WALLACE BERMAN: THE GREAT UNKNOWN
A Bohemian Rhapsody
I was planning to spend Sunday, a day when there are normally not too many phone interruptions, getting started on a piece about the legendary yet still relatively obscure West Coast artist Wallace Berman, who died in an automobile accident in 1976. A charismatic hipster who gathered a vital community of artists and hangers-on around him in the Beat Generation enclave of Venice, California, Berman had his first and last commercial solo show at the Ferus Gallery, in Los Angeles, in 1957. After the show, which included the first issue of his influential handcrafted journal Semina, was busted by the LAPD vice squad for "lewdness," Berman withdrew from the official art community, preferring to go underground and "swing in the shadows," as he put it in the now-quaint jazz slang of his era.
Berman had always fascinated me from afar, and since a big traveling exhibition called "SEMINA CULTURE: Wallace Berman & His Circle," would soon be coming to The Grey Art Gallery downtown at New York University, I was looking forward to holing up at home and writing about him.
But our friends Tony and Betty wouldn't hear of it. They thought I needed to get out of my smug urban rut and see more of "America," as I was in the habit of referring to every place outside my beloved Manhattan. So they showed up in Tony's brother-in-law's Subaru that sparkling Fall morning to take Jeannie and me on a long scenic drive upstate to an orchard where city folks, for a price, can have the novel experience of picking their own apples.
All the way across the Tappen Zee Bridge and along those interminable country highways, as Jeannie pointed out the beautiful colors of the turning leaves and tried in vain to disabuse me of the notion that "if you've seen one tree you've seen them all," I complained that I didn't even like apples. If I had to be dragged away from my natural habitat and out into the sticks, I bitched, I would have much preferred being taken to one of those "book barns" I had read about.
But my wife just made her usual jokes about how I was such a creature of concrete as to make even Woody Allen seem like Nature Boy, they all laughed, and after what seemed like an eternity or two, we arrived at a place called Masker's Orchard in some godforsaken town called Warwick, New York..
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As you drive in, blond teenage bumpkins (the further one gets from the five boroughs the blonder everyone seems to become, whether they actually have yellow hair or not) pass handfuls of plastic bags in through the car windows. You fill them, and after inspecting the car like narcs for contraband apples as you drive out, they collect $16 per filled bag before letting you leave the property.
"Apples make people happy," Betty said, after some little Asian kids sitting in the back of a pickup truck waved at us as we followed the map printed on the back of the bags from "Cider Lane" to "Strudel Road."
And later, I almost had to agree, at least to myself, as I sat in a folding chair beside the car, after the others had gone off merrily with their bags, watching entire families swarm the trees in a veritable apple frenzy. One elderly African-American lady working alone nearby caught my eye and grinned, as if to say, "This is my own little tree! All these beautiful apples belong to me!"
Then another woman, driving by in her car, saw me sitting there in my broad-brimmed straw hat like Farmer Brown and flashed me a big neighborly smile. Maybe she took me for one of those long-haired, bearded Vietnam vets who look a little freaky but hold steady jobs and live in the suburbs. In any case, it pleased me to think I must have looked to her like a normal American on his day off, someone who does work that makes sense to people, rather than making a living doing something incomprehensible like writing about art. I even liked the idea that she probably assumed that the Subaru I was sitting by was mine, even though I never learned to drive; never wanted to live anywhere that might make driving necessary.
For some reason, such cases of mistaken identity, whenever they have occurred, have always pleased me, just as I've always taken vicarious pleasure in imagining what it might be like to live the kind of conventional life I have been running away from for as long as I can remember, even though I know in my bones that I would not be able to tolerate such a life for even a little while.
The simple truth of the matter is that I can hardly remember ever having wanted to be a normal American. At least since high school, all I've ever wanted to be is a bohemian, by which of course I do not mean a native of the region of Czechoslovakia known by that name, but a citizen of a certain state of mind, philosophy, life-style whatever you want to call itthat enables one to pursue one's creative obsessions without undue worry over material rewards or what the neighbors might think.
So while I enjoyed impersonating a mensch and even got enough into the spirit of things as the day wore on to pick a few apples, my mind kept wandering back to the life and art of Wallace Berman, an inveterate beatnik like me...
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While it would be going too far to say that only bad art can do justice to a beautiful scene (an argument that art history would easily refute), it does seem safe to say that good art is generally too self-conscious, too self-absorbed, to fall in love with an atmosphere. Thus the "Noctambulists," a school of painters in Paris who sought to capture "the tones of night" are long forgotten, while their contemporaries, the Cubists, live on and on.
Still, questions of artistic quality and originality aside, the very name Noctambulists exudes far greater mystery. And though I'm aware of mixing periods here, it pleases me to picture them, woozy on absinthe, staring entranced at the halos around the gas-lights in van Gogh's "Night Cafe," forever arrested by a beautifully futile bohemian epiphany.
In order to succeed as a bohemian, one must fail spectacularly, like Joseph Delaney, one of the first adult artists I knew in the mid 1950s, as a twelve year old from the Lower East Side, haunting Greenwich Village, enamored of failure's mystique or at least a species of failure more colorful than that which I saw all around me in my neighborhood and family. The less successful brother of the well-known black painter Beauford Delaney, Joe Delaney was a shabbily elegant gentleman who looked like a down-at-the-heels Duke Ellington and painted a little like Reginald Marsh. Like Marsh, he was a fine draftsman who could impart a classical quality to bustling urban scenes. But his oils of folk singers in Washington Square Park and soapbox orators in Union Square were so pale and starved for pigments he could not afford that the bare bones of the preliminary drawing invariably showed through the thin skin of the paint like elbows poking through a faded sweater.
Perhaps it was Delaney's poverty, his inability to buy proper art materials, that kept him in The Washington Square Outdoor Art Show, among the purveyors of kitsch seascapes on black velvet, year after year, while other serious artists like Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, who had once hung their early work briefly on the building facades and fences around the park, had moved on to fortune and fame in galleries and museums.
Recently, seeing one of Delaney's street scenes reproduced in a catalog put out by ACA Galleries, I hoped it portended some belated recognition for this kindly gentleman who had been something of a mentor to me. Inspired by his example and encouragement, I'd defy the monitors of the Outdoor Art Show, who'd frequently roust me for being unregistered and underage, and hang my juvenile ink drawings and watercolors of jazz musicians on the same fence outside Judson Memorial Church where the legendary bohemian poet Maxwell Bodenheim once posted and peddled his poem manuscripts for the price of a drink.
A snapshot from around that time shows me seated in my folding chair in front of that fence, surrounded by a group of kids from the Lower East Side who had come to visit me in the Village when those two neighborhoods, while within walking distance, were still worlds apart.
I may have been a mediocre stickball player but my ability to draw a convincing likeness of Elvis or a naked girl made me popular enough among the guys who gathered around me for that group photo like Leo Gorcey's "Dead End Kids." Still, looking at my self conscious preadolescent self, glowering darkly among gladly grinning normal boys, I can see that the malady of art was already setting me apart, making me ill at ease among my dead end peers.
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By the late fifties, sitting in dank cellars like The Gaslight, on MacDougal Street, or the Cock 'n' Bull, on Bleecker, we aspiring bohemians who swarmed the Village on weekends were already grumbling into our espressos about "the tourists," as though they were squares from Nebraska or Ohio, rather than high school kids from the five boroughswhich is to say, ourselves.
So naturally I was intrigued, flipping through a brand new book called The Holy Barbarians in the 8th Street Bookshop one afternoon in 1959, to come upon an atmospheric photograph of shadowy figures huddled in a steamy cafe window with a caption calling it "a real Beat Generation coffeehouse that tourists haven't discovered yet."
The lettering on the window read "Venice West Cafe Expresso," but no "sic" seemed necessary, since everyone, even in the Village, pronounced espresso with the "X" anywayand, obviously, expression was what the Beat scene in Venice, California, was all about, man!
"Venice West," the caption of the next photograph (of a funky beachside boardwalk and the tall-columned facade of a derelict resort) rhapsodized, "slum by the sea...old Venice imitated in pipe and plaster, peeling now, where a disaffiliated, dedicated poverty is a way of life in the pads of the holy barbarians..."
Just as atmospheric, an interior shot of Venice West Cafe Expresso, looking like the beatnik dive in Roger Corman's lurid B-movie, "A Bucket of Blood," showed bearded hipsters and their cool-looking chicks digging a jazz group playing in front of a wall scrawled with the words " 'ART IS LOVE IS GOD'WALLY BERMAN."
Although that slogan caught my attention, years before the drug culture made such Oh Wow Insights commonplace, there wasn't much to be learned about Berman in The Holy Barbarians, which turned out to be a commercial exploitation of the Beat Generation almost as corny as Corman's film, released the same year.
In fact, the book's author, Lawrence Lipton, was a conflicted former screenwriter, publicist, journalist, and poet-manque who once confessed ruefully, "I always looked like everything I was not, and worse: I was capable of doing the very thing I had the most contempt forand doing it well!"
Savvy hack that he was, Lipton knew that most readers (myself admittedly among them at that time) would rather be entertained by "case histories" of composite characters with colorful pseudonyms like "Itchy Gelden" and "Angel Dan Davies" than read about actual members of the Southern California art and poetry community like Wallace Berman and Stuart Perkoff (who make cameo appearances in the book only to lend the ring of truth to Lipton's fictionalized account of a suddenly popular social phenomenon).
Being the kind of kid who had always preferred Captain Marvel to Superman, Lash LaRue to Roy Rogers, the slightly outre and offbeat to the popular, Venice (later to give us Jim Morrison, another too-late beatnik of my generation who parlayed histrionic coffeehouse doggerel, set to ponderous rock music, into a notorious career as lead singer of The Doors) appealed more to the teenage romantic in me than did the better known west coast Beat scene in San Francisco.
But when I confessed as much to Allen Ginsberg many years later, as we sat in his kitchen on East 12th Street sipping tea, he acted as if I had committed blasphemy and launched into a tirade about phony, sandal-wearing Maynard G. Krebs-type "bedbug beatniks" who gave the whole scene a bad name that struck me as hilariously ironic coming from the Beat Generation's most outrageous publicist.
Allen's collected poems had just come out and I'd spent several hours following him from one appointment to anotheror as he put it when he inscribed a copy of the book to me: "a day in both our Eternities from Radio to Gallery to Harper publisher to Lawyer to Home Office." Sadly, he seemed more like a harried, cranky businessman than the famous free spirit of yore. I couldn't help thinking that maybe his success was making him feel like he'd failed as a bohemian.
"But Allen, as a kid all that bedbug beatnik stuff was exactly what fascinated me about the Venice scene," I explained, "particularly as it was depicted in Lipton's book.
"That book was such a potboiler! Kerouac hated that book!" Allen scoffed, as if that settled it.
Then he stood, put on a jacket, smoothed it over his little pot belly, and said, "How do you like my new black leather jacket? I've always wanted one, but could never afford it before now. Every beatnik should have a black leather jacket, don't you think?"
* * *
It seems more than apt that "Semina Culture," which originated at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2005, before traveling to three other cities, and opens on January 16 at Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, will be seen in the Village, where the ghosts of old bohemians like Joe Gould, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Edna Vincent Millay still haunt the streets, even as New York University, the very institution presenting the exhibition, does everything in its power to disrupt the human scale of the surrounding architecture and turn traditionally funky Washington Square Park into its own sterile campus plaza.
Wisely, Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna, the co-curators of the exhibition, make the personalities and communal myths of Berman and his circle every bit as important as the art they produced, in this comprehensive survey of paintings, drawings, sculptures, writings, photographs, and artifacts by more than fifty artists and poets associated with Semina.
The only glaring omission is Jay De Feo's legendary 2300 pound tactile albatross "The Rose," a huge abstract composition that the artist piled white oil paint onto for seven years, giving herself lead poisoning in the process. Touted wistfully in the exhibition catalog as "the visual masterwork of the Beat era," its absence leaves a hole that not even the inclusion of a curious, paint-encrusted object entitled "Footstool (Used during the painting of the Rose, 1958-1965)" can fill. Last seen in The Whitney Museum's 1996 survey "Beat Culture and the New America," the painting is just too cumbersome and fragile to travel. Yet it haunts this exhibition in absentia, not because this over laden and overblown abstract starburst composition really is the masterwork that the catalog hyperbole claimsfar from itbut because it so perfectly exemplifies heroic bohemian failure.
In fact,"The Rose" is a monolithic anomaly; for while other Los Angeles painters, such as John Altoon, Joan Brown, Wally Hedrick, and Arthur Richer created relatively large canvases, most of the artists in Berman's immediate circle tended more toward intimism than gargantuan painterly productions.
The favored mediums were drawing and collage. That the occasional larger work was usually assemblage, created with found materials, suggests that poverty, as much as a taste for the funky, could have been a determining factor for some. However, a shared intimist sensibility fostered by a close relationship between art and literature not unlike that of the Dada movement seems more to the point. And that small works are portable and can be created in sketchbooks in the kind of cafes where bohemians hang out probably played a part as well.
For the most part, specialization and "professionalism" of the type seen in the New York art world where a poet such as Frank O'Hara might collaborate with a painter like Larry Rivers on a print or book project, but their disciplines would rarely overlapwere not highly prized in Venice West. Visual artists frequently wrote poems and poets often drew, painted in watercolors, or made collages in their notebooks.
Many of the works in this show are hybrids of the two forms dashed off in emulation of William Blake's illuminated manuscripts. Encouraged by each others' work, visual artists like Berman and George Herms and poets like Diane DiPrima and Robert Duncan all displayed a freewheeling artistic ambidextrousness. For others, the time and place itself was the catalyst for creativity.
As John Arthur Maynard points out in his book Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California, "A few people, like Wally Berman, were already artists before they settled in Venice, but most took up painting or drawing or writing poetry because it was what their friends were doing, and because they believed in the creative act as an end in itself....Anyone could be an artist, they told each other; it was a matter of belief, not talent or preparation."
Kristene McKenna puts the best possible spin on this democratic attitude in the catalog: "It was a world where art and poetry were created to be given as gifts and as an expression of love, rather than as a means to a career, and there was a respect accorded to poverty that's almost unimaginable today."
To their credit, the curators sifted assiduously through the ruins of this bohemian utopia, selecting works by artists such as Joan Brown, Bruce Connor, John Altoon, and others who went on to have impressive careers despite their respect for poverty; but also including if not just "anyone" who thought they could be artists enough marginally interesting work by lesser known local characters to provide us with a vivid picture of a subculture within a subculture.
To the latter category belong people like the spooky satanist Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel. A poet, painter and occult practitioner, Cameron, as she preferred to be known, advocated the sexual magick of Aleister Crowley and, working in a candlelit studio, painted fantastic, wraith-like female figures in a style whose surreal eroticism owes something to Leonor Fini. (It was a drawing by Cameron of a couple making love doggy-style, included among the Semina material in Berman's exhibition at Ferus Gallery, that raised the ire of the LAPD.)
Another arresting personality, although perhaps more of a dabbler in drawing and writing than an artist in any legitimate sense, was DiDi Morrill, a drug addict and former girlfriend of the jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who began hanging around the Beat scene as a teenager. Morrill's poem-manifesto, Dido, reads like a criminal resume ("Thief, fraud, coneducated by masters on the streettravelprison.... Adept with weapons, with no fear of violence...."), suggesting the scene's infatuation with a certain outlaw glamour and existential danger akin to the dark, Mansonoid flipside of Flower Power.
Genuinely gifted artists also fell victim to the drug scene in Venice. One was Ben Talbot, whose satirical collages and zany mixed media assemblages such as "Shrine of the Great American Weaner," were in a league with those of Ed Kienholz. Talbot participated in group exhibitions at Los Angeles' prestigious Dwan Gallery and had a solo show at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1961. But his alcohol and drug abuse accelerated over the next decade, after his once supportive wife left him, and he became yet another drug casualty in 1974.
Following Berman's lead, many who drifted into his orbit took up collage and photomontage as the most expedient mediums for direct, unschooled expression. Their overwrought efforts often resemble nothing so much as pages in the "trip books" in which itinerant hippies would record their drug experiences with intricate doodles and scrawled, disjointed texts.
Influenced by George Herms, one of the better known artists in this show, the collages of Bobby Driscoll, a former child actor who was washed up in films by the age of sixteen and dead of a drug overdose by thirty, belong to this genre. So do Stuart Perkoff's compositions made up of images clipped from 1950s girly magazines and superhero comic books, interspersed with cryptic snippets of newspaper text, although Perkoff was a local poet of some note and made it into Donald Allen's landmark anthology "The New American Poetry."
Other artists in Berman's circle, however, display a raw graphic wit that predates by decades the comicbook-derived drawings of the contemporary Los Angeles artist Richard Pettibon, who graduated from punk album covers and fanzine illustrations to major museum recognition. The poet painter Aya Tarlow, for example, created drawings in her "Beat Scrapbook" that employ linear elements akin to David Stone Martin's classic covers for fifties jazz albums. In the late sixties, Tarlow also made underground films with cameo appearances by musicians such as Donovan and Ringo Starr which were forbearers of the video collaborations between visual artists and punk-rock musicians that took place in the East Village in the 1980s.
It should come as no surprise that the actor Dennis Hopper, who has always been something of a hipster, hanging out with James Dean in the 'fifties and at Andy Warhol's Factory in the 'sixties, also made the scene in Venice. But who would have guessed that Billy Gray, best remembered as Bud, the clean-cut teenage son on TV sitcom Father Knows Best, had been a closet bedbug beatnik?
After meeting Wallace Berman and George Herms in 1961, Gray started working in stained glass, and when a pot bust a year later ended his Hollywood career, was free to devote himself to speedway motorcycle racing and creating artsy tchotkes such as "Untitled medallion (cross), Leaded stained glass, 1962."
Other Hollywood actors found their way to Berman's circle, less as slummers, it would seem, than as refugees from Tinseltown superficiality. Unlike some of the dabblers, Dean Stockwell, who starred in Compulsion and Russel Tamblyn, of West Side Story fame, both became committed artists, working in a similar vein of surreal photomontage. Stockwell continues to exhibit his own photomontages under the name of Robert Dean Stockwell, and Tamblyn says, "The death of my own father didn't affect me as much as Wallace's death did."
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That it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the art from the ephemera in this exhibition is not necessarily a drawback. Often, Berman himself didn't seem to make this distinction; yet, even his most casual photographs of his wife Shirley, which appear all throughout the exhibition, can hardly be called artless.
Shirley Berman was obviously her husband's muse. A slender beauty with a great bone structure and huge, kohl-encircled raccoon eyes, she appears able to assume a multitude of roles. For the cover of Semina 4, she is posed in close-up wearing a Little Girl Lost expression, suggesting a hipster parody of 1950s kitschmeister couple Walter and Margaret Keane's enormously popular paintings of big-eyed urchins the very antithesis of hip taste! The resemblance to the Keane waifs seems ironically underlined by the title Berman gave to this picture: "Wife."
In other photographs by her husband, Shirley Berman is illuminated by a shaft of sunlight that transforms her into a Botticelli jazz angel as she stands in front of a junkshop window with a hocked saxophone hovering above her head, or reclines nude, elongated as a Modigliani, on a small boat with the ankh symbol on its bow, embodying the male fantasy of a beatnik dream chick..
Other Venice artists, as well, were inspired by Shirley Berman's cool, intelligent beauty. Photographer and video pioneer Charles Brittin caught her with her electric pixie-cut (possibly a model for the frightwig of the young Bob Dylan) flared up like tips of flame, as she lent the simple act of purchasing a jelly apple from a stand on the Ocean Park Pier the enigmatic grace of a mannerist allegory. Another local photographer, Edmund Teske, created a memorable print by superimposing a mysterious image of Shirley with closed eyes over a shadowy double exposure of workmen demolishing his old grammar school, while artist's model and collageist Patricia Jordan merged her own photograph of Shirley Berman's regal profile with the Byzantine icons, Pre-Raphaelite nudes, and Egyptian goddesses in a collage scroll called "Golden Damsels Descending from the Clouds."
While she bore a more superficial resemblance to the later Warhol super star called Viva, Shirley Berman was on the level of Edie Sedgewick, the most charismatic beauty ever to emerge from the Factory, as the physical embodiment of an era. But unlike the starcrossed Edie, who succumbed to drugs and a too-much-too-soon lifestyle in the limelight, Shirley comes across as a domestic madonna (particularly in her husband's many photographs of her with their young son Tosh), serenely immune to the pitfalls of the surrounding scene. Yet, even without a Warholian media glare to enhance her aura, she had an innate ability to impart a fashion model elegance to the thriftshop castoffs with which every bohemian artist's wife was obliged to make do.
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Style-sponge that he was, Warhol may have picked up some pointers for his Factory entourage when he came to Los Angeles for his 1963 show at Ferus Gallery and met Berman and his circle. Certainly the big painting of electric chairs that Andy silkscreened the same year was influenced by the altered still of Barbara Stanwyck strapped into an electric chair, from the film "I Want to Live" that Berman ran on the cover of Semina 7 two years earlier.
Both artists employed grids of images, Warhol's silkscreened, Berman's Verifaxed. But while Warhol repeated likenesses of celebrities and the society types who commissioned his portraits, Berman multiplied symbols drawn from the Kabbalah decades before Judaic mysticism became trendy among movie stars and pop tarts like Madonna.
The compositions for which Berman is best known repeat several identical Verifax images of a hand-held transistor radio within the squares of a grid. Within the body of each radio is a different image appropriated from the mass media or drawn from the artist's own archives.
Michael Duncan sees these compositions as "a resonant metaphor for Berman's broader role as a transmitter of images and ideas that were metaphorically 'in the air.' " These and other images of a nude Shirley Berman, marijuana plants, snakes, and couples in erotic embrace, were often overlaid with Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, regarded by Kabbalists as "the spiritual root of all other letters."
That the Aleph became Berman's most prominent symbolpainted or photocopied on paper stained to look like papyrus, walls, rocks, and even motorcycle helmetscould be dismissed as an affectation not unlike the later hippie infatuation with the trappings of Eastern mysticism. But growing up in the Fairfax district (as close as L.A. came in the postwar years to having a Jewish ghetto like the Lower East Side, with Hebrew lettering on shop windows) had to imbue such symbols with deeper meaning for Berman a sensitive high school dropout, then still making ink drawings of jazz musicians that now strike me as remarkably similar to my own early efforts to delineate the hipster mystique.
Poet David Meltzer, a frequent contributor to Semina, suggests that, in Berman's Verifax collages, "the overwhelming banality of media imagery is held at bay" by the Kabbalistic power of this letter. And Stephen Fredman states just as credibly that the "obsessions of Berman's life his family, his friends, his devotion to jazz, his love of sexual display, his outrage at society as death-affirmingare all brought under the sway of the sacralizing function of Aleph."
Fredman does not seem to notice, however, how this "sacralizing" can take a more negative turn when aspects of drug addiction are naively equated with religious ritual, as in two photos by Berman in Semina 2, showing artist Robert Alexander shooting heroin, the tie around his forearm suggesting the "tefillin" that orthodox Jewish men wrap around their forearms for morning prayers, one of Berman's Aleph pieces visible over his shoulder.
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After his obscenity bust, while continuing to work on the Verifax collages for which he would eventually be best known, Berman concentrated much of his energy on Semina, producing nine issues between 1955 and 1964. Laboriously printed on a handpress in editions of only a few hundred, its pages of poems and artworks stuffed into envelopes unbound, Semina was closer to what we now call an artist's book (albeit in serial form) than a traditional literary journal. Indeed, that Stuart Perkoff, a beatnik coffeehouse bard at best for all his good luck in getting into the Allen anthology, is cited in the exhibition catalog as "the most accomplished poet associated with the 'Venice West' group" does not say much for the native writing talent that Berman had to draw upon. However, by soliciting contributions from San Francisco poets like Diane DiPrima, Michael McClure, and Robert Duncan, as well as world class bohemians like the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi (who lived in Venice briefly), and augmenting them with translationsof classic French texts by Baudelaire, Cocteau, and Artaud, Berman managed to give Semina a rich mix of literary content, bolstered visually by his own work and that of fellow artists like John Altoon and Bruce Connor, among many others.
These artists are now acknowledged as forerunners of hippie psychedelic art, funk and junk sculpture, new wave painting, graffiti, punk, and various neo-dada tendencies that would emerge in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Certainly Semina, with its loose-leaf format, was a precursor of "mail art"those odd scraps of images and text that Ray Johnson sent us in the mid sixties, which we wish we'd saved rather than glanced at and tossed in the trash. And with their privileging of visionary expression over formal innovation, many in Berman's circle can now be seen as progenitors of postmodernism. Directly or indirectly, their influence still filters down to inspire young artist-hipsters struggling to create bohemian utopias of their own.
Given the present cultural climate, however (in which a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine actually saw fit to headline a feature article about trendy downtown D.J.'s and party promoters "New Bohemians"), few are able to experiment or embrace poverty as freely as the laid-back Beats of Berman's time. Still, "Semina Culture" is an exhibition to be savored; for it presents a spirited counterweight to the forces of fashion, finance, and real estate that hold the art world hostage today.
Epilogue: One Arm Drawing,
One Writer Clapping
We came to own the picture on the wall opposite our bed, where I am writing this, because one freezing winter night a few years ago, as I escorted Jeannie home from a class she was taking at N.Y.U., we saw an arm sticking out of a pile of old blankets on the sidewalk outside the Grey Art Gallery. The pile of blankets was surrounded by one of those fortresses of shabby belongings that the homeless are given to constructing around themselves in this case a shopping cart filled with many rolls of paper most prominent among them.
As we came closer we could see that the hand at the end of the arm was holding a pencil and putting the finishing touches to an intricately detailed drawing of an owl on a large sheet of paper spread out on the pavement. The owl was perched on a gnarled, Asian-looking bough, and as I noticed this I also noticed that the artist, from what I could see of his face under the shadowy layers of blankets in which he was almost entirely cocooned, also appeared Asian. In fact, with his stringy white hair, sparse beard, and lined, weather-beaten face, he looked like one those literati artists who once lived as hermits amid the craggy mountain peaks of ancient China and Japan (most of whom, in today's Manhattan housing market, would be homeless, too).
He seemed oblivious to us as he went about his work, which he must have been at for some time before we arrived, judging from the detailed color pencil composition, with a crescent moon hanging in the sky above the owl's bough and every feather individually delineated. When he produced a red pencil from somewhere beneath the blankets and began to inscribe a symbol resembling the "chops," or seals, with which Asian artists sign their work, I knew that the picture was finished and asked him if I could buy it. When he nodded and I asked "How much?", he held up both of his hands, opening and closing his fingers twice. I gave him a twenty and he rolled the drawing up, put a rubber band around it, and handed it up to me. Then he disappeared back into his bundle of blankets like a turtle withdrawing into its shell, and we knew it was time for us to go.
I am looking at the picture now and marveling, as I always do, at the expression in the owl's eyes. They are the first thing you notice, but not in the way you notice the big, insipid eyes of the waifs in those Keane kitsch paintings or the creepy eyes on those plastic busts of Christ that seem to follow you around the room. My owl's eyes are startlingly soulful, as though the artist had put something of his own suffering into them. Of course, people in my line of work are not supposed to talk like this: as if such a mystical transference were possible. We're supposed to know better or at least pretend that we do. One could even think that I'm projecting this haunting quality into the picture because of what I know about the artist (who I look for every time I'm around N.Y.U., by the way, but have never seen again); but I don't think so. I think that homeless literati hermit captured something extraordinary in the picture on my wallsomething you don't see in a lot of the art hanging in galleries these days.
It's beyond bohemian; it's art for art's sake. And I suspect that Wallace Berman would have dug it, too.
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- Ed McCormack