Kohn Gallery recently staged “American Aleph,” a retrospective of the influential West Coast artist Wallace Berman (1926–1976). Mostly self-taught, Berman fueled his output with improvisation and irreverent DIY methods. The show opened with early collages and drawings of jazz musicians, which reflect the artist’s interest in Surrealism and his boyhood love for comics (Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were two favorites). The subsequent semi-chronological tour presented his interdisciplinary reach into publishing, assemblage, collage, photography, film, and sculpture, ending with late works in which he inscribed rocks with Hebrew text. Much like Warhol, Berman pursued cheap modes of reproduction and embraced seriality, displaying a concern for the means by which messages are distributed. But where Warhol’s production leaned sterile and cold, Berman’s work was often characterized by a rugged bohemianism and explicit religious symbolism.
Such is the case with Semina (1955–64), Berman’s art and poetry proto-zine, produced in small editions as gifts for friends and like-minded artists. William S. Burroughs, John Wieners, and Allen Ginsberg are just a few of the Beats and misfits who contributed to Semina before they were well known. Two tables in the exhibition displayed the individual pages of the nine issues, each sheet exquisitely handcrafted to exalt the written word as a sacred scroll would. Berman’s aestheticization of writing had roots in the Kabbalah, the arcane mystical practice that decodes Hebrew religious texts to provide a path to spiritual fulfillment. Berman was particularly interested in the aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet.
The letter appeared in several works in the show, including the artist’s only film, Aleph (1966), which was titled posthumously by his son. Berman treated this work as a sort of notebook, splicing found photos and magazine images into black-and-white 8mm footage that he shot around California. The eight-minute silent film captures the chaotic texture of the era—showing, for instance, a syringe plunged into an arm, a modish woman dancing, a boyish Mick Jagger fervidly singing, skydivers in freefall, Pope John XXIII in a gestatorial chair—in grainy footage scrambled by colored paint applied directly to the celluloid. Berman never intended the film to be shown to a large audience, usually projecting it on his refrigerator for one friend at a time. Wild and stunning, Aleph creates a physical sensation of time’s rush forward.
The exhibition also featured a number of collages made with a Verifax copier, a precursor to the Xerox machine. In such works, Berman frequently reproduced an image of a hand holding a transistor radio, which he had taken from a Sony advertisement. He treated the radio in the picture as a frame, replacing its speaker with other found images, whose subjects—machines, nuns, guns, athletes, celebrities—appear as symbols of deeper significance. In some of these works, he presented a single iteration of the radio motif, but in many he arranged multiple instances in grids. Berman began making the Verifax collages in 1964, when the technology was already outmoded. Yet today these works feel contemporary, the grids resembling the matrices yielded by a keyword search in Google Images. The radio was central to Berman’s fascination with telecommunication ever since he worked as a sonar technician in the Navy. He perceived the machine’s unseen channels as a means of connectivity through which esoteric codes were transmitted. As an attempt to disseminate visual messages from society at large, Berman’s striking Verifax works reveal an eerily prescient vision for a future hooked to the World Wide Web.