Between 1966 and 1968 a New York anarchist group produced ten issues of Black Mask magazine, nine of which (numbers 2-10) form part of the Dave Cunliffe Collection at the John Rylands Library which holds countercultural publications from around the world.
Active in radical politics from the late-1950s, Ben Morea connected with the poets Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones), the Living Theatre’s Judith Molina and Julian Beck and the anarchist artist Aldo Tambellini. In 1965, with the artist Ron Hahne, he formed the Black Mask group. The collective believed that the commercialisation of the avant-garde had destroyed its potential to change society. Like the European Situationists, they saw that the power released by Dada, Surrealism and Futurism had been blunted by its commodification; the drive by critics, agents and gallery owners to make money from their creativity. In response Morea and Hahne staged actions intended to disrupt the art world. They initially attended lectures and exhibition openings where they argued with academics and critics about the future of art but found that they were largely ignored and their activities went unreported. In response the duo decided to use more controversial tactics. They ‘assassinated’ the poet Ken Koch at a reading. Shot with a gun which fired blanks Koch passed out, the audience presumed that he had been killed and then turned on the anarchists. Black Mask first came to real prominence when they successfully shut down New York’s Museum of Modern Art, attracting several new members through the substantial publicity the action generated. In fact, the mere announcement that Morea and Hahne were going to stage an intervention was enough to persuade the managers of MOMA to close its doors, so they didn’t even need to turn-up on the day. In a later interview Morea recalled the reasoning behind the action:
We felt that art itself, the creative effort, was an obviously worthwhile, valuable and even spiritual experience. The museum and gallery system separated art from that living interchange and had nothing to do with the vital, creative urge. Museums weren’t a living house, they were just a repository.
To further develop awareness of their cause Black Mask Issue 1 was published in November 1966, just a month after MOMA, and its editorial builds on their ideas:
A new spirit is rising…We assault your Gods…We sing of your death. DESTROY THE MUSEUMS…our struggle cannot be hung on walls.
The issue includes correspondence between the group and an art critic who questioned the reasoning behind the closure of a museum, alongside an Albert Camus interview about the meaning of art. An editorial urges support for Black Panther candidates standing for election in Lowndes County, Alabama where white supremacists had political control. By the second issue the journal’s stark black and white aesthetic had further developed with a cover image of an eclipse over a declaration demanding: ‘The Total Revolution’. Alongside analysis of Dada and the avant-garde, Black Mask covered the global activism of groups which they considered to be ‘moving in the same direction’. These included the Paris based Situationist International, radical newspaper Heatwave (British Situationists) and similar collectives in Chicago and New York. There are also messages in support of James Baldwin’s campaign to free the ‘Harlem Six’ and attempts to bring an end to the Vietnam war.
The obvious similarities between the activities of Black Mask and the Situationists, who also sought an attack on the structures surrounding and (mis)using art and culture, sit rather oddly alongside Morea’s later comments. In a 2006 interview Morea claimed that:
The Situationists and I never saw eye to eye. I thought that they were extremely doctrinaire and limited. The Situationists seemed to excommunicate more people than they kept. There was never really any connection between our group and theirs.
This seems even stranger considering that issue 5 (April 1967), features ‘The World Wide Revolt of Youth’, an account of different revolutionary activities across the globe. This includes one of the earliest reports of Strasbourg student activism instigated by Situationists which quickly transferred to other French universities, was then picked-up by trade unionists and eventually developed into the Paris uprisings of 1968. Perhaps the reason behind Morea’s unwillingness to relate to the Situationists is due to their treatment at the time by the ‘leader’ of the Situationist International, Guy Debord. Despite not actually making an application to join, the Black Mask membership of the Situationist International was presumptively rejected by Debord, famous for expelling anyone whom he deemed to be ‘un-revolutionary’ in their approach.
What makes Black Mask particularly pertinent to this blog (and probably the reason copies of the journal are in the archive) is that one of its members, the activist, author and historian Dan Georgakas, made links with Lancashire small-press editors Tina Morris and Dave Cunliffe and with the artist Jeff Nuttall whose archive is also held at John Rylands Library. Georgakas contributed a political long-form poem to Nuttall’s publication My Own Mag (No 17, September 1966). Nuttall’s archive contains related correspondence while Bomb Culture (1968), Nuttall’s account of the early British counterculture, stresses the importance of the ‘anti-disciplinary protest’ carried-out by the Black Mask group. Georgakas has verse in Poetmeat 11 (summer, 1966) and Cunliffe and Morris also published his poetry pamphlet And All Living Things Their Children (Screeches, 1968). Georgakas is probably best known for his later text Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (1975), his account of the city’s Black radical movement co-authored with Marvin Surkin.
Black Mask is unusual for the period not because of the radical politics it contains nor even the connection it makes between revolutionary activism and the avant-garde. It is the stark monochrome colour scheme which quite deliberately sets it apart from the other alternative publications of the era. This was the time of psychedelia, day-glow colours, peace, love and understanding which is reflected in the bright shades of most 1960s underground journals. Black Mask uses its pure black and white to underline its message of revolutionary activism, support for Black Power groups and attempts to destroy the structures of the art world. As Gavin Grindon points out in his article ‘Poetry Written in Gasoline: Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherf****r’ they utilised the language and symbols of Dada in what he describes as the ‘Communization’ of the avant-garde, a return to the idealism that art could rupture everyday life to construct a new social future. The use of Surrealist and Dadaist tactics and language in their protests he describes as the ‘aestheticization of politics’. Grindon puts the monochrome appearance of Black Mask down to a colour scheme developed by members of their previous group, Black Zero, which he claims influenced the look of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Listing of the Dave Cunliffe Collection is near completion, and a finding aid will be available in due course. It contains approximately 4,500 little magazines, poetry pamphlets and countercultural publications from North, South and Central America, Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe alongside related ephemera and correspondence.
Thank you to Ben Morea for his kind permission to fully digitise the set of Black Mask in the Cunliffe Collection.
Ron Hahne and Ben Morea. Black Mask & Up Against the Wall Motherf*****: The Incomplete Works of Ron Hahne, Ben Morea, and the Black Mask Group. PM Press, 2011.
Jeff Nuttall. Bomb Culture. MacGibbon & Kee. 1968.
Gavin Grindon. ‘Poetry Written in Gasoline: Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherf****r’. Art History. Vol. 38 no. 1, February 2015. pp.170-209.
Is this collection accessible online?