Arts Listings

Wallace Berman and His Circle at BAM

By Peter Selz, Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 05, 2006

Wallace Berman was perhaps the last true Bohemian—a denizen of the Beat counterculture, which was Bohemia’s successor. Berman constructed his life and art outside the establishment, and he and his coterie of many friends were in search of an art that confirmed their nonconformist lifestyle. Berman was a man of many talents: poet, draftsman, sculptor and, as we see throughout the exhibition, a fine, rather conventional portrait photographer.  

He is best known as the inventor of Verifax collages in which a hand holds up a transistor radio in which a photograph has been inserted in the place of the speaker. Mysterious images and Hebrew letters were arranged in grids by the artist. The word itself, derived from Latin, suggests “true facts.”  

Between 1955 and 1964 Berman issued nine editions of his loose-leaf journal, Semina. It was printed in editions of a few hundred copies and sent out irregularly and gratis. It published early translations of Herman Hesse’s poems and poems by Jean Cocteau, Charles Baudelaire and Rabindranath Tagore, together with “Beat” poems by Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamentia, Diane di Prima, David Meltzer, Michael McClure and Jack Hirshman, among others.  

Berman was also involved in the early avant-garde gallery scene in California. He had a solo show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1957 and was an early partner of the Dilexi Gallery when it opened in San Francisco in 1958. He is seen as the link between the anarchist avant-garde in Venice and North Beach. 

The show at the Berkeley Art Museum was organized by the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Berman lived in Santa Monica and produced the first issues of Semina there where his friend Bob Alexander taught him to print. Baza, as Alexander was called, also founded the Temple of Man and ordained those whom he invited. In 1960 Berman moved to a shack in Larkspur after his ill-fated show at the Ferus in Los Angeles in 1957. 

He had exhibited rather esoteric pieces with the motto: “Art is Love is God” in that space, when police officers, who had heard that the show was pornographic, stormed into the gallery. Ironically, they failed to notice an image of coitus hanging on a sculpture called “Cross” (1956-57). There was, however, an erotic, rather weird, but finely drawn picture of a woman having intercourse with a monster. It was made by Cameron {Marjorie Cameron], but the police arrested Berman, who would never again show in a commercial gallery after being brutalized by the LAPD. 

The show at the Berkeley Art Museum is mostly documentary. It includes, however, many notable and some excellent works of art. The above-mentioned Cameron drawing is there, as well as about a hundred items by Berman himself, including the fabulous Verifax collage, “Untitled (A7-Mushroom, D4-Cross),” (1966). 

There is a superb black and white painting by Jay DeFeo, “Temple (for B.C.)” (1980), and there are several works in different media by Bruce Conner himself. George Herms, the other principal assemblage artist is represented with his “Temple of the Sun” (1964), a large old steamer trunk, holding many esoteric objects. In addition to Joan Brown’s famous “Fur Rat” (1962) from the Berkeley Art Museum’s Funk collection, there is the vulnerable “Man on Horseback” (1957). And there are also collages by Los Angeles’ sardonic Llyn Foulkes. 

Fascinating are the many different artifacts and documents of lesser-known artists, poets, choreographers and performers. And there are works by members of the Berman circle who were, or became movie stars: Dean Stockwell has collages and assemblages of the ‘50s and ‘60s in the show, and there are excellent photographs by Dennis Hopper, including a photograph of Berman sitting triumphant on his motorcycle in 1964. Ten years later Wallace Berman was killed in an automobile accident on his 50th birthday, on the day he predicted he would die. 


Photograph: Berman's "Untitled (A7-Mushroom, D4-Cross)" (1966), a 56 -image Verifax collage.