Spring 2001

Smoke and glue

The visual candour of Wallace Berman’s hand-bound Semina magazine links 1950s hipster art with contemporary graphics

If Wallace Berman is remembered today, it is most likely as one of the faces on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, rather than as the significant figure in the Californian art scene of the late 1950s and ’60s he undoubtedly was. You can see him on the Pepper sleeve, wedged between the Hollywood cool of Tony Curtis and the flat-cap Englishness of comedian Tommy Handley.

The majority of the faces on the Sgt. Pepper cover owe their presence to suggestions and recommendations by The Beatles and Peter Blake (see Eye no. 35 vol. 9). But according to George Martin, Berman owes his inclusion to the art dealer Robert Fraser, the man who persuaded the Beatles to employ Blake and his then wife Jan Haworth to design the famous cover, and who acted as a sort of unofficial art director to the project. ‘Fraser put in lots of West Coast painters and people who had exhibited at his gallery’, George Martin notes in his book about the making of The Beatles’ magnum opus. (Paul McCartney, interviewed in Groovy Bob, The Life and Times of Robert Fraser, a recent biography of this quintessentially 1960s figure, corroborates Martin’s surmise.)

Berman had indeed exhibited at Fraser’s celebrated Mayfair Gallery, a year before the creation of the Pepper sleeve. He was one of eight artists featured in the 1966 exhibition ‘Los Angles Now’. Dennis Hopper (a photographer as well as maverick actor and film director) was another of the show’s participants, and it was Hopper who introduced Fraser to Berman’s work. Hopper has remained a life-long supporter and collector of Berman’s art.

But Berman had beaten The Beatles to the draw. He had already incorporated a picture of them into one of his idiosyncratic ‘Verifax’ collages. The Verifax was an early photocopier, and Berman used it to create highly mechanistic, serial collages into which he dropped photographs and illustrations charting the cultural flux of American life. In one of his pieces he used a shot of the Beatles in their pre-Pepper mop-top glory (Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon was another subject). Reminiscent of the way Peter Blake would subsequently use images torn from magazines of Elvis and the Everly Brothers, it’s not difficult to see how Blake might have been sympathetic towards including Berman’s mug-shot in his tableaux.

Berman was born in New York in 1926, and emerged as an artist in 1940s LA, where he inhabited a James Ellroy world of jazz clubs and hipster nightlife. His earliest existing works are a series of pencil drawings showing jazz musicians floating in a world of hypodermic syringes and sub-Freudian sexuality. In this period Berman was to produce a cover illustration – an indifferent black and white Beardsley-esque sketch – for a Bebop compilation on the famous Dial label. As with so many other young American artists, poets and writers of the post war years, it was jazz that was to provide Berman with a conduit to the realisation of a personal artistic voice.

By the mid-1950s, Berman had emerged as a potent force in the Californian art scene. He announced his arrival in 1957, with an infamous one-man show at the Ferus Gallery in LA. This was to be Berman’s only solo exhibition and it ended in a farcical obscenity prosecution after the LA Vice Squad raided the gallery and found a fragment of Semina no. 1 which contained a drawing depicting copulation. Berman was found guilty at a juryless trial, and afterwards, appalled by the injustice of his prosecution, he retreated into more personal and intimate modes of expression.

One of the vehicles he used to explore his aesthetic preoccupations was his own magazine. As early as 1955, Berman was creating home-made editions of Semina which, as editor, designer and publisher, he filled with his imaginative ruminations. Hand-bound and each one different, Berman used a small manual press to generate pages of poetry and prose. He also included photographs and other pictorial and graphic ephemera. Between 1955 and 1964, Berman created nine issues of Semina, in editions of up to 200 copies. Only seven complete original Semina sets are known to have survived.

Variously described as ‘a mail art scrapbook’, ‘a poetry magazine’ and ‘a loose-leaf collage’, it wasn’t possible to buy Semina; it was only available to friends and colleagues to whom Berman chose to send it. But those who received copies recognised them as powerful statements of Berman’s aesthetic sensibility. One grateful recipient, the poet Michael McClure, noted: ‘It’s the ultimate precious object. It’s valueless. It gives a gift to the imagination … through the physical texture of twine, board and papers, and it has the smell of glue and Wallace’s pot smoke on it.’

Berman also used his magazine as a platform to disseminate the work of many important poets of the time, including Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia and McClure. He included his own poetry (written under the name Pantale Xantos) and he was an early promoter of the works of writers such as Hermann Hesse, William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski.

For a contemporary audience – especially that for graphic design – there is much to admire in Berman’s work. Often seen as a link between The Beat Movement and Pop Art, Berman also bridges the gap between the world of art in the early dawn of the high-tech age and the present-day world of visual culture. His use of letterforms as individual aesthetic statements is a preoccupation shared with many prominent fine artists and any number of graphic designers. His work was to presage important developments such as Fluxus and Conceptual Art, and his influence was to be seen in the underground press of the late 1960s and early 1970s (see Eye no. 36 vol. 9).

Towards the end of his life Berman moved away from ‘official art’ towards graphic design. He designed jackets for the books of his poet friends, and posters for plays, exhibitions and local community issues. He had a strong affection for boxing posters, admiring their directness and lack of frills. And it’s this same visual candour – a sort of unselfconscious purity – found in all Berman’s work, but perhaps especially in Semina, that marks him out as a supremely modern creative figure.

Wallace Berman died in 1976, age 50, in a car accident near his home.

Special thanks for help with this article to: Tosh Berman, Linda Simon in LA and Elizabeth East at LA Louver Gallery, Venice, California.

Adrian Shaughnessy, director, Intro, author of Sampler and Sampler 2, London

First published in Eye no. 39 vol. 10, 2001

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