Rabbi Schachter had a large following in the Chabad Lubavitch Hassidic community under Rabbi Schneersohn. He came from Vienna and was German-speaking, like me. We had a similar family background.
Rail: How did you meet him?
Stern: One day I was up at the church in Rockland County and Ralph Mezner called. He was one of the original LSD researchers at Harvard, along with Tim Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass). Ralph was born in Germany, Jewish like me, and his family managed to survive the war and emigrate. He was at Leary’s place in Millbrook and he said, “I just guided this rabbi from Canada on his first acid trip, you’ve got to meet this guy, you’re not going to believe this.” This was probably 1962. Rabbi Schachter came down to New York to meet me and we totally connected. He began a remarkable transformation, a difficult one, because it alienated him from his family, and the Orthodox community, but he knew he had to do it. He understood the gender approach in Orthodox Judaism had to change, because women were not allowed to read from the Torah. He has been the principal renewal agent in contemporary Judaism. He opened up the tradition in so many ways, extending Judaism into the 20th century in a way that no one else could have. He went to India and met the Dalai Lama, who was interested in learning how the Jews had kept their cultural identity intact through the diaspora and the Holocaust.
Rail: It sounds like meeting Rabbi Schachter completed a circle for you.
Stern: It did. All my Intermedia concerns came into full flower with USCO where we achieved (for a time at least) a true family of artists working with cinema, light, electronic music, kinetic sculpture, Op Art, theater, etc. We wanted it to be about a shared environment, and not the individual object. If you look beyond the object or the content and focus on what’s happening as experience, you begin to see the religious design or purpose that exists in the vibrational universe, in sacred geometry, in the nature of light. When I met Rabbi Schachter and began to study the kabbalah I came to a deeper understanding of how all these things function together.
Rail: Where does USCO stand today?
Stern: USCO has changed so much since the ’60s that it’s not even comparable, because right now it’s only Michael Callahan and me, calling ourselves USCO, meaning the company of us. We never wanted to be seen as individual artists. In a way we’ve always been anonymous. I had put myself front and center as an artist a few times and I just didn’t enjoy it. In the ’60s USCO met with a lot of success and our work sold well, through the dealer Howard Wise, but I didn’t like the financial or social demands of being a successful artist.
Rail: Michael Callahan has been your collaborator in USCO from the start?
Stern: Oh yes, I met him when he was 16 and running Morton Subotnick’s San Francisco Tape Music Center. He was a genius even then, and he designed the circuitry that allowed us to control, randomize, and program the multi-channel operations that made the USCO experience possible. A lot of the hardware Michael developed was far ahead of its time and proved highly influential. A lot of people who came into our orbit went on to do important things on their own, like Barbara and Steve Durkee at the Lama Foundation, or Jud Yalkut’s Experimental Television Center. Stewart Brand was never an official member of USCO, but we had a lot of contact, and his Whole Earth Catalog shared a lot of the same concerns. At one time we had around 15 people living there, doing shows and performances, people coming in and out all the time, and on the weekends we had the tabernacle open to the public. The church is still there but it’s closed up now, although we are always hoping to revive it in some way. The hundred year old USCO church HQ studio building is designated a national heritage entity and through Stanford University which has our USCO/Intermedia Foundation Archive we want to preserve our early work in multimedia and avant garde arts and poetry, and we are working towards that goal.