Sue Bitney was a Northern California artist who’s work was generally classified as “funk”. Her work became quite popular in Europe, and Kurt von Meier contributed a commentary about her art for a 1967 catalog produced by Studio Marconi, in Milan, Italy. In his commentary, he wryly notes “In general, funky art wasn't nice. So all the nice-nice people around San Francisco who use art as a convenient commodity with which to shore up their own social and cultural pretensions tended to turn their backs. Somehow funk art just didn't look right in the marble museum halls of Mammon's minions.” A thank-you note from Sue to Kurt is included in this posting.
Kurt’s hand filled thousands of pages of paper in his daily notebooks, a practice he maintained for at least 40 years. A combination of poems, reflections, discursive writings, doctor appointment dates, meal planning, teaching ideas and more, they documented Kurt’s daily experience of oracles and signs. These four pages from a May, 1996 lined pad are representative of his style and mode of contemplation. For the student, they are a treasure trove of scholarship and insight.
Kurt wrote letters, and kept carbon copies of them in his archive. This letter to Ron (?) is dated September 1, 1966, which is during the time Kurt was teaching at UCLA. Rod may have been a student, or perhaps a colleague, and had sent Kurt a paper about a proposed symposium entitled The Human Agenda (Part II). Kurt’s reply is generous and interesting, as he raises issues of life, psychology, relationships and art. “Which is to ask, the more we love, should we expect our psychic intimacy with work (or with art) to increase or to decrease—since psychic intimacy surely requires some expenditure of human resources, (not to mention mere time, etc.) This leads to a question of whether our capacity for psychic intimacy is in some way fixed or not—alternatively developing in the mentally more healthy individual as a total capacity, which is strengthened by its (mutually stimulating) fulfillment in any or all of the various basic human activities.”
This chapter from Kurt’s 350,000-word masterwork A Ball of Twine illustrates the range and depth of his knowledge, interests and humor. His analysis of Duchamp’s sculpture With Hidden Noise proceeds in a systematic yet constantly surprising way, in keeping with Kurt’s talents as a teacher and polymath. “What we can perceive, measure, and record of such micro- and macrocosmic events must be integrated into human consciousness no less so (but neither with any greater imperative) than our perceptions of theater, music, flower arranging, or any of the other arts. Any one of these "soft" activities undertaken by an accomplished practitioner may illustrate--in the end, with the same order of legitimacy as for any of the "hard" sciences--those underlying laws governing all formal interactions and thus determining (besides helping us to describe or explain) why things are the way they are.”
A unique find among Kurt’s archives was a very large sheet of paper, folded into 16ths like a map, entitled TWINE. In keeping with his interest in Marcel Duchamp, upon this sheet Kurt mapped a series of links and associations tied to Duchamp and a number of his most notable works of art. This combination of abbreviations, authors’ names, books, art history, and cultural references — in addition to providing a thread pertaining to Duchamp — also provides a view into Kurt’s mind, and his map-like way of seeing connections and organizing his thinking. Enlarged sections of this “map” are provided on the following page.
Omasters, Kurt’s one-of-a-kind, unpublished work of fiction, consisted of tales taking place in three different realms, all connected by threads of narrative and various characters appearing through transformations within each realm. One such realm was the Teahouse of Necessity, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Diamond Sufi Ranch (aka Samten Chuling). This segment features Shakuhachi Unzen, “dishwasher, flunky and garbage man.” He waits upon the meeting of a group of remarkable men. Kurt writes:
“Shakuhachi poured the milk of compassion into the pot on the hot stove, ground cardamom seeds, stirred in Lyle's Golden Syrup; like hopiscotch he covered a pattern over the kitchen floor worn smooth with retracing, the principle of design utilized by Harrison and Abramowitz for laying out paths at Brandeis University...”
One guest is Melvin Finnis, designated to lead meditation at the Teahouse. “Shakuhachi's technique with Melvin was to ask him questions which would conventionally, politely, require an answer of "No." He knew Melvin as practitioner of Perfection would be reluctant to utter "negative" thoughts, being at the rather literal level of the path. Melvin's left eye lid tic’ed whenever a NOT twisted his line of logical reasoning.”
What transpires is a unique game among the Teahouse denizens, a memory game filled with puns, quotations, arcane bits of information, integer sequences, chai, and fine cuisine.
Here is another selection from Kurt’s magnum opus “A Ball of Twine”.
“The merchants, as a class in traditional China, were typically ranked at the bottom of the social ladder: middle men, schleppers, people who performed a derivative function, something that does NOT belong to a primary order of reality. For, although the Great Spirit is One and abides in all things, and in the dance that all things do, ordinary human beings come to know It best through primary expressions of art (including architecture, music, poetry, calligraphy, theater), through plants (from gathering to farm and garden), through animals (from the primordial rite of hunting to the companionship of pets), and through the regenerative mystery of a baby newly-born. Aesthetics relates to the ways in which we structure material stuff to articulate the spaces and durations, recreating expressions of the Great Spirit: naturally emanating from orders of aware consciousness. Money--unless it is a beautiful coin by Pisanello or a Check by Duchamp--does not.”
Though the dangers of burning of fossil fuel receives considerable attention today (2018), in 1974 the very wisest among society were already ringing the alarm bell and advocating alternative energy sources. Kurt von Meier knew that “Lady California, bound and raped” was not the way, and he penned this short, poetic contemplation about harnessing geothermal energy. Not alone in his concerns, his voice and the voices of other visionaries were drowned-out by yet another in a series of global oil booms, a suicidal activity which continues today. GTO, whatever it meant to Kurt, was the designation of a gas-guzzling sports car sold by Pontiac.
Kurt von Meier’s and Clifford (Walter) Barney’s Omasters consumed years of writing and reams of paper. Though never published (except in part, on this website) in final form, or for that matter, completed, the project was a source of energy and amusement—the embodiment of G. Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form and a lifetime of studying art, mythology, mathematics, and mystical traditions.
It also generated spin-off material for a television series: a story summary, an unfinished synopsis of episodes and scenes about its lead character, Matt Welles, and even a snippet of a screenplay. Yet another peek through von Meier’s magical looking glass, one can only imagine the world in which this television series would be broadcast.
Kurt’s time teaching in at the Elam School of Fine Arts in New Zealand was a mixed experience. On the one hand he enjoyed a measure of celebrity as an American art historian, but on the other, New Zealand’s cultural scene in the early 1960s was not terribly appealing. In this lengthy article, he writes, “New Zealanders prefer to import most of their cultural pretensions tinned or pickled, ready to serve, and the feast on a season's fare courts an aesthetic ulcer annihilating all future appetite...the popular level of aesthetic taste ascends to the heights reached by Sunday school pictures or gazelles sand-blasted in the front door glass.”
Nonetheless, Kurt established relationships with the island’s young, upcoming artists (and today, accomplished), and found plenty to enjoy: “In contrast to this, however, are the bright prospects of a new movement in the fine arts. Its youth and impertinence both serve as motivating forces and protective devices.” An opportunity to hone his skills in writing art criticism, this essay presages his later work for Art International and Artforum magazines.
A 1967 lecture that begins as a very straightforward art history lecture about the Renaissance turns to Kurt’s concerns about teaching art history itself, and reflects upon the crisis in his own teaching career. His UCLA teaching contract terminated due to his controversial and unconventional teaching style and views about education, he reflects upon his aspirations as a teacher and intellectual. Remarking on the absurdity of it all for his students, he says, “But you do become absurd. You lose your sense of joy and discovery, humanity, you act and respond like machines. I know you do. I know because I know these forces on my life too, essentially the same forces.” And, facing the career crisis in his own life, he remarks, “Every time we reach that ultimate point in states of consciousness, we're in a critical situation; we can choose. Crisis, crossroads; take your choice which way you gonna go? Forward, backwards, left or right. Crisis mean crux, cross, crosswalks, crucial; every time you can choose you're free. Every time you do choose, you affirm your freedom. Every time you affirm your freedom, you affirm life.” Both informative and revealing, this lecture is available as both audio file and transcript.
“The contribution of the Gestalt approach is the recognition that figure and ground are formally the same and may be exchanged without violence to the whole, and in fact must be changed for a complete experience of the whole. When we understand something, we stand under it, experience it from without as well as within.” So states Kurt von Meier and Clifford Barney at the beginning of this 1975 exploration into the relationships between the Gestalt therapy and psychology of Fritz Perls, mathematics, and knowledge of the divine as seen by Dante Alighieri.
A visit to Kurt’s sister Kathie yielded this story written by Kurt when he was in seventh grade in Carmel, CA, and published in the Carmel Pine Cone newspaper. Kurt was very athletic but among his peers, a bit short of stature; accordingly, this story about a small horse-fly that accomplishes a grand task reflects Kurt’s desire for greatness and glory, desire that later fueled both his academic and social ambitions.
Kurt penned this short contemplation in July, 1972, on his Birthday while at Karma Dzong in Colorado, reflecting upon his Tibetan Buddhist name, it’s connection to the great Tibetan sage Tilopa (The Fisherman) and his father Julian “the great fisherman” (photo above, to the right of Kurt in overalls in 1938). He sees the reflection of his father in his own photo with his own fish, a Mahi Mahi (Dolphin fish) caught in Mexico in the Sea of Cortez.
Here is another chunk of Kurt’s daily thoughts and reflections. Created in January of 1976, it contains references to a CBS news report, etymology of various words, a slew of mental and linguistic associations, snippets of poetry, classical references, allusions to pop culture, and the tears of Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. “Noah must count the species named by Adam by twos if they have become sexually distinguished. The algae, in the form of one-celled being, may presumably enter upon acknowledgment of single booking.”
This recording of Kurt von Meier being interviewed by a woman named Kris Koch sometime around 1967 was made while Kurt was still teaching at UCLA and had become a wildly-popular professor. Ninety-nine percent of the interview is Kurt rapidly talking a blue-streak, delivering a wide-ranging discourse about his interests in the wisdom of “primitive” people and cultures, and the ways “western civilization doesn’t work for people well at all.” His comments range among art history and world ecology; presciently for 1967, he raises the prospect of the greenhouse effect, climate change, rising oceans and the possible death of planet Earth. His comments convey why Kurt was so popular and controversial. A poor microphone produces some clicks and sustained “hum” as the interview progresses, but his comments remain easily heard. At some point, a phone rings, he checks the mike, and sadly, the interview comes to an abrupt end after 38 minutes.
Having received a letter during October, 1976, from James Keys (aka G. Spencer Brown, author of Laws of Form) in which Keys suggests he plans to move to California to take up residence, Kurt sent Keys a letter inviting him to the Diamond Sufi Ranch in Napa Valley. After noting the beauty and amenities of the area, Kurt goes on to describe his current work and interests. "I understand Laws of Form as the mathematical basis for the practical work of translating the teaching of the Dharma as preserved by the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, and based upon the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita Hridya Sutra)....Curious though, some of my questions about mathematics have led to citations from manuscripts apparently concerned with prediction and prognostication, said to be virtually unreadable or unintelligible save for the very few exceptional people. Sounds rather like the response of my students to Laws of Form."
Here is another swift dip into the running current of Kurt's mind, a bundle of free associations united in ways most of us will not fully understand. Kurt's mind moved seamlessly between varying frames of reference; in this way he creatively represents the unity he expounds. To wit, he writes, "the one Cosmic, Divine, on-going act (Karma) of creative Sakti energy, known by one convention as Allah, by another as God or the Buddha..."
"This is theater. It's what I do." Kurt lays it out straight for his Oriental Art and Mythology class in 2001 at Sacramento State University. Moving through a description of the administrative and academic structure of the university to Buddhist esoterica, the problems humanity has brought to the world, the difference between bullshit and horseshit, and finally to his stack of 45-rpm rock and roll records, this first lecture of one of Kurt's last classes as Professor Emeritus harkens all the way back to his early days of teaching at UCLA nearly 40 years before. As Homer Banks sings "You got to do the best you can with what you got" and it bounces off the classroom walls, Kurt cheerfully joins in.
Assuming yet another of his myriad manifestations, Kurt dons the costume of Chico Carboneri sitting before his IBM Selectric typewriter hammering on the keys to the universe. Jumping between discourse and self-reference, wending its way into the trajectory of Omasters, Kurt plays Buddhist notes interspersed with crossings into Laws of Form. "An eye to FORM--The page TOP COPY, and the carbon and the carbon page are inserted. Shakuhachi's mind wanders into the KRYPTOCOSMIC realm, blending with the spirits of Dr. Jose Que, Primo the Fool, Z-Number (first of the cardinal states, with all appropriate deference to the form of the face of the void, being given a name which may be called: VOID, ZERO, THE WHOLE, THE ALL, ALLAH, BUDDAH.