Photographed by Ira Odessky – Courtesy of Judith Shevin
Burt Shonberg – bio
The visions Burt Shonberg painted came from places few of us are privileged to see. Technically, his work displayed a unique grasp of form, color and composition. But it was the intimation of a higher reality looming behind his paintings that gave them their rare power. Like William Blake, Shonberg filled his acts of creation with a sense of spiritual adventure and intense, almost frightening reverence. On canvas and Masonite board, on café walls and cocktail napkins, he recorded his journeys to the outer edges of human perception.
“Burt Shonberg was a prospector of consciousness,” says his friend and patron Marshall Berle. “Shonberg went where no man had gone before, and brought his discoveries to life on canvas. Some thought him to be ‘crazy,’ but in reality, no artist was able to capture the visions and philosophy as Shonberg did with his paintings.”
Born on March 30, 1933 in Revere, MA, Shonberg began his artistic studies before enlisting the U.S. Army. After his discharge in 1956, he continued his studies at the Art Center of Los Angeles and began to gain local admirers of his work. Among these fans was Forrest J. Ackerman, who served as his agent and introduced him to the city’s film community. His fascination with the esoteric led to a romantic involvement with Marjorie Cameron, widow of rocket scientist and Aleister Crowley devotee Jack Parsons. By this time, fantasy imagery, occult references and cabalistic symbols had become recurring motifs in his work.
Shonberg gained exposure by painting murals on the walls of such L.A. area coffee houses/night clubs as the Purple Onion, the Bastille, Cosmo Alley and Pandora’s Box. In 1958, he launched a place of his own when he joined forces with folk singer Doug Myres and writer George Clayton Johnson to open Café Frankenstein in Laguna Beach, CA. His fascination – some would say obsession – with the Frankenstein story was reflected in the depictions of the monster he painted on the café’s walls and front window.
On an interior wall by the Café’s front door, Shonberg painted the following message: “Every once in a while during our accepted journey through life, we encounter something ‘strange,’ something directed towards us and we do not understand it. But anyhow, daylight, a familiar sound or somebody will jolt us back to the absurd reality of how things are supposed to be and we will be safe again…perhaps!”
This statement goes to the heart of Shonberg’s creative mission. Piercing the veil between worlds became his life’s work. In 1960, he took part in a research project studying the effects of LSD-25 on human creativity under the direction of Los Angeles psychiatrist Dr. Oscar Janiger. His experiences with the Janiger study confirmed his earlier flashes of mystical insight and deepened the otherworldly qualities of his artwork.
Among Shonberg’s admirers during this time was filmmaker Roger Corman, who featured several of his paintings in House of Usher (1960) and The Premature Burial (1962). Burt branched out into the music world as well, creating album cover art for Love’s Out Here and Spirit’s Spirit of ’76. Celebrities like Sally Kellerman and Ringo Starr began collecting his work. Manager George Greif (who promoted the Beatles’ first American concert tour) arranged for his only one-man show, held at a Los Angeles gallery in 1968. Shonberg became a true underground legend during this time even as many of his paintings mysteriously disappeared into unknown hands.
Shonberg died on September 18, 1977 at his home in Seal Beach, CA. Marshall Berle, George Clayton Johnson, the late artist Ledru Baker and other friends have helped to keep his creative legacy alive. A documentary film about his life and work is currently in production.
Walking the thin and dangerous line between dimensions, Burt Shonberg invited those brave enough to follow him. His artwork still beckons us onward into the realms of our dreams. We may be safe again – perhaps! – after seeing his work, but we can’t help but be changed.
— Barry Alfonso
Printed by permission – Barry Alfonso ©2015 – BurtShonberg.com 2015
A Declaration of Independents
By Brian Chidester
The location seemed perfect. Cafe Frankenstein, a coffeehouse nestled up on a hillside along Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, opened in 1958 rather auspiciously. That is, it had the good fortune to mark its conception during an epoch when the American youth population stood at the door of disaffiliation and wondered what answers could emerge from the mushroom cloud of post-war civilization.
The whole setup stemmed from the youthful hallucinations of its owners George Clayton Johnson, Doug Myres and Burt Shonberg (a writer, a folk singer and a painter, respectively). They chose in the Frankenstein monster an unlikely symbol of heroism for said youth experiencing its existential moment of cultural crisis. Looking back on the pictures of Shonberg’s myriad murals that graced the coffeehouse, you’d have thought the legacy of Southern California’s deep-rooted bohemianism was secure in this single, evocative edifice. Yet in an arts community that prides itself still on cultural offerings such as the annual Pageant of Masters, the Laguna Art Museum and an artisans boardwalk that features a bazaar of crafts and paintings, this sleepy Southern California hamlet would rather forget the nightmare that was the Café Frankenstein.
“Our goal was perhaps ill-conceived,” admits Johnson from his home in the San Fernando Valley. “We created the place in hopes of gathering other outcasts such as ourselves into a creative and open environment.”
The tiny wooden structure sat at 860 S. Coast Boulevard, designed (rather basic) by the Bill Bluerock architectural firm, painted black and emblazoned with Burt Shonberg’s mural art and stained glass depictions of the Frankenstein monster in a number of empathetic settings.
“Burt wasn’t afraid of the monster,” recalls Ledru Shoopman Baker III, who was Shonberg’s roommate in Seal Beach, California from 1968-77. “I speak of the monster inside us all.”
Every square inch of the Café Frankenstein, including a telephone phone pole out front, featured Shonberg artwork. Many of these inscriptions looked like cryptic symbols, Kabalistic letters and amorphic shapes inspired by Seattle artist Mark Tobey, who during the 1940s bridged the gap between abstract expressionism and the simplicity of Far Eastern calligraphy. Covering most of one side of the coffeehouse was Shonberg’s massive painting of the Frankenstein monster wearing a spaceman outfit engaged in a serious game of chess. The piece was painted with casein on a 12’-wide x 4’-tall masonite board and mounted to the exterior wall.
No one is sure how Burt came to identify with the monster in so deep a way. But one thing is certain: “Burt saw himself as Frankenstein,” relates Michael Schley, one of the coffeehouse’s early baristas. “Café Frankenstein was Burt Shonberg’s masterpiece. It was more than just a clever name for a beatnik hotspot.”
Indeed, a letter sent by Shonberg to Forrest J. Ackerman, the man who coined the term “Sci-Fi,” confirms his kinship to the monster. Addressed 7/15/57 (a full nine months prior to the café’s opening), the letter is largely taken up with Shonberg’s watercolor painting of the Frankenstein monster, who from the chest up sprouts from a field of flowers. Shonberg painted the monster as Boris Karloff’s famous Frankenstein from the Universal Studios film of 1931, offering the same mystic symbols utilized on the exterior of the Café Frankenstein building, here printed all over the monster’s body. There is no separation between the monster and the floral cornucopia around him, every square inch of the painting appearing connected and alive.
A byline across the top of the painting/letter reads:
“Mr. Shonberg and large friend (below) are both available thru the Ackerman Agency.
“Backgrounds: The monster is from the Actors’ Studio in New York and also trained occasionally at Stillman’s Gym. Burt Shonberg is highly influenced by the Martian School and first began painting while living amongst the Abominable Snowmen of Tibet.”
In truth, Shonberg was born on March 30, 1933 in Revere, Massachusetts. He entered school at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1953-55, then joined the Army in 1956, where he served two years. While painting a mural for his military unit’s mess hall, Shonberg claimed he was discovered as an artist, moving to Los Angeles a year later. It was in L.A. that Shonberg met Forrest J. Ackerman and his co-conspirator in the Café Frankenstein, George Clayton Johnson.
A little background on both Ackerman and Johnson seems in order.
“Forrey” Ackerman, as his friends liked to call him, was a pioneer in the world of science fiction. Besides being a lifelong nudist and self-ascribed atheist, Ackerman is perhaps best remembered as the founder, publisher and editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine that celebrated all manner of ghouls, robots and extraterrestrials in the world of cinema from 1958 to 1983. Far more than simply capitalizing on the public’s hunger for all things macabre and imaginative, Ackerman had been cavorting with the greatest science fiction minds during the 1930s, corresponding through the first science fiction newsletter, The Time Traveller, and founding the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society.
Ackerman and this small circle of social outcasts found in the futuristic pulp stories of the Great Depression Era a deep psychological link to society’s dreams and fears. Forrey could be seen throughout the 1930s and ’40s walking around L.A. and New York City sporting a broad-shouldered spaceman’s vest and long black cape, with zoot suit pants tucked into knee-length black leather boots and the symbol “4sJ” stitched across the center of the outfit’s breastplate.
More than merely Shonberg’s agent, Ackerman was something of a kindred spirit. He got Shonberg commercial art gigs creating cover images for a host of pulp sci-fi magazines (including several for Famous Monsters of Filmland). In his 1997 book, Forrest J. Ackerman’s World of Science Fiction, Forrey opens with a full chapter on the Frankenstein monster, calling Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein novel (with its subtitle, The Modern Prometheus) the first work of science fiction. Inspired by German ghost stories that Shelly and her friends had been reading throughout the unusually wet summer of 1816, the novel galvanized the literary world in its time and has since been regarded as an international classic of gothic literature. However, Ackerman’s interest wasn’t limited to “serious” literature. To the contrary, he felt that the throwaway, the gregarious, the exploitative and the comically low-brow were equally important in understanding the myths of the modern world.
In the post-WW1 environment of Los Angeles, jazz and cinema became increasingly popular. An exodus of European modernists such as Fritz Lang, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Marlene Dietrich and Thomas Mann escaped Nazi Germany by taking exile in L.A. during the period in which influential writers from the Roaring Twenties such as William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald had all moved to Hollywood to work as screenwriters. European radicals such as Christopher Isherwood, Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley came to L.A., as well, Huxley and Heard becoming obsessed with the city’s growing occultist practices and new hallucinogenic drugs. Along with scientist Jack Parsons, avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger and sci-fi novelist L. Ron Hubbard, Huxley and Heard envisioned a world on the brink of destruction, employing an expressionist language of technological speed, Babylonian excess, satanic reference and overt homosexuality that intrigued the alienated youth of the next generation. Theirs was a generally more bleak vision of the future than that of Forrey Ackerman and his science fiction collaborators.
Yet this is the world into which both Burt Shonberg and George Clayton Johnson entered upon arriving in Los Angeles in during the mid-1950s.
Before opening the Café Frankenstein, Johnson, like Shonberg, enlisted in the Army. He went to Auburn University on the G.I. Bill to study art too, but left by 1956 to travel around the U.S. In Los Angeles, Johnson met science fiction writers such as Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury and Forrey Ackerman, who eventually introduced him to Rod Serling, producer of The Twilight Zone.
By the time Johnson and Shonberg became fast friends, Shonberg was already living in two worlds: That of the commercial artist and, more provocatively, that of experimental bohemian. Johnson was acquainted with the works of Huxley, Heard and Anger by the mid-’50s, but didn’t know them personally, nor does he recall if Shonberg knew these gentlemen or not. Shonberg did, however, become romantic with Jack Parsons’s widow, Cameron (Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel), a painter and self-ascribed witch who played the Scarlett Woman in Kenneth Anger’s film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1956). Cameron was also married to Jack Parsons, a scientist and occultist, who, along with Hubbard, Heard, Huxley and others, introduced a great deal of Aleister Crowley’s occultic ideas into the ferment of Los Angeles bohemianism during the 1940s and ‘50s.
According to long-time Shonberg friend, Marshall Berle, Cameron introduced Shonberg (whom she dated after Parsons died) to Crowley’s work, as well. As a side note: Kenneth Anger screened his first film, Fireworks, in 1947 at the Coronet Theater on La Cienega Boulevard with James Whale, the director of Universal Pictures’ 1931 Frankenstein, in the audience. It is a small world.
In 1957, Shonberg had what he referred to as his first “dramatic experience beyond the limits of so-called ordinary, everyday consciousness.”
“Since this time,” wrote Shonberg in his unpublished book Out Here, “via various methods, I have experienced a considerable number of altered states of consciousness. Among the methods employed to accomplish this was the use of what are termed psychedelic (mind-manifesting) substances. In 1960 I worked with a research project under the direction of a Los Angeles psychiatrist, Dr. Oscar Janiger, who was studying the effects of LSD-25 on the creative process. My participation in the project
was that I had to do paintings under the influence of LSD-25.”
These extraordinary black and white watercolors portray Shonberg sitting alone in a room with only a chair and a tape recorder. Suddenly, the atmosphere around him becomes alive with physical manifestations, culminating in the room splitting wide open and his conscious thoughts co-mingling with an illuminated outside environment. Whatever elements Shonberg may have derived from surrealism and abstract expressionism up to this point, the drawings from Out Here signal the complete arrival at a mature style of his own.
“I was not in the City,” Shonberg concludes in Out Here. “There was no city. I was not in the World. There was no world. I was right where I was, at that location, on the outer surface of the earth. I knew exactly where I was. I could see it. I was Here in Existence, and fully conscious of it.”
“Burt loved LSD,” confirmed Shoopman Baker, who died in 2007 in the same apartment that he and Shonberg roomed together. “We both loved it. We took lots of acid. We painted things, intensely personal things. When I look at some of the canvases we did, I am still astonished by what I see. They go places most people would be afraid of.”
“In the Los Angeles area,” remembers poet Elizabeth Case, “it was called the Beat Generation. In San Francisco, they were called beatniks. Different terminology. The Los Angeles scene was dark and shadowy and more moody.” In 1959, Shonberg created artwork for Case’s anti-war poetry book, Pax and Dig, which was later recorded for an album in the 1960s. Side one features the “Pax” poems narrated to the 3rd movement of Brahms’ Concerto in D-Flat Minor, the “Dig” side backed by psychedelic rock and the cover art again done by Shonberg. In one of the book’s more poignant drawings, the poem “Small Girl on Rubble” features Shonberg’s rhythmic sense of draftsmanship in its most child-like evocation. Taking a simple adolescent waif and placing her atop a pile of bombed-out destruction seems to summarize the Beats’ notion of “Live for today, not tomorrow” that pervaded the Atomic Age, as well as Shonberg’s own Café Frankenstein.
“What I remember about the Frankenstein,” said artist Leonard Kaplan, who died in 2008, “was the taboo that the community of Laguna felt about it.” Kaplan, who lived behind Café Frankenstein during and after the coffeehouse’s existence, was no stranger to controversy.
An intensely private man, Kaplan was a dealer in pre-Renaissance art and a painter of haunted and erotic canvases that mixed the traditional world of oils with elements of taxidermy to create portraits of psychological terror, doubt, lust and violence. It is little surprise that Kaplan’s work was only assessed after his death (an exhibit was held at the Laguna Art Museum in 2009), but not surprising at all that he was associated with the Café Frankenstein.
“At first,” Kaplan related, “I thought these guys were a bunch of hucksters, ballyhoo and all. They were into jazz, I liked classical. But despite Laguna Beach being a supposed ‘artists town,’ I sensed in them a genuine outsider spirit.” Kaplan wasn’t alone. In fact, the Frankenstein became a literal mecca for area artists whose work was on the fringes.
Don Karwellis, who later became head of the art department at the University of California Fullerton, created Toulouse-Lautrec style paintings of the Café Frankenstein scene. Tom Holste, whose later works were hung at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, cut his teeth early on at the Frankenstein, painting airbrush portraits and abstracts on stretched canvas.
“Laguna Beach had a number of artists at that time,” remembers Lewis Baltz, an important figure in the New Topographic movement of the late 1970s, who was a regular at the Frankenstein during his teenage years. “[These were] overwhelmingly seascape painters whose work seemed destined for furniture stores. There was also a very small group of ‘serious’ abstract painters. They were counter-culture avant le mot, but not exactly beatniks.”
“The only artist who looked like a beatnik,” continues Baltz, “was Andy Wing, a tall, gentle and shaggy man whose skein-like paintings showed a distinct influence of Pollock.”
Many of Wing’s murals can still be seen all over Laguna Beach today. Besides painting abstracts and making collages at Café Frankenstein, Wing turned his own Laguna Beach home into a folk environment of assemblage art in a similar style to Albert Glade’s Enchanted Garden (1927-35) in Chino, CA, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers (1921-54) in South Central Los Angeles and Grandma Prisby’s Bottle Village (1956-81) in Simi Valley. To this day, Wing’s house — with its strewn pieces of colored glass, walkways of assembled broken pottery and strange collage paneling — sits back amongst tall-growing weeds along a back street just off the beach. Inside, a TV is constantly running, but no one ever answers the door.
Besides its collective of regularly-attending artists, the Café Frankenstein also boasted its share of quality bohemian music. Irishman Michael Gaffney, whom Baltz describes as “a petty thief and small-time drug dealer who had been in and out of jails since he was old enough to steal,” played a particular brand of acoustic blues inside the Frankenstein.
“It depends on what your definition of ‘performance’ is,” says John Merrill, who played guitar in a psychedelic rock group dubbed the Peanut Butter Conspiracy from 1966-69. “I mean, the place was so small there wasn’t even a stage. People would just sit on couches or sing from the corner of the room, real loose and all.”
Other musical artists who played Café Frankenstein include future surf instrumental giant Dave Myers, folk chanteuse Judy Henske (who dated Woody Allen during the early ’60s and inspired Allen’s Annie Hall character) and Lee Mallory, a runaway from the Inland Empire who later became guitarist of psych-pop act, the Millennium. Steve Gillette, who placed two songs on the first Linda Ronstadt/Stone Poneys album and played guitar on the second, wrote of Café Frankenstein in the liner notes to his 1967 solo album:
“It was while I was working at the doughnut shop (the hours were 3 a.m. to 10 a.m.) and living in Whittier, California, that I used to drive down to a little coffee house — now defunct — at Laguna Beach to listen to folk music.”
At other times, jazz guitarist Johnny Saint and flamenco guitarists such as Lenin Castro and a young Jose Feliciano played at the Frankenstein. “We also had a black conga drummer named Bob Collins,” remembers Michael Schley, “and this guy named Philipo, who walked around with a typewriter and would type a bio or personality sketch for a buck.” Philipo was actually Jack Phillips, a would-be TV personality who also called himself “John San Felipe.” But more often than not, it was Doug Myres, co-owner of the Frankenstein, who provided the entertainment.
By the time Café Frankenstein opened in 1958, Myres had already been a member of the Gateway Singers, a racially-integrated folk group who in 1950 were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), alongside New York City’s the Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger), both bands accused of communist sympathizing (both cases later dismissed). After that, Myres became rhythm guitarist for the Easy Riders (featuring Terry Gilkyson, who wrote the huge-selling folk hit, “Marianne”), before opening the Frankenstein, where he would show up for performances in a hearse.
“It was a way-station between insanity and sanity,” says Michael Schley, “a portal of life that people passed through. It was supposed to close at 4 a.m., but it rarely did. Burt and Doug also didn’t shy away from controversy. They invited it.”
From the outset, Café Frankenstein seemed to be a target for local police scrutiny. In an article titled “The Café Espresso Kick,” the June 1959 issue of Rogue magazine declared: “The local ladies’ church league later complained of the use of stained glass in such a macabre undertaking, but withdrew their objections hastily when Frankenstein’s owner threatened to erect a full-size cross bearing the unhappy monster.” That incident merely scratched the surface.
On March 10, 1959, Laguna police hauled George Clayton Johnson, model Freda Kellogg and photographer Ron Vogel off to jail after receiving a tip that a group of kids saw Kellogg posing nude and playing bongos against the coffeehouse’s interior mural artwork. The kids had apparently been peeking through the window cracks and reported their guffaws to local law officers, who also seized the photography negatives (which were later used in Escapade magazine’s December 1959 issue). Said Judge C.C. Cravath at the trio’s hearing bearing indecent exposure, exhibitions and willful and lewd actions, held Tuesday April 14th: “I see a willful act, but don’t see anything lewd involved.” Case dismissed.
“That wasn’t the first time we’d gone to court,” insisted Sid Soffer, Café Frankenstein’s manager from 1958 to the summer of ’59, who passed away in 2008. “I got arrested for supposedly selling alcoholic beverages without a liquor license.”
According to reports in the Laguna Beach Post dated June 26, 1958, Judge Cravath also heard this case. “Basically, I was putting a little brandy extract in the Cappuccino Royal,” recalled Soffer. “It was so little that the alcohol pretty much evaporated when it was steamed. They tested it and everything in the courtroom.” The case, again, was dismissed. “They were out to get us from day one,” insisted Soffer. “We didn’t stand a chance.”
Despite not being a co-owner, Soffer was there from the outset. As part of the Laguna Carpentry Company, Soffer helped build the structure. Once he came to manage Café Frankenstein, Soffer cut a wall out on the south side of the coffeehouse and built a doorway for the patio. “I was the cook too,” Soffer remembered fondly. “We served sandwiches, Italian water ices, French pastries from the Sarno Bakery in Hollywood, Dutch pastries from Almondas, lots of great little bistro items.”
A few months after the nudity case, the Frankenstein again saw trouble. The Laguna Beach Board of Supervisors declared the coffeehouse outside the defined entertainment zone, thus rebuking their license to allow live music, accepting only solo piano or organ.
“I got them to allow one instrument,” said Soffer regarding the ordinance. “That was my last contribution to the café. It was passed that only piano and organ were allowed, but by getting it to be any one instrument, we could keep folk singers and bongo drums going.”
By the end of the summer of 1959, Soffer left Café Frankenstein to start his own coffeehouse, the Blue Beet, at 460 S. Coast Boulevard in Laguna Beach. By 1960, Soffer moved his café out of Laguna, up to the nearby town of Newport Beach, where Sid’s Blue Beet still operates near the Newport Pier to this day.
With the 1950s coming to a close, so too came the time for Johnson, Myres and Shonberg to move on. The trio sold Café Frankenstein to Michael Schley, who by that time was married to Constance Vining.
Vining had been running a sandal shop behind the Frankenstein (at 866 S. Coast Boulevard). Designs in Leather opened first in 1952 out of Vining’s home in the Treasure Island Trailer Court, but moved into the Frankenstein building in 1958 and featured Shonberg mural art, as well.
Whatever attempts Laguna had made to kill off the monster, by the end of 1959, the town’s youth was swept up in a more innocuous version of the bohemian phenomena. On December 10, 1959, the sophomore class at Laguna High School collectively decided to have a “beatnik day,” sporting berets and sunglasses with black turtlenecks for the guys and black leotards for the girls. The Laguna Beach Post was again there to capture the moment with a front page snap. In early 1960, even the Laguna Playhouse was putting on John Osborne’s disaffected play, Look Back in Anger, with its announced cast of “angry young men.”
From 1960 to 1962, Michael Schley and Connie Vining ran Café Frankenstein simply as the 860 Club. “We lasted for a little while,” laments Schley. “But once Shonberg was gone, everything that made the place unique went with it.” Asked why that was, Schley suggests several reasons: “For one, Shonberg kept it edgy. But, see, he was getting steady movie work and commercial work in Hollywood. With the way the town of Laguna was harassing him, you could hardly blame him for leaving.”
After the 860 Club closed in 1962, Vining’s Designs in Leather continued. But by 1964, both were gone, the building then razed and turned into a parking lot. Schley moved up to Hollywood for a while and ran the Xanadu Coffeehouse on Melrose Avenue, near Los Angeles City College, which hosted no less talent than bluesman John Lee Hooker, folk legend Pete Seeger and poet Charles Bukowski.
As for George Clayton Johnson, he began writing for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (eight episodes in all), as well the original Rat Pack vehicle, Ocean’s Eleven (1960), the first episode of Star Trek (1966) and the classic science fiction novel, Logan’s Run, which became an MGM film in 1976.
Burt Shonberg, by far the most interesting of the artists surrounding Café Frankenstein, continued creating commercial illustrations, mural commissions and fine art during the early 1960s. His album artwork for Ron Goodwin’s space-age bachelor pad LP, Music in Orbit (1958), features a pen and ink drawing of an Oz-like craft whose physiology combines a floating balloon apparatus with attached woodwind instruments and preternatural symbols, operating like a steam era piece of machinery. Childlike and esoteric at once, Shonberg’s imaginative genius saw its full consummation of influences in one fell swoop: Outer-space, inner-mysticism and bohemian abstraction.
His portrait of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, used on the cover of Capitol Records’ 1960 Pathetique, 6th Symphony, seems emblematic of Shonberg’s style from 1960-62. Melding 18th Century impressionism with hints of cubism, the canvas becomes all Shonberg with the use of three dimensional splashes of casein color. Symbolic imagery bursts from the Russian composer’s head like living spirits of creativity. The burgundy, mustard yellow, black and powder blue hues were shades that Shonberg utilized heavily during this period, also creating a haunted portrait of Jesus Christ, who in the hands of Shonberg looks like a deeply tormented humanoid. Christ’s bald cranium is enlargened and his hallowed-out eye sockets speak a kind of expressionistic terror.
Shonberg also created similar portraits for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures film of Edgar Allen Poe’s The House of Usher (1962). Indeed, Shonberg’s Usher paintings live and breathe horror, like everything in the house, the results for its characters being catastrophic. Shonberg also created a grand canvas titled “Premature Burial” for a 1960 film of the same name. The painting views like a complex rendering of Hell as described in Dante’s Inferno. Previously, Shonberg had been the art director on such B films as Code of Silence (1957) and The Brain Eaters (1958).
He’d also kept busy creating murals for other coffeehouses and bohemian emporiums throughout the Greater Los Angeles area. Among these were: Cosmo Alley in Downtown Hollywood, Sandalsville on Fairfax Avenue, the Seven Chefs and the Bastille (both in West Hollywood), the Purple Onion on the Sunset Strip and the 40 Thieves Café in Venice Beach.
In 1963, Shonberg moved to Paris with Valerie Porter, who introduced him to Pablo Picasso. From Paris, the three of them went on to Ibiza, where Shonberg was then introduced to Salvador Dali by Porter. Shonberg returned to the U.S. in 1965 and settled for a while in Greenwich Village, where he took part in a group art show titled “Psychedelic Art” at the Coda Gallery in nearby East Village. By year’s end, Shonberg was back in Southern California.
Only four commercial pieces of art by Shonberg are known post-1963. One is a silly advertisement for filmmaker Don Brown’s Surfhouse, a teenage surf movie theater that boasts a surfin’ woodie printed with Shonberg’s inimitable mystic symbols all over. The second is the cover to Arthur Lee and Love’s 1969 album, Out Here, which is really just a gatefold of Shonberg’s 1965 painting of the same name. The piece portrays a human figure sitting at the edge of a hill, when off in the horizon the sky opens up to him, striking a symbiotic relationship between the figure, the earth and the sky that is something of a psychedelic era rococo. Then there was an album cover for the Curtis Brothers’ self-titled debut on Polydor Records (1976), which utilized Shonberg’s 1965 painting titled “Seated Figure and a Cosmic Train,” described by Marshall Berle as “a self-portrait of Burt Shonberg sitting in his living room in Laurel Canyon during an LSD experience.” Finally, Shonberg created artwork for Spirit’s The Spirit of 76 – Tampa Jam – Electro Jam from the Time Coast album, based around a friendship that had blossomed between Shonberg and Spirit guitarist Randy California.
All throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Shonberg created wildly psychedelic and harrowingly spiritual artworks on canvas, wooden boards, music notation paper, napkins and just about any surface he could find. Sadly, very little of Shonberg’s art has been exhibited as of this writing, though those who own Shonberg’s artwork hold onto it dearly.
Marshall Berle has attempted to create a Burt Shonberg museum, but thus far has just gotten a web site off the ground. Ledru Baker Shoopman retained Shonberg’s personal portfolio, which contained hundreds of sketches and personal clues about Burt’s life. However, since Shoopman’s passing in 2007, his long-time girlfriend Joie has not returned phone calls. Shonberg did have one solo exhibition during his lifetime. Inside his portfolio was a poster for a 1967 show (sponsored by George Grief) at the Gallery Contemporary at 631 N. La Cienega Boulevard, in the central arts district of L.A.
Burt Shonberg died on September 16, 1977. His artwork has yet to be exhibited in a museum setting. Perhaps Shonberg’s full curatorial embrace is denied because the work stands too far outside the art/historical narrative. Indeed, despite a lavish use of pop culture iconography and skilled abstract brushwork, Shonberg considered himself an illustrator by trade and a classicist by temperament. His interest in courting the fine art establishment was perhaps latent and largely absent.
From today’s perspective, the centerpiece of all this remains the Frankenstein monster, a vernacular symbol of such pathos that its stoicism abides as a cornerstone for both pop culture fantasmagorians and literary elites alike. Shonberg chose to emblazon his own coffeehouse with the somber monster as a spokesperson for the entire arc of human experience, the same as Hephaestus, the blacksmith god of Ancient Greece, did for Achilles in Book 18 of The Illiad, commemorating with a shield the extremes of war and emotion in a richly detailed work of art. Life’s events, after all, are not ordered chronologically. They correspond rather to an inner architecture of collected experiences, rendered in art by those who live to tell the story. Burt Shonberg left his hidden, in plain sight.
©2012 Brian Chidester – All Rights Reserved
NOTE: This article originally published in the Outre Gallery Journal (Sydney, Australia), issue #1, published July 2012.
Brian Chidester is the author of Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Era (Santa Monica Press) and the co-editor of Dumb Angel magazine. He currently lives in New York City and writes for the Village Voice .
Quoted excerpts from the book Out Here have been reprinted by permission of the copyright owner at www.burtshonberg.com .
The name of the coffee house “Cafe Frankenstein” was created by George Clayton Johnson