On Wallace Berman


meltzer-wallace berman untitled 1976

Wallace Berman, untitled (1976)

Words in images, images in words, the play of visual and verbal possibilities, ways of reading and seeing Berman’s communiques, his poems and paradoxes of everyday mystery and quotidian hermeticism embedded everywhere. Part of his sensibility was ocular: as an urban operator, he scanned continuously unrolling text, decoding and re-coding constantly, appropriating messages within images, the image a surface concealing clues to larger and shifting meanings. He delighted in the play of meaning, its instability and precariousness. Ocular and occult.

He wasn’t one to talk about what he was doing, what it meant, its purpose. He didn’t like theorizing. I remember his retreat into uncomfortable silence when I once tried to get him to declare his intentions as an artist. (We were at the bar in Vesuvio’s, drinking beer.) Yet here I am on the page, “reading” his work, attempting my version, piecing together fragments of generality, interpreting and filling-in his silences. 

Berman chose to live on the margins; the scale suited him, allowed him mobility. He was a young artist in the post-war reformation of American culture, during the rapid-fire suburbanization of middle-class life into a dominating (and sinister) neutrality, metastasizing lethally square sit-com archetype nuclear (literally and metaphorically) families, following the scenario to “security” and “normalcy.” Fear and abundance drove the flight from two equilibrium-shattering facts: the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb.

Much of his art and teaching depended not only on faith but on misdirection and deflection. Baza—the late poet-artist Alexander—described the sacral way Wallace gave somebody a book to read. No explanation; it was enough that he’d divined something in it for you to discover. If he said anything it might be something like, “This is cool” or “This is strange.” Baza noted: “He was very literate, very knowledgeable. He could read half a dozen books, and find one worthy of recommending to you. You could never catch him at it. He was swallowing those books. You know: take two books every three hours with a glass of water and it all comes spewing out.” Berman’s indirect instruction made the book immediately iconic. Reading the book became a ritual event to release (and realize) the buried mysteries of the text.

The closest to a direct philosophy or theory of practice articulated by Wallace was “Art Is Love Is God” and the “personal,” with axial and flexible appellations like “strange” (or “surreal”) and “cool.” In a sense his use of language like its appearance in his images was a demand to be “read” like a paradox or riddle or symbol; enigmatic loops that when momentarily solved, spool out into new possibilities. To read and perceive, to know, became a thick, textured, layered action released by words and signs both mysterious and available. Certainly “Art is Love is God” can be rotated easily for renewable and renewing meanings.

Perhaps, in retrospective, what Wallace obliquely taught me was the mystery of reading. I read the novels, poetry collections, occult books, art books, Wallace gave me like I later found out kabbalists enacted their rite of reading, grounded in the faith of discovery. Intuitional, improvisational, flexible and in continual flux; allowing a word or phrase to bridge out and into a lit-up network of connections and associations. A heady moment-to-moment activity whose finale often came in an exhale of astonishment. The hipster exhale—phew!—spoke volumes and was, in effect, a universe compacted into a breath; a phonetic overtone of inexplicable and deeply illuminative insight.

Any book he gave me was encased in an aura of possibility, whether the New Directions Apollinaire anthology or Wallace Fowlie’s collection of modern French poetry, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, anything by Cocteau, or the Robert Motherwell anthology of Dada writing that became a central text in the Berman circle. For an artist so shaped by American popular arts, most specifically the street-wise utopia of jazz, Berman looked to Europe for clues and directions. In fact, so many of the works he shared with me were created in Europe during the birth of modernism, the pre- and post-World War I poets, writers, artists, filmmakers—the Europe of Dada, Surrealism, romantic occultism, collage, montage, stream-of-consciousness. So much of the new work, whether in film-making, music, or experimental writing consciously or through osmosis reflected earlier revolutionary stances imported from Europe; the American art holding much of it together was jazz, a common bond not only to the music but with the culture of struggle and estrangement it expressed and resisted.

Alexander, on first meeting Berman in 1945, both in their early twenties, said years later to Sandra Leonard Starr: “[The atom bomb] was the final touch in terms of human misery, devastation, and destruction in a world that had just seen the ugliest war in the history of mankind . . . [Some] people were lucky enough to come out of it with their skins intact, their minds almost intact, and their emotions pretty well ripped up. I know mine were, and I know Wally had his private hell about the whole deal. We were sustained by the literature of people whose history is a lot older, who endured much more than we did on a continuing basis, who were more at ease with their passion in describing their feelings about hard times, the pain and the suffering of being a creative, sensitive person living in a society while at the same time isolated from that society by virtues of your feelings about the status quo. In our case, the French poets, [and later] the Surrealists and Dada, gave us continuity at a time when, without that body of stuff plus our own jazz and blues, I don’t think any of us would have made it . . . Wally and I probably both had our lives saved by jazz. [We identified with the world of jazz and blacks], the pain, the roots. We shared persecution.” [Lost and Found in California: Four Decades of Assemblage Art, 1988.]

This reminiscence of Alexander touches on key facets of their shared context: young Jewish outsiders, further exiled by their identification with non-conventional arts and the black cultural milieu of post-war L.A. Sharing persecution—as artists, Jews, hipsters, non-conformists, as friends of black jazz musicians—heightened their sense of art as a resistant and redemptive practice, reinforced by a belief in the counter-myths of the Artist as savior, disruptor, awakener; artist as synonymous with prophet, truth-sayer. Bound by birth to an earlier book-centered tradition, they took the immediate world as their iconic text and, through their art and lives, were often consciously aware of an unarticulated imperative to sacralize and somehow repair the broken post-war world. One could say (whether or not they would say it) that their relation to art was comparable to the kabbalistic concept of tikkun.

Isaac Luria, the Ari, the Lion, 16th-century kabbalist, expounded a compelling new mythology to the Jews of the Diaspora: in the time before the time of the Creation, He-She-It/YHVH, concentrates itself into a line, an empty space within which it becomes possible for the world to unfold. The basis of the world is “Ain Sof”, the Limitless, entering into existence through the medium of pure Light. The Sefiroth, the Vessels, the spheres constituting the fruit of the Tree of Life, shatter, unable to endure or contain the divine substance. Through the breaking of the Vessels, evil and a state of chaos are produced. The Lurianic teaching redirects the primordial creation back to the human who must perfect the soul, the community, to improve all worlds. To be aware that sparks from the shattered vessels landed everywhere and could be in anything or anyone. The human task was to find all the fragments, mend them, return them to the moment before Creation.

The hipster culture invested attention and devotion to reception, to “digging,” to appropriating the most mundane object, the most vilified or rejected artifact, and restoring it to a primary glory. To “dig” was to unearth, to not only appreciate but to understand deeply the texture of meanings emanating from an object or subject; it was, as well, to probe beyond appearance, to make direct contact with an informing essence. It was a hybrid kind of anti-materialism or counter-materialism, privileging the continuously-new beauty of a particular stone or a time-deformed mass-produced object found in the gutter in the same way it embraced Cocteau’s Orphée or Vivaldi. The culture of aliens and strangers worked against the normalizing and increasingly repressive status quo. Instead of seeking the permissible it found the transgressive. Berman was interested in the visual and erotic content of the sado-masochistic images of the period, the so-called “classic” texts illustrated in vaguely stylish comicbook panels and in fetish photos of bondage, leather, rubber, etc.; the forbidden hidden chasms of pornographic images occupied the same file of forms and symbols as newspaper images of boxing and baseball. In millennial spirit, turning the world upside-down, it was redemptive to affirm the illicit, to iconize the fallen and lionize the lowly. As I remember it, Wallace never defined himself in any specific way other than being an artist and, conversely, assigned that name to others as the highest form of praise.

“Personal” was a keyword used variously but I’d like to address it as an operating principle of behavior for Berman in his relation to the concept of exhibition. His first gallery exhibit was at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1957. The Ferus, run by Ed Keinholz and Walter Hopps (with advisory input from Robert Alexander), was the first and perhaps only comfortable space and gallery relationship that had the proper personal (and somewhat familial) meaning to Berman. From then on, for the most part, Berman avoided affiliating with any professional gallery, instead set up “one-shot” (and usually one day only) exhibits at either his home or in a community center; or, when necessary, selling work through a network of people he knew, invariably managing to “place” his work with people he knew cared for him and his work on a “personal” level. His autonomy and marginality became an asset, enabling him to move effectively in and out of circles that would otherwise entrap. Wallace was a disingenuous trickster, a virtuoso gambler who turned all competitions into mythic events. He was impossible to “beat” whether playing pool, ping pong, cards, or any of the down-side games of chance often associated with the working-class or poor. These games are, as all games, possible sites for more than just chance or luck are, within any cultural frame-work, invested with deeply held meanings of possibility and redemptive ascent. Besides skill and dexterity, the “winner” works out of a complex bag of tricks, risks, improvisations, and intuitional magics that combine to create an often timeless encounter which can be “read” in a multiplicity of primary ways.


Wallace Berman and a friend.

But the Aleph. “Aleph, Aleph, the Lord said unto her . . . Though begin the world with the Beth (first letter of the word Bereshith, in-beginning, the first word of Genesis), thou will always be the first of my Letters. My unity will be expressed in thee. On thee shall be based all the calculations and operations of the world.” [Zohar, I, 3b.] Aleph, first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the number One. While the Zohar calls Aleph “her,” its shape represents a gelded Ox, the animal used to plow and harvest. The Hebrew alphabet moves through the majority of Berman’s art, but the Aleph dominates. As the Book created the People, the Aleph is the first of Twenty-Two Letters taken to be instrumental figures of Creation. In his collages, Verifaxes, drawings, the Aleph is invariably present sometimes the center, the core, that other images either move towards or are, in a sense, blessed by. Images of bombs, newspaper photos of gangsters, strippers, moviestars, rock ‘n’ roll divinities, athletes, priests, snakes, bullet smashed corpses, blurred pornograms, guns, psychotropic mushrooms, naked female torsos, black jazz maestros, cowled magi, grainy over-painted hookers, Buddhas, crucifixes, engines, sigals and other grimoire emblems, all and more partial, fragmentary, everyday newspaper reality, TV constructed quotidian uroboric mythologems, blessed or crowned or witnessed or inscribed with Aleph. The wandering Aleph, the sign of the Jew, of that which remains from that which was erased in the Holocaust, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, the Letter, the Aleph, integrating and integral, sacralizing the everyday phantasmagoria, turning all into Aleph and Aleph into all. The everyday becomes eternal and the eternal everyday. Scattered and shattered sparks and husks are included under Aleph’s gaze, are spoken for, are taken up and are repaired, remade into paradoxes of ascent and descent the reader, Aleph, continuously interprets and reinterprets, endlessly combining and recombining, in hopes of the end of time and the beginning of Light’s acceptance and containment within the vessels of all possible paradigms of Paradise.

DAVID MELTZER's forthcoming book is Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook; revised and enlarged edition (City Lights, 2014).

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