This show is on the radio so if you are listening, even reading, you may know about the existence of that life transforming invention, the transistor radio. Small and portable, it meant that you could listen to the ball games as they happened. You could take your tunes with you to work, to school. In 1964, as pop music was transformed by the Beatles, this mundane but miraculous device became the chosen format of the most powerful works by Wallace Berman. (1926-1976)
An artist whose personal charisma outstripped his actual production, Berman was legendary for the regard in which he was held by his peers, other artists, poets and musicians. He kept in touch by sending copies of his own handmade magazine Semina. He was one of the few American artists featured on the cover of Sgt. Peppers. (Larry Bell was another.) An exhibition at Kohn Gallery through June 25 brings together a survey of work including his best-known Verifax collages of a hand holding the aforementioned transistor radio as a frame for images ranging from falling stars to rock stars.
Organized by Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon, who previously showed the work of Berman with that of photographer Robert Heinecken at the Armory in Pasadena, this show doesn’t break much new ground but does bring attention to works of art that are genuinely difficult to experience in person. Berman had only one gallery experience and that was the grand opening of Ferus in 1957. The show was shut down by LAPD on obscenity charges. Though Berman’s own work is often erotic, even pornographic, it was an explicit drawing by the occultist Cameron included in his installation that incited the furor. It put Ferus squarely on a path to notoriety but derailed Berman’s delicate sensibilities.
With his wife Shirley and baby boy Tosh, he moved to the Bay Area and lived on a houseboat staging one-day exhibitions of his work and that of other artists and poets at a roofless shack re- purposed as gallery, Semina. After four years of that, they moved to a rustic place in Topanga, where he had a Verifax machine, a forerunner of the copier. Using his own complex techniques, he printed variations of the hand-held transistor radio image. They were individual works but also presented as large grids at the very cusp of screen printing and seriality established by Warhol around the same time. For Berman, the radio generated generic random poetry, a response similar to that shown in one of his favorite Cocteau films Orphee, which is shown as a clip in the gallery.
Berman was tuned in quite young. As a Fairfax high school drop-out in trouble with the law, he was forced to enlist. His post as a Naval sonar technician wound up affecting this aspect of his art. Later, while hanging around the black jazz clubs of LA, he made friends with musicians and drew illustrations for the covers of their records. Words and music directed his art. Though he briefly attended Chouinard Art Institute, his direction was determinedly undetermined. His works didn’t evolve so much as arrive, accepted by him as gifts of a greater force.
Though he could not read Hebrew and was not an observant Jew, the aleph, or a, became an all-meaning symbol with which he made drawings of scraps that look as though they were torn from the Dead Sea Scrolls. He even wore an aleph on his motorcycle helmet. In the early 1970's, he stenciled Hebraic letters on boulders along the Malibu coast, among the last work made before he was killed by a drunk driver the night of his fiftieth birthday. Berman’s legend has only grown since then due to friends ranging from George Herms to Dennis Hopper but, as gallery owner Michael Kohn said, this is a solid show of an important artist that still leaves something more for a museum to accomplish.