A new show on California artist Wallace Berman (1926-1976) makes the case for his enduring significance as a seminal cultural figure and numinous conduit of his times.
By GEORGE MELROD
Artist. Visionary. Hipster. Mystic. Voracious consumer and conduit of modern culture. Wallace Berman immersed himself in all these guises, with a selftaught fervor and disarming sincerity. To those who know his artwork, he remains a uniquely prescient and compelling figure, even 50 years after his death in 1976, from a tragic accident caused by a drunk driver on the eve of his 50th birthday. Perhaps fittingly, for someone who had such magnetic presence to his fellow seekers in and around the LA art world of his time, Berman remains something of a cult figure. Discovering his work feels like tuning in to some special radio channel, where the spiritual and the hedonistic, the sacred and profane, are intermixed with a full spectrum of pop cultural iconography and then dispensed for the viewer’s contemplation. The work crackles with an almost electrical charge, of someone rolling through the bandwidth of his media-saturated culture, burnished by a willfully mystical aura.
During the flood of Pacific Standard Time exhibitions in fall 2011, Berman’s work was given an unlikely and revelatory showcase at the Armory in Pasadena, in “Speaking In Tongues,” a dual show with Robert Heinecken, another artist who used photography to reflect back on popular culture. One of the most talked about shows in PST, it juxtaposed their work from 1961-1976, when both were appropriating images from the world at large to compelling mystical (Berman), satirical (Heinecken), and oftentimes erotic effect. This spring, the two curators behind that exhibition, Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon, continued their examination with “Wallace Berman—American Aleph” at LA’s Kohn Gallery. Marking the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death (and 100th of his birth), the show effusively attempts to locate Berman in a broader context, beyond the California art world. Presenting artworks from across his career, amidst blow-ups of period movies, and other figures of the era that impacted him, from Dennis Hopper to Jean Cocteau to Lenny Bruce, “American Aleph” frames Berman in the wider backdrop of postwar modern American culture, as someone who was highly influenced by the spirit of his times, and was able to distill that curiosity into a uniquely beguiling body of work, that both speaks to its era and continues to resonate long afterward.
“Wallace is known as a Southern Californian artist, for Semina culure…” notes Mellon. “We were hoping to open the lens a little bit, and tell a bigger story. A lot of the time he gets limited to ‘the guy who just does the Verifax collages’... While it was his most prolific period, he really zeroed in on something. He’s more than just the Sony radio image and assemblage.” Says Bohn-Spector: “He was very much ahead of his time. He was a voracious reader, and absorbed culture through poetry, music…” Bohn-Spector sees Berman as someone who actively challenged the definition of what modern art was, and who captured the moment when modernism shifted to postmodernism. Noting his emphasis on “mediated information,” she adds, “He very consciously appropriated from other media, looking at representations, and then representing those. He’s a commentator, and that’s what makes him so postmodern. One of the great talents he had was in reading the signs that the culture puts out. He really knew how to read that, and put that into artwork, how we communicate as a culture.” Noting the prevalence of mediated information in our own lives, she adds, “That’s what makes him so relevant today: that’s all we get.”
Raised in Los Angeles, Berman was drawn to the city’s burgeoning jazz and beat scene in the 1940s, mingling with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; the show offers examples of striking, surreal drawings he made of jazz musicians. As Mellon writes in the catalogue, jazz, “with its syncopated rhythms, coded messages, and intricate call-and-response patterns, seems uniquely suited to Berman’s brilliantly discursive and searching art.” Despite stints at Jepson Art Institute and Chouinard, he remained largely self-taught and started making sculpture from wood scraps. In 1955, he initiated his eclectic, free form mail art publication Semina, which included such contributors as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, Jess, and John Altoon. His career as a working artist had its brief apex in his notorious 1957 debut show at the then-new Ferus Gallery, which ended disastrously when the LA vice squad raided the space and found an “obscene” drawing by the artist Cameron in one of Berman’s assemblages. Convicted of displaying lewd material, he had his fine paid by his friend, the actor Dean Stockwell, and then fled LA.
For the next four years, Berman lived in Northern California, with his wife Shirley and young son Tosh. The exhibition features his photography of that time, B&W nude portraits of artist Jay DeFeo with a rose, alternately pensive and ebullient. In 1961, he returned to LA with his family, to a house in Crater Lane. There, and later in Topanga Canyon, he settled into his own artistic lifestyle, rejecting a traditional art career, embracing an identity as an early hippie and self-made mystic—a stark contrast to today’s careerist art school grads. He did not have another solo show, although he did do one-day, one-person pop-up exhibitions, and took part in group shows, at LACMA in 1968, and the Jewish Museum in New York. Even so, he remained very aware of what was going on elsewhere; he knew of Cage’s experiments with randomness and chance, and knew of Rauschenberg’s pioneering works and spiritual references.
He remains best known for his Verifax works, starting in the mid-1960s, created using an early Kodak copying machine. Using the framing device of a hand holding a Sony transistor radio, he repeated it serially with a panoply of images, from religious iconography to nudes to football players to rocket ships to everything in-between. Perhaps having trained as a sonar technician in WWII had instilled in him an interest in using technology to seek out unseen information and scavenging for hidden meanings. “Don’t forget that the radio was huge when those guys [Cage, Berman] were kids,” Bohn- Spector notes, comparing it to the Internet today. “Radio was a vehicle of knowledge that percolates in the world, in the ether.” Says Mellon, “I think Wallace really liked the idea of ideas coming through the air.”
Heightening the mystical aura is Berman’s use of Hebrew lettering throughout his work. Even in his Ferus show, Berman had featured a large assemblage sculpture of a cross and parchment-like fragments of Hebrew, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Verifax pieces, too, often featured Hebrew lettering, which gives them the feeling of a sacred text; in fact, they’re not real words but random arrangements. “He was not trained formally as a kabbalist,” notes Bohn-Spector. “Whatever he uses, he uses very freely. Not so much as words. Like Dada, they’re an accumulation of letters, a nonsensical syntax.” But even so, the aleph symbol had special resonance to him, representing “the beginning of all things. As a mystical icon.” As early as the mid-’60s, Dennis Hopper had photographed Berman on his motorbike, wearing a homemade “aleph” helmet.
In the 1970s, Berman took up the practice of painting Hebrew lettering on rocks, singly and in texts, photographing them by way of documentation, or leaving them on the beach, as a message in a bottle. His untimely death cut short his exploration. What would have followed remains just speculation. But as someone so attuned to the emanations of the culture, on all frequencies, it’s a good guess that he would have been listening very intently. As Bohn-Spector observes simply: “Wallace was interested in the undercurrent of human experience that wasn’t visible."