Cresskill–Gerd Stern has been there and done that. He’s packed much into his life and though he celebrated his 86th birthday this last week, he has no desire to slow down. That’s not a surprise. Stern, who has been writing poetry since his late teens and considers himself “a poet by nature,” and one of his most famous poems was designed to take the NO out of NOW.
He considers these words to be his mantra and continues to look forward. Yet Gerd accepts the fact that “people are more interested in the past work and not the current work.”
And what a past it has been. Stern, who JLBC editor Jeanette Friedman once described as the world’s oldest hippie, has led a fascinating life.
Born in Germany, Stern and his family fled to America in the nick of time in order to escape the Nazis. Leaving Germany was hard for Stern’s father, who’d fought for Germany in World War I. Though he loved his father, Stern describes him as “arrogant” and “not a very nice person.” Stern’s mother passed when he
was young, and he didn’t get along with his step-mother–but took care of her until her recent passing at 99.
Moving was a constant for Stern. “In my first English class at university, they asked us to write an essay about vacation. I thought it seemed like elementary school, so I dropped out.” Shortly thereafter, Stern found himself at Black Mountain College, an avant-garde school in North Carolina. He didn’t last long there either. Stern never did end up with a degree, but he did teach a class at Harvard. It’s one of the many positions Stern held over the course of his life.
Others include cheese salesman (his family owned one of the largest kosher cheese import businesses in the world); a writer for Playboy; producer of the Timothy Leary Psychedelic Theater; president of the public company Intermedia Systems Corporation, and consultant for the Rockefeller Foundation Arts Program.
Stern bounced back and forth between the East and West Coasts. Along the way, he became friendly with Allen Ginsberg, among other Beat poets. The two met while they were in a psychiatric ward. Stern spent a short time in the ward, where his uncle the doctor and his father put him–seemingly to give him a place where he could figure out what to do with his life.
Many know Stern for his involvement with USCO, which Stern says was a “communal collaborative experience that worked for over a decade. USCO was a media art collective in the ’60s and ’70s which Stern, among others, founded. Stern’s first multimedia piece was begun in 1962 at the San Francisco Museum of Art. It was called WHO R U & WHAT’S HAPPENING?
It required a lot of lot of different people, images and sound and the help of engineer Michael Caallahan, with whom Gerd is still working.
After returning to the East Coast, Gerd said, “I talked to artist Steve Durkee, who wanted to get involved. Eventually, we had 12 additional collaborators. Much of USCOs work involved stroboscopes, projectors and multiple image and sound channels.”
Over the course of his life, Stern was inspired by many people. First among them was Jaime De Angulo, whom he met him in Big Sur in the ’40s. Stern describes his first meeting with De Angulo, a medical doctor and anthropologist thusly: “He was an old guy dressed in no
shirt, ragged shorts, with a huge beard. He later wrote Indian Tales that I helped get published, and he was a friend of mine until he died.”
Stern was also considers Marshall McLuhan, whom he met in Vancouver in 1963, a principal inspiration. Before they met, Stern said McLuhan had never seen a multi-media presentation. McLuhan advised Stern, “Don’t only pay attention to the content, pay attention to the effect.”
These days Stern lives in an authentic Dutch Colonial cottage in Cresskill, and has for some time. He believes it is the oldest house in the town, built in the mid-18th century.
While he did not grow up in a religious home, he came out more committed to Judaism than other family members and feels connected to Judaism. “I’ve always been spiritual and interested in mysticism and kabbalah.” Stern adds, “Judaism has a strong effect on my work. “I crave the mystical and spiritual.” He was very close to Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi in Colorado, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, and misses him very much since his passing this summer.
As for today’s artists and the art scene, he told JLBC, “I don’t find the creative spirit as sharp or vibrant as that of the ’60s,” says Stern. “The times are quite different. We’ve gone from an analog to a digital culture which has generated different types of personality.”
Stern says poetry is a bigger deal these days than when he was writing during the earlier parts of his life. He added, “There are some Jewish poets around the Lower East Side and other well-known and not so famous poets that I like. I also belong to an online poetry group named Brevitas.”
It is poetry that remains closest to Stern’s heart. “That’s what I feel myself as, in addition to being a visual media artist.”
It wasn’t till his late 30s and early 40s that Stern says he found his “voice.” He describes his poetry as sparse with phrases jumping from idea to idea. “If you can’t follow them, that’s not my problem,” says Stern with a laugh. He’s been on the outside all his life and is “not looking for any greater level of acceptance on social or academic levels than he has already achieved.”
During the past decade, USCO and Stern’s work were part of “Summer of Love” at the Tate Museum, in Liverpool, Vienna, Frankfurt’s Kunsthalle, the Whitney Museum of American Art and “Traces of the Sacred at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Despite being the outsider and his “advanced” age, Stern pushes on. He recently did an art residency in Venice that featured collage and video work. He experiments since the 1960s with word collages in frames and three-dimensions have been exhibited around the world. And he is currently writing a play about Lord Byron and Allen Ginsburg, while preparing for two future USCO shows: one at Seton Hall University in South Orange and another at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He then will kick-off a two-year teaching stint in Minnesota, and plans to tour with the shows.
Besides all that, he and his partner Judith Sokoloff have edited a Hag Sameach Anthology: Poems for the Jewish Holidays, to be published in 2016 and a liberetto with Ed Rosenfeld and composer Anne Le Baron.
For Gerd Stern, the beat goes on and the work continues.
By Larry Bernstein