This Day in Jewish History / Beat Artist Wallace Berman Dies

The 'father of assemblage art' was a seminal figure in postwar California culture.

On February 18, 1976 the Beat visual artist Wallace Berman died, 50 years to the day after he was born, on February 18, 1926. Berman had a small but loyal coterie of friends and collaborators during his lifetime, and recognition for both his work and his personal style has grown steadily since his death.

Wallace Berman was born on Staten Island, New York, to Russian-Jewish parents. When he was nine, the family moved to Los Angeles, living in the predominantly Jewish enclaves of Boyle Heights and Fairfax. Berman was expelled from high school for gambling on the premises and never graduated, and although he attended two art schools briefly he never earned a degree.

Berman began making wooden sculptures with scraps that he picked up in a furniture factory where he worked for several years, beginning in 1949. Within a few years, he was creating art full-time, most of it assemblages and collages from found materials.

In 1955, Berman began producing Semina, a hand-printed magazine published annually until 1964 and mailed out or delivered personally to at most several hundred readers, most of them friends of the artist. Berman loved surrealist poetry, and his desire to publish writers such as Jean Cocteau, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, as well as newer figures, was a significant motivating factor behind Semina.

Berman’s first and only solo show of his own work during his lifetime was in 1957, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibition was shut down prematurely when police received an anonymous tip that obscene material was on display; when they arrived, they found, not on the wall but in a pile on the floor, an erotic drawing of a couple engaged in sex, by the artist Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel, a friend. Berman was arrested and had to pay a $150 fine.

That experience was so disturbing to Berman that he moved to San Francisco for several years. He returned to Los Angeles in 1963 with his family. They settled in Topanga Canyon, which was beginning to draw artists and counterculture types (as well as the mass murderer Charles Manson). He was known for his support and encouragement of other artists, and had a large following of loyal friends.

In 1968, Berman had a bit part – as a seed sower on the commune visited by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s characters – in the film “Easy Rider.” Another type of immortality came with Berman’s inclusion by artists Jann Haworth and Peter Blake among the images on the cover of the 1967 Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” (Berman is in the second row down, just to the right of Tony Curtis and directly above John Lennon.)

In his later years, Berman developed an interest in kabbala and began incorporating Hebrew letters into his art. He admitted that he couldn’t read Hebrew, but said he “liked the decorative form of the lettering and the moods that the shapes evoked” (as cited by Matthew Baigell in his book “American Artists, Jewish Images). Berman’s eight-minute film “Aleph” (1956-66), which mixed Hebrew letters with a montage of Verifax copies of mass-media pictures and an image of a transistor radio, is still shown. When the Jewish Museum in New York screened “Aleph” in 2005, it said the transistor radio “exemplifies the democratic potential of electronic culture and serves as a metaphor for Jewish mysticism.”

As a boy, Berman reportedly told his mother he expected to die on his 50th birthday. And on February 18, 1976 he died after being hit by a drunk driver.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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