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September 17 - November 26, 2005 at Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica,
and September 9 - November 13, 2005 at the Skirball Cultural Center, West Los Angeles

by Margarita Nieto

Wallace Berman with various contributos,
copies of Semina (editions 1-9), 1955-64.

Wallace Berman, Untitled,
verifax collage, 1956.
From 1955 to 1964 Los Angeles based artist Wallace Berman (1926-1976) privately made and published nine issues of “Semina,” a loose leaf journal/scrapbook of contributions by friends and associates, artists then at the forefront of the cultural experimentation that occurred on the West Coast. Making verifax limited copies of works by contributors and collaborators, Berman distributed “Semina” to those within his collaborative circle. Based on those nine issues, co-curators Kristine McKenna and Michael Duncan have conceived an exhibition, much of which consists of previously unexhibited works drawn from this journal which illustrate and document Berman’s enormous influence on the aesthetics of his generation and beyond.

This circle represents what is commonly referred to as the Beat generation, a modification of the word beatific, the term of preference among the groups of poets, writers and artists themselves. It was a cultural phenomenon that signified a rejection of middle class material conformity, complacency and anti-intellectualism. World travelers, readers, polyglots--in a word, intellectuals--these artists sought to counter that world through an all-encompassing philosophical, mythological review and revival in and through art and word. Like their model/precursors, among them the French Symbolists, Surrealists and Dadaists, they broke with the established constraints of medium and genre, experimenting with interpolations of word and image, fusing jazz and poetry, dance and ritual, inscribing words in two-dimensional works (lettrisme). Via Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenellosa, Li Po and Zen, they embraced the essential word/image sign, the Chinese character, occult ciphers, Native American signs, the Cabala, Mandalas and objects from the natural world.

In his brief and intense life Berman embodied this relentless pursuit of the yet unsaid and the unscribed. In 1957 his first and only public exhibition, at Ferus Gallery, was shut down by the LAPD and Berman was arrested for displaying what was then regarded as “pornography.” Following the indignities to which he was subjected, he withdrew from the public art arena completely. Berman abandoned Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco, returning in 1963 to Topanga Canyon where he lived and worked until his death. Even now, his persona remains elusive and mysterious: there are no Wallace Berman papers, archives or notes for posthumous reinvention. His persona instead, lies solely in his artworks, on the originality of his verifax collages, his contributions to the assemblage aesthetic as evidenced in a self-portrait from “Semina”--a landscape dominated by a tower and two frolicking dogs--and in the energy and effort he poured into this project.

Patricia Jordan, "Golden Nymphs
Descending from the Clouds".

Kirby Doyle, "Happiness Bastard".

The title, Semina, is Latin for “seed,” a marker/signifier for Berman, who also utilized the Hebrew Aleph character--i.e. “beginning/origin”--in his works. Wrapped in unusual enclosures and bindings, these “journals” also included Berman’s own work published under the pseudonym, “Pantale Xantos,” the surname perhaps serving as a veiled reference to the state of beatification achieved by the artist by making art. Utilizing what were then experimental combinations of photography and verifax, the covers themselves reflect not only the process of combining images and words via the verifax process, but the selection of the images. The covers reflect not only the process of combining images and words via the verifax process, but also the image selection process itself. “Number 3,” for example, juxtaposes two round objects that evoke the peyote mushroom, and bears the caption “Peyote Poem,” insinuating that the poem itself is embodied in the image. “Semina VI” replicates the same shapes, which now number five, each inscribed with fragmentary images as if the peyote shape had borne fruit.

Ben Talbert, "Shrine of the Great
American Weaner," 1962-63, mixed media.

George Herms, "Nativity".
The range of styles, concepts and ideas that emerge from this journal reflect the fertile and rebellious imagination not only of the collaborators, but through their context, of Berman himself. Sexual references abound, as in Ben Talbert’s “Shrine of the Great American Weaner” (1962-63, table, clock case, antlers, baby pacifier, fur, oil), a double irony on weaning, dependency and maleness. George Hermes’ “Nativity,” a throne/female image inscribed with the word “LOVE” as well as with fragments of photo references to personal or family history, is likewise charged with a mysterious sexuality. In contrast, Patricia Jordan’s dreamy “Golden Nymphs Descending from the Clouds” (1962, collage embroidery, feathers, ink, photographs on linen) is an exquisite recapitulation of a Chinese or Hindu scroll: the nymphs reiterate the images of nymphs from elsewhere and everywhere. Kirby Doyle’s “Happiness Bastard” (1967, typed manuscript) silences and objectifies the functional readability of the paper, transforming it into an object/scroll. Graffiti-like scribbles cover Robert Duncan’s “Faust Foutu” (1952, wax crayon with collage on wrapping paper), a figure reminiscent of Picasso.

These examples of the “seeds” of rebellion that Berman chose to include in his journal are poignant reminders of the legacy of that time, of those artists and of the courage and creative urgency that led them to revise, review, flaunt and question the complacent status quo. Paradigms perhaps for our moment as well.