Julian Beck

Julian Beck (1925, New York City, New York-1985, New York City, New York) was an artist, director, actor, and writer best known for co-establishing and running the experimental New York City theatre group, The Living Theatre. He attended Yale University before dropping out and moving to New York City to dedicate himself to painting around 1944.

Beck exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1945, alongside some of the most prominent Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning. The fact that Beck’s style of painting was formed in this environment is evident in his non-representational approach, bold use of colour and expressive line. 

In 1947, Beck and Judith Malina founded The Living Theatre, one of the most radical and politically charged theatre troupes of its time, and the oldest experimental theatre company still operating today in the U.S. The group’s modus operandi was informed by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty which strove to attack the audience’s senses in order to achieve cathartic release. They produced lesser-known plays by modernist writers such as T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein using a confrontational approach and shock tactics. These performances often took place in New York venues such as Cherry Lane Theatre and a 14th street theatre on the west side.

The Living Theatre put on about 30 productions during its time in New York, including a particularly successful play written by Jack Gelber titled, The Connection, for which they received worldwide recognition after 1959. The group then went on to tour Europe and achieved further acclaim as the new movement of American off-Broadway. After returning from Europe, Beck had become increasingly more interested in politics and had gotten arrested a number of times for his political acts of protest such as the General Strike for Peace in 1962.

Throughout his life, Beck sporadically played minor roles in films such as Oedipus Rex (1967), Love and Anger (1969), and The Cotton Club (1984). Toward the very end of his life, Beck acted as Reverend Kane in Brian Gibson’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), an unusual major role but one that nonetheless made him known by film lovers, even after his death in 1985.

Selected Bibliography

Malina, Judith, The Diaries of Judith Malina, 1947-1957, New York: Grove Press, 1984; Ed. Erica Bilder, Theandric: Julian Beck’s Last Notebooks, New York: Routledge, 1992; Tytell, John, The Living Theatre: Art, Exile, and Outrage, New York: Grove Press, 1997; Nadelson, Andrew, Julian Beck: Paintings & Drawings, 1944-1958, New York: Ubu Gallery with Janos Gat Gallery, 2001;  Friedman, Donald, The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers, Minneapolis: Mid-List Press, 2007; Julian Beck, Judith Malina, and Aldo Rostagno, We, the Living Theatre, New York: Ballantine Books, 1970; The Living Theatre, Paradise Now, New York: Random House, 1971; Malina, Judith, The Enormous Despair,New York: Random House, 1972; Julian Beck, The Life of the Theatre,San Francisco: City Lights, 1972.

Selected Exhibitions

Castello di Rivoli, Turin; Venice Biennale, Venice; Ubu Gallery, New York; Janos Gat Gallery, New York; Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York; Art of This Century Gallery, New York; Castel Sant’ Elmo, Naples; Supportico Lopez, Berlin.

Selected Filmography

Narcissus (1958), The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963), Oedipus Rex (1967), Après la Passion selon Sade (1968), Candy (1968), Love and Anger (1969) – Dying Man (segment “Agonia”), The Cotton Club (1984), 9½ Weeks (1986) – Dinner Guest, Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), Miami Vice(1986).

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