For the past sixty years Wallace Berman has been cruising below the radar of art history. That’s exactly the way he wanted it, too. The art world has evolved into such a hotbed of fame and fortune that it’s hard to imagine an artist with no interest in the spoils of the game, but Berman intentionally positioned himself on the margins of the art industry, and willfully remained there throughout his life.
Much of his work was made for and given to friends, and his sources of inspiration were private and unique. Berman’s best-known body of work was produced during the Pop Sixties; however, his art was rooted in the beat culture of the preceding decade. This can be seen in the words he inscribed on the announcement for his 1957 exhibition at the Ferus Gallery; “Look towards the poets — they are the important ones,” he asserted. If you didn’t know the poets he was referring to, or their writing didn’t speak to you, then Berman’s work wasn’t for you. He created a small community anyone could be a part of, but membership was on his terms.
Needless to say, things were different during the Forties when Berman came of age. Being an artist was a calling rather than a career choice then, and one went into it with modest expectations for the future. This changed with Andy Warhol, who closed the door on all the art history that had preceded him, and ushered in an entirely new epoch. Shifting the focus to money and mass media, Warhol drained the emotion from art; everything he produced was freighted with irony, a quality that subsequently infected art like a global virus. Berman’s work, however, never had a trace of irony; it came from the heart, which is why it feels so spiritually nourishing today. In 1962 he closed a letter to his friend, poet David Meltzer, with the words “give my love to anyone who would want it”; this comment gives some idea of what an expansive spirit he had.
This isn’t to suggest that Berman was an earnest choirboy. He was a hipster of the first order, and his knowledge of street life was central to the charisma that made him a mentor and kind of spiritual advisor to many of his friends. Born in New York in 1926, he was the only son of Jewish immigrants who fled Russia during the pogroms of 1906. His father died when he was eleven, and he grew up in Los Angeles in a household of women, (mother, grandmother, two older sisters), who adored him. At sixteen, Berman dropped out of high school, preferring to get his education on Central Avenue, the main line of L.A.’s legendary jazz scene of the Forties; from then on he charted his own course.
Berman began drawing as a child, and as is the case with many artists, he started out making cartoons. He progressed to meticulous, surrealistic renderings — of musicians, women, drug paraphernalia — that reflected his time on Central Avenue. Despite the fact that Berman had no formal training as an artist, he seemed to make an effortless leap into the realm of advanced art when he was in his early twenties. He spent a year or two producing abstract paintings (all of which he destroyed), while working in a furniture factory owned by a friend. It was there that he learned how to work with wood, and he subsequently hammered out a style of assemblage that’s come to be indelibly linked to the west coast.
Berman was extremely selective about who he shared his art with, and was always ambivalent about showing it publicly. So, when his 1957 Ferus Gallery exhibition — which centered on three enigmatic assemblages conceived to evoke esoteric mystical systems — was closed by the police department on grounds of obscenity, it left him doubly determined to operate out of the public eye. That decision is reflected in Berman’s next project, Semina, a limited-edition, hand-made magazine that occupied him from 1955 through 1964. A compendium of writings and drawings by artists and poets who had special meaning for Berman, Semina was a kind of sprawling, ongoing collage, and was a decidedly private affair. Conceived as a gift and unavailable for purchase, Semina had the quality of direct transmission; in order to get one, Berman had to give it to you himself.
Semina segued neatly into Berman’s next and best-known body of work, the Verifaxes. Begun in 1965 and produced with an early version of a mimeograph machine called a Verifax press, these collages were a distillation of everything that preceded them. Despite the fact that Berman rarely ventured far from home, he remained acutely aware of what was going on in the world. Those who knew him have commented on Berman’s uncanny ability to know about things of interest before anyone else did — somehow he just knew. It was as if he monitored the people, events and ideas floating by in the ether, plucked out the things that had meaning for him, combined them with the vocabulary of symbols and signs he developed over the years, then organized it all into a gridded collage and rebroadcast it back to the viewer. Berman’s dispatches operated on multiple levels, and came from within and without.
Berman was killed by a drunk driver in 1976, on the eve of his 50th birthday. In the twenty years following his death it became increasingly difficult to see his work, and he seemed at risk of falling through the cracks of history. Fortunately, the situation has changed in recent years, and there’s been a renewed appreciation for the unique power of his work. Art came into this world as a kind of sacred language, and a means of communicating things beyond language; this is something Berman honoured in everything he put his hand to, and his understanding of this simple fact is what makes his work simultaneously ancient and ageless. It’s the source of the wisdom in Berman’s art, and the reason it will stand the test of time.
Wallace Berman, Support the Revolution Institute of Contemporary Art, Amsterdam (1992)
Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna Semina Culture, Wallace Berman and his Circle DAP (2005)
Rebecca Solnit Secret Exhibition, Six California Artists of the Cold War Era, City Lights Books (1990)
Hal Glicksman, Walter Hopps, Robert Duncan and David Meltzer
Wallace Berman, Retrospective, Fellows of Contemporary Art, Otis Art Institute Gallery (1978)
"Abulafia taught that individual Hebrew Letters in combination did not have any “meaning” in the ordinary sense. In fact, it is an advantage if they are meaningless because they are less likely to distract us in our reception of them. “All things exist by virtue of their degree of participation in the great Name of God which manifests itself throughout the whole creation.” David Meltzer, poet, published in the catalogue for Wallace Berman Retrospective, Otis Art Institute Gallery, (1978)
"The grid structure is one of the deepest, most atavistic structures of chance phenomenon going — from the most primitive African and aboriginal games through to the chess board, the height of Western cultural sophistication, to some astronomers’ and mathematicians’ tables of random numbers. In everyday home and church bazaar terms, it’s the Bingo grid ...…" Excerpt from a taped conversation between Dean Stockwell and Walter Hopps, April 29 1978
‘Art is Love is God’
Wallace Berman (1926–1974) participated in a number of exhibitions including a show at the Robert Fraser Gallery, London (1967) during his only visit to Europe and through his contact with Fraser, Berman’s portrait was included by Peter Blake on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Berman also showed at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1968); The Jewish Museum, New York (1968); West Coast 1945–1969 at Pasadena Art Museum and touring; Poets of the Cities, New York and San Francisco, 1950–1965, (travelling to Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco and Museum of Art and Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut (1974); Collage and Assemblage, Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art; Environment and the New Art 1960–1975’, University of California, Davies; Art as a Muscular Principle, Mount Holyoak College, Hadley, Massachusetts (1975). Berman appeared, with a punning reference to his publication Semina, as a seed-sower in the film Easy Rider.
After his death in 1976, his work was exhibited at Newport Harbor Art Gallery, California (1976); California Painting and Sculpture: The Modern Era’, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and travelling to the Smithsonian Institute, Washington. He had retrospective exhibitions at The Whitney Museum of American Art (1978) and Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County (touring to The Fort Worth Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley and Seattle Art Museum, 1978–1980). A major retrospective of his work titled Support the Revolution was held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Amsterdam (1992) with a solo show Art is Love is God, an introduction, 1957–1976, MAMCO, Geneva (2000). The exhibition Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and his circle, curated by Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna, travelled to various museums in the US from 2005–2007. Other group shows include Traces du Sacré, Centre Pompidou — Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris; Art since the 1960s: California Experiments, Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, USA (both 2008) and Berman is included in several upcoming shows including Time & Place: Los Angeles 1957–1968, Moderna Museet, Stockholm (from October 2008) and Looking for Mushrooms, Museum Ludwig, Cologne (from November 2008).
Kristine McKenna is a writer based in Los Angeles.