Twentieth-century modernism and its often extreme art movements produced talented artists who inevitably fell through the cracks, and whose work curators are still rediscovering. The name Burt Shonberg is not one of them, however.
The late Southern Californian has never been anthologized by a museum, yet he was arguably the region's first psychedelic artist; he also was connected to the Los Angeles art scene of the 1950s and '60s, collected by celebs like Ringo Starr and actor Sally Kellerman and, as an illustrator of early science fiction imagery, tapped by Roger Corman to create images for his 1960 movie The House of Usher. Shonberg's images also graced album covers by classic California bands like Spirit and Love.
Shonberg collector and friend Marshall Berle — a retired agent who signed The Beach Boys to William Morris — recalls a drive west on Sunset Boulevard during the mid-1960s where he noticed an otherworldly mural that made him stop and take notice. Filled with blocky, columnated gateways, the painting opened onto a fantasy-fueled landscape of cubist architecture, op-art pavements and jagged trees.
Berle, who'd just taken his first-ever dose of mescaline, thought: “This is what we're seeing! Who did this, and how did he know?”
Not long after, the young agent went looking for peyote at the fabled Indian Trading Company on Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. There, the resident “medicine man” happened to have a Shonberg drawing sitting on the floor.
“They called him 'grandfather,'” Berle recalls, “and he told me Burt Shonberg's name for the first time; said the sketch was done the morning after a peyote experience.” Berle bought it for $75.
Shonberg was probably in Paris or Ibiza at the time, traveling with Valerie Porter, former lover of Picasso and Man Ray. (Porter later appeared with her delicious sculpture of the great god Pan in the 1967 film Mondo Hollywood.) According to Berle, Shonberg met with Salvador Dali in Ibiza and the elderly surrealist even gave him a new painting.
In 1967, Shonberg landed his first and only solo exhibition — at the Gallery Contemporary at 631 N. La Cienega Blvd. — mounted by George Greif, the promoter responsible for The Beatles' first U.S. tour. According to Berle, not a single piece sold.
Fast-forward a half-century and the art world has gone through some seismic shifts, especially this last decade, when trust in politics and societal institutions has diminished considerably. Galleries in mainstream art districts have since filled with works of a considerably more mystic and conspiratorial nature; Shonberg's supporters hope his time has finally come.
Journalist Spencer Kansa, who learned of Shonberg while researching his 2014 book Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron, is working on the first biography of this forgotten artist. His interest in Shonberg and Cameron is spurred by a larger desire to expose forgotten 1950s beat culture. Shonberg, in fact, dated the occultic Cameron after she appeared as a witch in Kenneth Anger's film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954).
Shonberg was paying the bills then by drawing space-age album covers and illustrating Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland and other sci-fi magazines. He moved deeper into the nascent California subculture in 1958 by opening Cafe Frankenstein, a beatnik coffeehouse in Laguna Beach, with future Twilight Zone/Logan's Run scribe George Clayton Johnson. Four years on, Shonberg got the call from Corman to create paintings for Usher. Berle calls those long-missing paintings “another mystery!”
The former agent thinks an actor in Usher may have kept one of the paintings; Corman told Berle, however, that he gave them away.
By the mid-'60s George Greif had begun collecting Shonberg originals, which, according to his daughter, Laura Greif Decludt, were seen by Ringo Starr, who acquired several. In a 2005 photo captured of Starr's now-defunct website, a large Shonberg work hangs behind the former Beatle. The caption lists as Starr's favorite artists: “Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Shonberg, [George] Condo, [Fred] Nall [Hollis], [Peter] Max.” A reader on a message board asks: “Who is Shonberg, anyone know? Does he mean [composer] Arnold Schoenberg? That's very interesting if so!”
At some point, Shonberg began to mesh his commercial sci-fi style with visions he experienced under the influence of mind-altering drugs. In 1957, he had his first “dramatic experience beyond the limits of so-called ordinary.” He wrote in his unpublished book, Out Here: “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. … I had to do paintings under the influence of LSD.”
The resulting black-and-white watercolors in Out Here portray Shonberg alone with a chair and a tape recorder. Suddenly, the atmosphere comes alive with physical manifestations, the room splits open and his conscious thoughts mingle with an illuminated outside environment. The drawings also signaled the arrival of a mature style all Shonberg's own.
“There was no city,” the artist explains in Out Here. “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.”
Berle says that before Shonberg died, he gave half the illustrations from Out Here to a friend and the other half to his roommate, painter Ledru Shoopman Baker III. (Baker, who has since died, in 2007 showed me many samples of Shonberg's art — commercial illustrations and unfinished drawings — including possible sketches from Out Here, Part 2.)
According to Berle, Baker's girlfriend said Shonberg wanted Out Here Part 2 sent to Berle after he died, but she later “changed her mind and said she was keeping everything.” Rumors have since swirled that top Hollywood names now have that art.
How such interest in Shonberg was even generated, if true, is a mystery. Only a single short documentary about him exists, self-produced by Berle and undistributed. He recently sent a copy of the film to the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College in hopes of spurring a retrospective.
In 1965, the artist took part in what was billed as the first-ever psychedelic exhibition — at the Coda Gallery in Lower Manhattan, which also featured abstract painter Isaac Abrams. In L.A., Shonberg painted dozens of modern sphinxes, Aztec warriors, movie monsters, lunar landscapes, the lost city of Atlantis and other pagan and occult figures. Success remained elusive.
But by the early '70s, he “became so disassociated,” Kansa says, “that Shonberg's very identity and existence is called into question.”
Close friends say Shonberg believed his name was a cover for his real identity: Jack Bond, intergalactic agent from the Time Coast, Fourth Dimension. Working mainly in pen and ink, on surfaces as ephemeral as napkins and sheet music, Shonberg stacked conspiratorial phases one atop the other; they often opened onto the physical frame of a space-helmeted humanoid labeled “Jack Bond.”
Through Berle, Shonberg — broke and bitter from years of rejection — managed a final cover illustration for Spirit's Tampa Jam, Electro Jam, From the Time Coast, Spirit of '76 album. He died a year later.
Berle has tried to create a Shonberg museum; he started burtshonberg.com, now a repository for collectors to show off rare Shonbergs. Berle says he'd be satisfied if an institution took the collection. As for Kansa's bio, “It's a delicious irony but doubtless true,” he says, “that Burt couldn't give a flying fig that you and I are writing about him.”
Yet Shonberg's psychosis and eccentricity don't fully explain why he remains forgotten. It could be that he was just a mediocre painter. More likely, Shonberg was too strange for even the '60s California sci-fi world, and too far removed from the fine art establishment, to be embraced by either. Even today, when radical viewpoints are commonplace in the art world, Shonberg has yet to receive recognition. Meanwhile, a unique body of work remains hidden in plain sight.