Wallace Berman's Verifax art: Like Web surfing before the Internet
At Kohn Gallery, “Wallace Berman: American Aleph” paints an intimate picture of the legendary artist who was at the center of the scene when Los Angeles came into its artistic own.
Beautifully organized and installed by Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon, the deeply engaging exhibition contends that it’s high time historians stop thinking of Berman (1926-76) as a California artist and start acknowledging him for what he is: an influential American whose potent works were not only in tune with the wild times in which he lived, but who also anticipated the major transformations that would take place with the development of communication technologies.
Like Andy Warhol’s best works from the 1960s and ’70s, Berman’s pointblank pictures combine the individual attentiveness of handcrafted objects with the implacable anonymity of mechanically reproduced imagery. Where Warhol turned to silkscreen, Berman used a Verifax machine — an early version of the photocopier — to print variously sized grids of similar but distinct images.
Both artists zeroed in on the content of messages and the media by which that content was conveyed. Too smart to think that the medium is the message, Berman and Warhol explored the thorny relationships between what was being communicated and how it was being communicated. Where individuals stand in relation to mass media — and one another — is their great subject.
Berman’s go-to composition consists of a life-size hand (often the left) holding a small transistor radio. The face of the radio functions as a frame for images he has scavenged from newspapers and magazines.
Political figures, athletes and astronauts, as well as everyday objects, mystical symbols and musicians, not to mention religious icons, animals and nudes, appear in these vertical rectangles. No bigger than an index card, each is all the more potent for being a part of a larger— and potentially infinite — group. Nearly half of the 80-plus pieces in the exhibition follow this format. Many feature single images. The largest grids are made up of 56.
The experience these pieces generates recalls channel surfing, Web browsing or listening to a random selection of downloaded songs. If you want to make sense of things, you have to do that for yourself. Berman will not do it for you. Like the radio, he simply channels forces flowing through the ether. He leaves viewers free to figure out what it all means.
That DIY ethos runs to the heart of his art. It can be seen in his earliest pen-and-ink drawings, from the 1940s, which pay homage to masters of jazz improvisations while registering the risk of heroin addiction.
Sex and spirituality — often united in blissful instants of harmony — also go to the heart of Berman’s deeply bohemian art. That’s what distinguishes him from other artists interested in the effects — and affects — of mass-produced imagery. More cosmic than local, it shows Berman to be an American original.