Out of Sight: The Los Angeles Art Scene of the Sixties
by William Hackman
(available now; reprinted by permission of Other Press)
The following is the fourth chapter (Obscure Objects of Desire) of Out of Sight, a social and cultural history of Los Angeles and its emerging art scene in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s
The history of modern art typically begins in Paris and ends in New York. Los Angeles was out of sight and out of mind, viewed as the apotheosis of popular culture, not a center for serious art.
Out of Sight chronicles the rapid-fire rise, fall, and rebirth of L.A.’s art scene, from the emergence of a small bohemian community in the 1950s to the founding of the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1980. Included are some of the most influential artists of our time: painters Edward Ruscha and Vija Celmins, sculptors Ed Kienholz and Ken Price, and many others.
A book about the city as much as it is about the art, Out of Sight is a social and cultural history that illuminates the ways mid-century Los Angeles shaped its emerging art scene—and how that art scene helped remake the city.
OBSCURE OBJECTS OF DESIRE
SOMEBODY CALLED THE COPS. Exactly who is anybody’s guess: an anonymous complaint, they said. And so, on this otherwise fine mid-week afternoon in June 1957, two plainclothesmen from the local vice squad appeared in the doorway of the newly renovated, barnlike building at 736A La Cienega Boulevard — an odd, unfamiliar place set back behind an antique shop along the unincorporated commercial strip between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue. They had come on the lookout for something recognizably obscene; what they found inside the Ferus Gallery wasn’t recognizably, well, anything. In the entryway were a dozen stained, antique-looking parchments bearing Hebrew lettering. Standing apart from one another in the main gallery were a hooded figure inside a tumbledown construction about the size and shape of a phone booth; an indeterminate piece of furniture covered with photographs and foreign phrases; and a cross large enough to hang behind the altar of a village church. All appeared culled from the junk heap. The cops had never seen anything like it. “What’s this, an art show?” one of them demanded. “Where’s the art?”
Wallace Berman’s exhibition at Ferus, his first and last in a Los Angeles gallery, lasted less than a week and landed him in jail. Seen by few other than the opening-night revelers, it has enjoyed an afterlife of some renown in the half century since. If not for his friendship with Edward Kienholz and Walter Hopps and his enthusiasm for Ferus — Berman hand-printed the preopening announcements — it is doubtful that Berman would have bothered with the exhibition. “He didn’t care if he ever showed,” said his wife, Shirley. The art market was anathema to him, as was art-world hype. Besides, not many dealers would have been eager to represent an artist who regularly gave away his work to friends and admirers. He was content with his job as a furniture finisher and with making art for the few he thought would appreciate it. “Why interview me?” Berman asked when a New York Times reporter approached him at his 1967 exhibition at the Jewish Museum. “I really don’t make this scene.” Yet Berman’s influence was widespread, and not only within the assemblage movement with which he was most identified. Many of L.A.’s pop and conceptual artists of the sixties and seventies also acknowledged their debt to him.
Berman’s talents were evident in early adolescence: Expelled from Fairfax High School for gambling, he enrolled in art school in the mid-forties. But the academic environment provided too plodding a pace. “He went through figure and life drawing in about twenty minutes and had painted himself into a white canvas,” recalled Robert Alexander, alluding to a white-on-white painting Berman had executed near the end of his art-school days. “I loved it,” Alexander said of the work, “but he felt that was the end of his painting. He’d sort of done it all. He had tried everything and nothing grabbed him.” A protean artist, Berman moved comfortably through a range of media, from drawing and painting to collage, photography, and film. And though bored with painting, he continued to draw, producing portraits of musicians and other scenes from the world he had become a part of. His drawings graced the covers of jazz albums; lithographs of his works were sold through record stores and magazines.
Street-smart and possessed of a disarming wit, Berman developed a reputation in the late forties and early fifties as a hipster, a habitué of the city’s jazz clubs by night and by day of the pool halls where he supported himself hustling eight ball. (“Give me a hustler over an intellectual any day,” Kienholz said, referring to Berman.) The first time Hopps saw Berman, in a darkened nightclub, he was spellbound by “a stunning presence.” Hopps recalled Berman’s “young, hawk-face intensity, straight ahead stare, super cool, zoot suit type attire topped by brush cut hair straight up.” “Who was that?” Hopps asked of no one in particular. “That’s Wally Berman,” spoke a voice from a nearby table, as if there were nothing more to say.
By the time Hopps and Berman actually met a few years later, the erstwhile hipster and hustler was already at the center of a widening circle of friends, acquaintances, and correspondents that included artists, poets, actors, musicians, and other kindred spirits. “Wallace opened a very different sort of future from any I’d imagined in 1953,” Hopps said. Friends would show up, in ones or twos, at the Bermans’ tottering, two-room habitat on Crater Lane in Beverly Glen, a rustic canyon carved into the hills west of Hollywood. It was little more than “a shack on stilts in buckets of cement,” said Shirley Berman. The rickety, wood-frame structure was eventually washed away in a diluvial downpour, but for a period, recalled a bemused Shirley Berman, “we had an absolutely open house, the ‘Hotel Berman.’ People were sleeping on the floor, people that we didn’t know showing up at our door [asking] ‘Can I come in?’ ” The Berman residence was “a place where art and poetry and music were celebrated as daily ritual,” recalled assemblage artist George Herms. “Wallace had his hand press in the front room, the View magazines with the Cornell [reproductions] in them, The Dada Painters and Poets book [by Robert Motherwell]. Whatever he was interested in was yours.” Another regular was the photographer Charles Brittin, who helped Berman master the art of photography with a camera given to the artist by actor Dean Stockwell. “You’d listen to some music and you’d smoke some pot and talk and look at things,” Brittin explained. “There were books, pictures, art books, clippings from newspapers.” He and others would “bring little collages, drawings, odds and ends, and leave them.” It was, Brittin said, “almost like a token, an offering.” Alexander summed it up best: “That little house on Crater Lane was just heaven for a lot of us.”
Berman’s community, and its gift economy, reached well beyond the confines of the house on Crater Lane. He would mail photographs, drawings, and collages to those who weren’t in the immediate vicinity (and even to those who were). And in 1955, he produced his first edition of Semina, a publication that was in itself a work of assemblage: a combination of verbal and visual elements culled from diverse sources and disseminated to an expanding universe of friends and fellow artists. (Early editions comprised about a hundred and fifty copies; later the number would increase to as many as three hundred and fifty.) And though he contributed his own poems, drawings, photographs, and collages, and personally printed the text on a hand press, it is fair to say that Berman’s most important role in producing Semina was in forging a collective voice. “From the first,” the poet Robert Duncan observed, “the intent of Semina was not a choice of poems and art works to exercise the editor’s discrimination and aesthetic judgment, but the fashioning of a context.” It was a collective work of art, through which a community spoke to itself. And within that community, the creative self came into being through its relationship to others. Comparing this community’s collective vision to that of Romanticism, Duncan explained that “we began to see ourselves fashioning unnamed contexts, contexts of a new way of life in the making, a secret mission.”
THE FREESTANDING OBJECTS IN THE FERUS SHOW reflected Berman’s skills as a furniture finisher — he used wood scraps and other nearby materials to make small, playful sculptures — as well as his personal motto: “Art Is Love Is God.” There was, first of all, the Cross, a towering cruciform of wooden beams or railroad ties that had been burned and cut in various places, standing some seven feet high and mounted on a crate. Hanging by a chain from the right side of the horizontal beam was a small box frame containing a photograph — a tightly cropped shot of male and female genitalia interlocked in sexual congress — and the Latin phrase Factum Fidei (“act of faith”) was painted on the frame’s glass. The decrepit shrine or sanctuary containing the robed and hooded figure was titled Temple. It was composed of wooden slats and boards on all but one side, which was open to the viewer. The life-size, monk-like figure stood with his back to the viewer, a large key hanging from his neck. Scattered at his feet were poems, photographs, and drawings — pages from the handmade first issue of Semina. The final piece, Panel, was an amalgam of elements that Berman had accumulated and slowly pieced together over several years: little wooden knobs, drawings, fragments of Hebrew writing, and, front and center, a photograph of Shirley Berman.
Astonishingly, in making their confused sweep of the gallery, the cops somehow managed to miss the image that triggered the original complaint: the pornographic photograph hanging from the cross, which could not have been more explicit. Overlooking that photograph, but apparently eager to make a bust, they sifted through the pages from Semina on the floor of the Temple and selected a drawing. Executed in a spindly pen-and-ink that seems two parts Aubrey Beardsley and one part Flash Gordon, the drawing in question was, though less explicit than the photograph on the Cross, nonetheless emphatic in its eroticism. Again a couple appear sexually entangled: the male figure kneels behind the female, who crouches catlike on her hands and knees, her head raised, as if in ecstasy; a serpent’s tongue hisses from her mouth. Her companion’s flesh seems to have been peeled away, revealing a sinuous ribbon of blood vessels and muscle tissue (not unlike the clear plastic “invisible man” figures popular in the postwar decades as educational toys). He is faceless, except for a spidery starburst, a black hole of consciousness.
Compounding their error, the police not only seized the wrong image; they had the wrong artist. Berman hadn’t made this strange drawing. That distinction belonged to his friend Marjorie Cameron, and the image was a souvenir from a peyote trip. There was, nonetheless, something oddly appropriate about the detectives’ choice. Berman himself had been so mesmerized by the drawing the first time he saw it, hanging in Books 55, that he simply removed it from where it hung and took it home. Oddly enough, the police now seemed to have more or less the same reaction. When they seized Cameron’s drawing, they revealed more than they knew about Berman’s work, his methods, and his curious installation at Ferus.
A striking beauty with, by all accounts, a magnetic personality, Cameron influenced a number of local artists, including Berman, thanks to her knowledge of the occult. Like her friend the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, she was an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, the celebrated libertine, author of Diary of a Drug Fiend, and self-proclaimed Antichrist. Anger cast Cameron to play several characters in his 1954 Crowley-inspired extravaganza, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.1 The film is essentially an occult communion; its climax, an orgy conjured by a magical elixir, completes the transformation from corporeal to spiritual being. “The magician becomes . . . intoxicated with God,” Anger quoted from Crowley, “his mortal frame shedding its earthly elements.” The passage is as much a key to Cameron’s drawing as it is to Anger’s film. For Cameron, the peyote button doubled as a communion wafer, her equivalent of the magic elixir.
Something similar seems to have been at work in Berman’s Ferus installation. Allusions to magic and mysticism abound. The antiquated look of the Hebrew lettering recalled that of the recently published Dead Sea Scrolls, which had already spurred both scholarly interest and the popular imagination since their discovery a decade prior. The additional bits of Latin and Hebrew inscribed on the Panel similarly hint at sacred, liturgical texts within. And Berman knew that Kabbalistic tradition held that Hebrew letters themselves were emblems of divinity. It was in this light that he adopted as his personal mark the aleph, the beginning of all language and expression. Art and poetry, Berman implied, could be as intoxicating as a drug, as revelatory as a magic potion.
Berman was no mystic, despite the image that has sometimes been painted of him. He was, rather, as much a scavenger of ideas as he was of objects and images. Religions, philosophical systems, and simple habits of mind were all raw material, ways of thinking and seeing that he sometimes found useful and other times not. His unifying subject was insemination and regeneration. That is the point of the photograph on the Cross, the traditional Christian symbol of resurrection and regeneration. But whereas one line of Christianity holds that the body of Christ falls away, freeing him from sin and worldly pain, Berman’s Cross embraces the heretical view associated with some early sects that spiritual knowledge is experienced through the body — that sex is a sacrament: “Factum Fidei! ” Insemination begets transfiguration. Hence Semina.
ALERTED TO THE COMPLAINT AND IMPENDING POLICE VISIT, Berman and the Ferus crew awaited the cops’ arrival. Kienholz and Hopps were young and brash and no doubt understood the P.R. value of martyrdom (from the beginning there have been whispers, unproven, that it was Kienholz himself who had made the call). The three principals were joined by Alexander, Arthur Richer, and Brittin, who photographically documented the event from start to finish. But no one had thought far enough ahead to imagine a scenario that ended with Berman behind bars. They “were really kids,” Brittin said. “There was a lack of knowledge about how the real world works.” Learning that her husband was being taken downtown for booking, Shirley quickly called Stockwell, and together they rushed to the courthouse to make the $150 bail before nightfall. A judge rendered the verdict: guilty. Wallace Berman, artist, was now, at least in the eyes of the law, officially Wallace Berman, pornographer. There was a chalkboard in the courtroom, and Berman approached it and wrote, “There is no justice; there is just revenge.”
Embittered by his arrest and its aftermath, and stunned that he could be jailed for making art, Berman abandoned his hometown at the end of 1957, declaring Los Angeles a “city of desolate angels,” and moved to San Francisco. In 1960 he and his family decamped to Larkspur, a small town along an estuary of the San Francisco Bay, some twenty minutes north of the city, where they lived on a houseboat. Berman converted a second houseboat into the Semina Gallery, where he showed work by friends, and a studio of his own from which he continued to produce the publication for which the gallery was named. He returned to Los Angeles with his family in 1961.
SEMINA HAD OPENED A DOOR for Berman to redefine his role as an artist, away from that of the work’s originator and toward that of redactor. He published the final edition of Semina three years after returning to L.A. and turned his attention to a process that would take his self-effacing aesthetic further still. In a trade with a neighbor, Berman acquired a secondhand Verifax machine. Like so much else in his art, the machine itself was a cast-off of late-industrial culture; Verifax photocopy technology had enjoyed a brief success before it was eclipsed by xerography. By altering the balance of chemicals used in the Verifax process, Berman managed to create images that appeared more photographic than an ordinary copy, yet had less definition than an ordinary photograph. The resulting image was eerily anachronistic and otherworldly — up to date, yet out of date — and the source of his most compelling work.
The Verifax machine gave Berman unprecedented control over the images he used — newspapers and magazines, tarot cards, religious symbols, movie stills, mechanical diagrams, and, once again, Hebrew calligraphy — freeing him to try out endless combinations and different effects. Especially striking was a photograph of a hand holding a transistor radio, which served as a framing device for other, superimposed images. It was as though the transistor picked up not just radio waves but also a galaxy of signs and symbols, secret codes from another world.2 But the converse was also true: Berman implied that the Delphic mysteries could be tuned in like the latest hits from the underworld. He flipped the quotidian and the cosmic, an impression compounded by his printing some of the Verifax coies as negatives, others as positives.
His next move was to arrange this panoply of images in a grid, divided into equal numbers of rows and columns. Each box in the grid contained a Verifax collage, each with a different image in the handheld radio. The repetition was hypnotic, an effect that set Berman’s work apart from the serialized imagery of such contemporaries as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. The images themselves, especially when printed in negative, had a ghostly mien; each became the visual equivalent of a word that, repeated enough times, is eventually drained of meaning. The grid was the great leveler: The rational and the nonrational — a diagram of a crankshaft, say, and a numerological chart — receive equal billing. Expecting the artist to guide us through an orderly universe of symbols, we have instead been set adrift in a chaos of signs. All that holds it together is that ever-present radio. That, and the hand that holds it. The artist’s hand, perhaps?
“The artist’s hand”: It’s a familiar trope, a conceit of connoisseurship that joins the artwork to its maker, a vouchsafe of its authenticity, its historical importance, and, not incidentally, its monetary value. It’s what makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt; a Pollock a Pollock; a fake a fake. Berman, in the Verifax collages, inverts this reasoning; the artist’s hand is little more than a cipher, an updating of the “transparent eye-ball” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously described in “Nature”: “I am nothing . . . the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” But whereas Emerson sought the transcendent in untrammeled nature, Berman offers us a paradoxical Romanticism in which emanations of Spirit are conjured from the detritus of mass culture.
WHETHER ONE SPEAKS OF SEMINA OR THE VERIF AX WORKS, Berman’s most sustained and best-known efforts were in the area of collage. Yet he is rightly recalled as one of the most — if not the most — influential figures in the assemblage movement that took shape in late fifties Los Angeles. (The Artforum editor John Coplans went so far as to claim that the entire “California assemblage movement stems from . . . Wallace Berman” — an overstatement, to be sure, but an understandable one.) Herms was probably the artist most indebted to Berman. As with Berman, there was a kind of redemption at work in Herms’s art. Reclaiming the discarded and the dispossessed, Herms delivered everyday objects to an afterlife where their value as mere practical means to an end was replaced by more ambiguous, poetic purposes. But even Kienholz, hugely influential in his own right, owed something to Berman. Temperamentally, the two were almost polar opposites. If Berman was heir to Emerson, Kienholz channeled the spirit of Cotton Mather; he was a twentieth-century version of the Puritan Jeremiah inveighing against the moral turpitude that had descended on the New Jerusalem. Fixed within the hollow of John Doe’s chest, in place of a heart, Kienholz had placed a cross. Unlike Berman, whose Cross serves as a passage to erotic transcendence, Kienholz presents the emblem of Christian faith as a symbol of sterility. But it was only after Berman’s ill-starred show at Ferus that Kienholz turned to his ambitious freestanding assemblages and, ultimately, his complex tableaux.
Beyond the circle of artists, poets, and others with whom he came into direct contact, Berman also had a lasting, if somewhat subterranean, influence on the broader culture of the coming decade, as evidenced by the homage paid to him by artists in various fields. You can find him, for instance, among the onlookers who crowd the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Similarly, Dennis Hopper cast Berman in a cameo in Easy Rider, as a hippie sowing seeds at a commune, a coy nod to the semina theme. Hopper ranked Berman alongside another of his close friends, the actor James Dean, as a figure of mythic proportions. “They’re myths,” Hopper said, “because they really were that talented and they really were that influential on the people around them.”
The raid on the Berman show seems in hindsight not only a comedy of errors — the cops confused about where they were, and why; the Ferus gang unprepared to deal with the consequences of their actions or the emotional toll it would take on Berman — but also wholly unnecessary. Berman’s art, like Ferus itself, dwelled on the margins of the art world, a world whose presence in 1950s Los Angeles was fairly marginal to begin with. But perhaps the police instinctively grasped something that the more commercially savvy gatekeepers of the art world missed: that embedded in even the most benign production of L.A.’s emerging assemblage movement was evidence of a gathering storm that threatened order, decency, and all that the postwar consumer’s paradise held dear. The “cultural clock,” as the art historian George Kubler wrote, “runs mainly on ruined fragments . . . from abandoned cities and buried villages.” Berman’s project was an archaeology of the present. Picking through the refuse heaps of postwar Los Angeles, culling the shards of its consumer culture, artists such as Berman, Kienholz, and Herms showed us a city transformed into instant ruins.
1 In her diary Anaïs Nin, who co-starred, noted that Anger and his circle “talked of Cameron as capable of witchcraft.” Nin herself was less enchanted, noting in her diary that she detected “an aura of evil” around Cameron.
2 Berman admired the films of Jean Cocteau, and his Verifax collages recall Cocteau’s 1949 film Orpheus, in which indecipherable messages are broadcast over a car radio.