The Beat Among Us: Jud Yalkut

Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsPandolfi, Keith
SourceImpact Weekly, Yesse Ohio, Volume 8, Issue 15, Dayton (2000)
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Visiting Jud Yalkutメs Five Oaks home on a Thursday morning, I am greeted with congenial warmth and an air of distraction. Although he seems gracious for the opportunity to sit down and discuss his life and work, his nervousness indicates that he would rather be doing something else - working. When it comes to his work, as I have found out, Yalkut is tireless.

After a cup of coffee and some brief chitchat, we head upstairs to the attic where Yalkutメs office is located. On the floor lays one of the small Persian rugs that Yalkut and his wife, Peg, collect. The pattern of this one, he notes, resembles the vibrant static of a television screen on the blink. In a work space that is both complicated and snug, he points out the various machines he uses to create his art. There are somewhere between five and eight monitors, a couple of mainframes, several VCRs and a gaggle of miscellaneous components.

It seems as if Yalkutメs hi-tech tools are as complicated as his multifarious ムmind. Realizing the scope of his work as a filmmaker and the breadth of his lifeメs experiences, itメs hard not to feel just a bit intimidated by him. モIメve been a bohemian, Iメve been a beat, Iメve been a hippie, Iメve been whatever you want to call me,ヤ Yalkut says. モBut Iメve been the same person throughout the whole thing.ヤ

But there is a lot more to Yalkut than stereotypes.

During the course of his 62 years, Yalkut has found himself playing pivotal roles in not just the world of avant garde film and video, but in Americaメs cultural history. He has accumulated such unforgettable experiences as chatting on a Big Sur beach with Henry Miller, belting out poetry with Allen Ginsberg, and turning off, tuning in and dropping out with Timothy Leary. Along the way Yalkut has cultivated relationships with such legendary icons as Leonard Cohen, Wavy Gravy and Nam June Paik.

In case you havenメt heard of him, Yalkut is an experimental filmmaker, videographer, educator, painter, poet, jazz aficionado, art critic and all-around renaissance man who, by being one of the first people to ever transcend the barriers between film and video, has secured a place in the canon of 20th century American art. Through his work with artists such as Paik, Yayoi Kusama and others, Yalkut is seen by many in the art world as a pioneer of the avant garde.

Yalkut has been garnering a lot of feathers in his cap lately. In December 1998 he completed a documentary about jazz clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and, last March, several of the films he made with Paik, including Cinema Metaphysique and Videotape Study No. 3, were featured at New Yorkメs Guggenheim Museum. This September, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York will feature a one man retrospective of his work and the Intel Museum in Santa Clara, Calif., is presenting his film Turn Turn Turn as one of the earliest examples of technology in media. And Yalkut will premier his latest project, a documentary film titled Walking the Nickel, on April 14 in Dayton.

Before choosing the mediums of film and video for his career, Yalkut traipsed the country in search of the true American experience. Along the way, his path crossed those of several icons in the fields of poetry, literature, music and film. In retrospect, Yalkutメs life on the road bore a striking resemblance to the lives of many beat generation legends such as
Kerouac, Cassady, Snyder and Ferlinghetti. Remarkably, after making his mark on the beat scenes of New York and San Francisco and after establishing himself as a pioneer in film and video, Yalkut ended up right here in Dayton.

A resident of the Miami Valley since 1973, Yalkut has worked hard to make his hometown a better, more culturally diverse place to live. モJud has been a tireless advocate for contemporary art in the Miami Valley,ヤ says Alexander Lee Nyerges, director and CEO of the Dayton Art Institute. モHe has been a great friend to the visual arts. The Dayton scene would not be as vibrant without him.ヤ

Born in 1938, Yalkut grew up in a Jewish/Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. He says his mother was a teacher and モa Sunday painterヤ and his father was a dentist and モweekend classical pianist.ヤ

モHe started teaching me at the age of 6,ヤ Yalkut says, so I had a pretty detailed training in classical piano.ヤ While classical music filled the rooms of his house, jazz was literally right around the corner. While growing up, Yalkutメs next door neighbor was venerable jazz pianist Johnny Guarnieri, who played with jazz and big band legends Benny Goodman, Arty Shaw and Lester Young. モOur families were very, very good friends,ヤ Yalkut says. モHe had a studio in the back of the house where he had two pianos, and my father and he would often play classical piano pieces together.ヤ

Yalkut was a precocious child whose adolescent interests were primarily divided between science and the arts. モWhen I was 5 or 6 years old people would ask me what I wanted to be and I had two choices,ヤ Yalkut says. モI either wanted to be an inventor or a cartoonist. モ The cartoons Yalkut drew quickly introduced him to more advanced art forms. モIt got to the point that when I was 12 years old I had an art portfolio that enabled me to get into the High School of Music and Art (HSMA).ヤ

Promoted three years ahead of his class, Yalkut was pragmatic in choosing his major. モEverybody said you have to make money with your art, so I majored in graphic art,ヤ Yalkut says. Through HSMA, he attained a $3 student membership to New Yorkメs Museum of Modern Art, where he often went to see exhibits and hang out at the membersメ penthouse.
And then there were the movies. In the 1950s, New York was brimming with wondrous movie houses on the Bronxメs Grand Concourse. Yalkut says that he spent many an afternoon inhabiting the Valentine Theatre, the RKO and モthe great, big Loewメs Paradise with three balconies.ヤ What proved to be an influence on his future film career was Cinema 16, an avant garde theater that regularly presented foreign and experimental films.

Realizing his sonメs love for motion pictures, Yalkutメs father gave him a gift that would subtly alter the course of his life. モThe present from my father for my Bar Mitzvah was an 8 mm movie camera,ヤ Yalkut says. モOf course, the first thing that happened with the camera was that my father filmed the Bar Mitzvah, then he gave it to me. I actually made a few films with it that are now long gone ... more like expressionistic kinds of films,ヤ Yalkut says.

Soon after his Bar Mitzvah, at the age of 13, Yalkut lost both of his parents in two devastating weeks. モMy mother had been sick with breast cancer and then lung cancer,ヤ Yalkut says. モThe last few months of her life I never saw her because I was too young to be allowed into the hospital, so I didnメt see her during those last days. I found out she died one day when I was walking to school. My father had been at the hospital; he was on his way home and we ran into each other. Thatメs how I found out that she had died. Two weeks later my father had a heart attack; he died in my arms in our apartment.ヤ

Despite having suddenly been orphaned, the following year Yalkut enrolled as a freshman at City College of New York. He was 15. I was growing up fast but (my parentsメ deaths) certainly didnメt slow me down. I just kept doing stuff. When I went to City College I just got totally immersed in the activities there. I got elected to student council that first year and I worked for the student newspaper.ヤ

Although, at the time, Yalkut was the youngest person enrolled at City College, he maintained an academic ranking in the top fourth of his class. Convinced that the next big モglamour professionヤ would be nuclear physics, he took an unlikely turn from his arts-oriented interests and registered as a math-physics major.

After only one year at City College, Yalkut transferred to McGill University in Montreal. He explains that his transfer to McGill was fueled more by wanderlust than academic pursuits. モIt was great getting out of the country,ヤ Yalkut says. モAt that time, Canada was realizing that they had to get their own identity and move away from being absorbed in American culture and English culture. They were starting to appreciate what they had and there was also a big renaissance going on there in the Canadian poetry scene and Montreal was the center of it.ヤ

At McGill, Yalkut befriended fraternity brother Leonard Cohen, the poet and musician. モThere were all these fine poets around me,ヤ Yalkut says, モPoets all over Canada were coming to Montreal because thatメs where the center was and I was the young American poet in the middle of all this.ヤ Yalkut says that his early poetry was influenced by outsiders such as Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings. モI liked cummings because his words were visual; he was a painter and a poet,ヤ

As Yalkutメs love for poetry blossomed, his love for physics dried up. モWe had to take our physics classes with the engineering students in big lecture halls with these professors who were like staff sergeants in the army. I got very disenchanted,ヤ Yalkut says. Beginning his second year at McGill, Yalkut registered as an English literature major. Along with his poetry, he also became involved in McGillメs drama department, writing plays that were occasionally directed by fellow students. モThatメs when writing became preeminent in my life,ヤ Yalkut says. モThe visual arts sort of faded out.ヤ

In 1956, after two years in Montreal, Yalkut dropped out of McGill. Knowing that he had money from his familyメs estate waiting for him when he turned 21, he moved back to New York where he found an apartment in Greenwich Village.
The New York Yalkut returned to was pulsing with bohemian energy and artistic creativity. モIt was the early stages of the beat scene,ヤ Yalkut says. モI knew a great many of those people - I knew Allen Ginsberg. Hugh Romney, who later became Wavy Gravy, was one of the poets; he and I and a number of other people used to read in the coffee shops down around MacDougal Street. There was one place called the Gaslight that was a regular hang out; there was another place across the street called the Fat Black Pussycat where people like Moon Dog and Tiny Tim played. It was a crazy scene going on all over the place. Things would go on all night long.ヤ

After spending two years in what Yalkut calls a モCanadian renaissance,ヤ the emergence of the beat scene in New York did not take him by surprise. モI was in a scene like that when I was in Montreal,ヤ Yalkut says. モI would go to school
every day and at night it was the whole bohemian life. You had a lot of people - you had French-Canadian painters, Dutch Flamenco guitarists and other people who would hang out in the coffee shop scene there . ... I had already been through all these changes, so moving into the village was just a natural for me.ヤ

Despite the creative energy of the city Yalkut was bored. He and a traveling companion left New York in 1957 on an un-intrepid journey toward the West Coast. モI wanted to travel,ヤ Yalkut says. モGo ムon the roadメ as it was. モ

They got as far as Louisville. モLouisville was undergoing an art renaissance at that time. The Louisville Symphony was commissioning important works by contemporary composers; they had art festivals and all those other things,ヤ Yalkut says.

If it was, in fact, a bluegrass renaissance, Yalkut became the quintessential renaissance man. While working as a model for art students and in frame reconstruction, he tried out for a play and was cast in the lead of Ben Johnsonメs The Alchemist. モI got pretty involved in the whole scene there,ヤ Yalkut says.

After five and a half months, Yalkut left Louisville for his original destination. Along with a friend, he went back on the road determined to make it straight through to California. After a two-week stint living in Hollywood, Yalkut hitchhiked up the coast alone toward Big Sur, Calif. モI knew all about Big Sur because I knew all about Henry Miller from way back when,ヤ Yalkut says. モI was reading him back in Montreal and I thought he was one of the great writers of all time.ヤ

Once in Big Sur, Yalkut hitched a ride with a mailman to the Santa Lucia Mountains. Little did he know that his ride was delivering to Miller himself. モSo I met Henry Miller at his mailbox,ヤ Yalkut says. モWe talked for three-fourths of an hour about used bookstores on Fourth Avenue in New York and other things. It was really wonderful just meeting him.ヤ
After spending time in Big Sur, Yalkutメs next destination was the beat hub of the United States: San Francisco.

While living in San Francisco, Yalkut immersed himself in the literary scene and soon began performing readings of his poetry at the cityメs legendary coffee shops and bookstores. He says he had a chance at モbeat stardomヤ when he received an invitation to read at The Place, a popular beat coffee shop. However, Yalkut decided on the very night of his reading to take an impromptu trip with some friends back to Big Sur, where he ended up staying for a year. He soon found an abandoned cabin in the Redwoods by the Little Sur River where he lived, working odd jobs as a gas station attendant and a short order cook. He may have missed his opportunity at poetic celebrity, but Yalkut says it was all worth it since he was able to reside in one of the most beautiful places in America and, more importantly, モhang out quite frequently with Millerヤ.

For one reason or another, Yalkut quit writing poetry in Big Sur. He says that he wrote the last poem of his life there, which he still remembers to this day: モWe had not expected the first rain/but she came with delicate fingers/tapping at the window/waiting ムtil we kissed her.ヤ

In 1959, at the age of 20, Yalkut went back home to New York where he remained for 14 years. He worked more
odd jobs at the Discophile record store and the 8th Street Book Shop, a beat mecca. Then, in 1961, a friend he had met in Montreal (and who later became his first wife) gave him a new, 8mm camera. Yalkut started making films again. モI hadnメt really focused on any particular medium up until that point, but film became the thing,ヤ Yalkut says: モI made a lot of films at the time in 8mm. Then in 1964 I got .enough money together to get my own 16 mm camera, a Bolex, a great Swiss camera that made the independent film movement possible all over the world.ヤ

Soon after, Yalkut began working with a multi-media group called USCO, or the Company of Us. It is the work he did with USCO that won Yalkut his first recognition as a filmmaker. モThe work (USCO) did together was anonymous,ヤ Yalkut says. モYou did not know who did any particular, thing. We had a poet, a painter, an electronics engineer - and I was the filmmaker. We did shows in museums and we did shows with Marshal McLuhan and Timothy Leary. We toured all over; we were the entertainment at the LSD conference at the University of San Francisco; we did a show called モUs Down by the Riverside!ヤ at the Riverside Museum in New York, which was the first time the term ムbe inメ was ever used.ヤ Honing his skills through USCO, by 1966 Yalkut had created 10 films, which he premiered at the New York Filmmakers Cinematheque.
In 1969, Yalkut made The Aquarian Rushes, the only underground film that documents the Woodstock Festival. The 50-minute, film was picked by Martin Scorcese, who was then finishing his degree at NYU, as his official 16mm selection for a film festival in Sorrento, Italy.

It was also through USCO that, in 1965, Yalkut first met composer and video artist Nam June Paik. Together they made several films, including Beatles Electronique, a mesmerizing, three-minute series of images taken from the bandメs performance at Shea Stadium and clips from A Hard Dayメs Night. モPaik was an early pioneer in turning television and video into art,ヤ Yalkut says.

Aside from his collaborations with Paik, in 1967 Yalkut teamed up with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama for an avant garde film titled Kusamaメs Self Obliteration.

Yalkut remained with USCO through 1972. One year later he was asked to come on board at Wright Stateメs Department of Art to set up experimental media classes. After starting in the fall of 1973, Yalkutメs tenure at the university lasted four years, until the department was abolished in 1977.

Jeff Rutledge, owner of the Rutledge Gallery in Dayton, had Yalkut as an instructor at Wright State in 1973. モHe was a great instructor,ヤ Rutledge says. モVery progressive, very avant garde. Jud is very unique; heメs been a teacher and an inspiration to a lot of people. He is an organizer and a self promoter who always has a plan. Heメs been significant in the local art scene.ヤ

After the Wright State gig, Yalkut miraculously chose to remain in the Dayton area. モI always say that if you live in New York, you can gear down and live anywhere else,ヤ Yalkut says. Today he is recognized as a tireless advocate for the arts. Since Dayton was, at the time, going through a creative lull, Yalkut was determined to make the city a culturally vibrant place for him to live. モWhat it did was it started me on the path that Iメm still on: to create as much of a healthy cultural environment around me as I can for the good of the community and my own health. This is a driving force.ヤ

Yalkut has also dipped his hands into the local music scene. モI worked with a number of bands,ヤ he says. モIn fact, I managed a few and I did a lot of videos for a number of them, While Yalkut has been good to Ohio, Ohio has been good to him.

モIメve been very lucky here,ヤ Yalkut says. モIメve gotten something like five fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council since Iメve been here; four have been in media and one has been in art criticism.ヤ

Yalkut recently received a mini-grant from the Ohio Humanities Council that he used for a piece that will be premiered at the Dayton Cultural Center on Friday April 14, at 5:30 p.m. Walking the Nickel is an oral history video of African American culture on West Fifth street in Dayton and the West Side YMCA. Included in the documentary are the reminiscences of Bing Davis, Lloyd Lewis, Dean Lovelace and Margaret Peters, among others. For Yalkut, itメs an entirely new concept. モAlthough Iメve done documentaries they were more like art documentaries,ヤ he says. モBut this one has more talking heads, which is something I usually try and stay away from. But I had a lot of historical photographs and the people are just so fantastic and the stories they tell are so real.ヤ

Aside from his film and video work, Yalkut has also spent much of his life writing about art (he covers visual arts for Impact Weekly). モIメve always been writing for alternative press papers,ヤ Yalkut says. モI like art criticism because in art criticism you can write poetic prose and get away with it.ヤ

Nowadays, Yalkut spends most of his time working on Walking the Nickel and preparing for the upcoming Whitney retrospective. It seems to Yalkut that he and his avant garde colleagues such as Paik are receiving more attention now than ever before. モThe historians and the galleries and the curators are catching up with that whole beautiful and intense period of the ム60s and early ム70s,ヤ Yalkut says. モSo I guess my reputation is reaping the benefits of that.ヤ

Jud Yalkut
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