PARIS — Establishing a theme and exploring it through variations has long been an established musical method. This strategy pops up again in Visual Music, the Frank Elbaz gallery’s diminutive display of Wallace Berman’s Verifax collages and photographs from the mid- to late-1960s. Omnipresent is an appropriated image of a hand holding a Sony transistor radio where the radio has been replaced by various graphic images — ambivalently referring to auditory perception and the wide distribution, reproduction, and exhilaration of ‘60s Pop Art and music — thereby bringing sound into the visual realm by metonymy. Curated by Sophie Dannenmüller, this is a small but museum-quality show that highlights a series of such Berman images, usually arranged in grids, where an eclectic mix of art, pop, and countercultural images have been swapped with the radio — as if pictures were being broadcast as sound waves. These hands might also be interpreted as a holding cassette tape boxes with different insert covers (the cassette first appeared in 1962), but there is something more than a simple crisscrossing of visual and musical tropes going on here.
These mono-prints comment on the glorified artist’s hand, rendered absent through mechanical reproductive technology. Through the two-step gelatin dye transfer process of the Verifax Kodak copier, Berman was able to fuse several mediums that had long interested him into a precursor of digital painting and copy art: photography, collage, and printing merge into an alchemical graphic art about magical metamorphosis and theatrical transformation. Berman worked directly on the Verifax plate, without creating a pasted-down composition beforehand. In other words, there is no “original” collage in the ordinary sense: The copy of the ephemeral piece is the original work of art.
This makes sense for Berman, since he was deeply involved with issues of reproduction and dissemination in his work, being also the creator of the legendary, handcrafted cultural magazine Semina (published from 1955 to 1964) that contained a taste of the heady atmosphere of hip art, music, photography, poetry, and the out-of-the-mainstream, dissenting lifestyle he enjoyed deep in the California weeds. Berman mailed this zine out to associates and friends and occasionally practiced an early form of Fluxus-like mail art, for example with “Verifax Collaged Mailer” (1964) that he sent to his actor amigo Dean Stockwell staying in Montparnasse on Rue de Tournon.
Berman’s one and only art exhibition was in 1957 at the famous Ferus Gallery that had been established by artist Edward Kienholz, poet-artist Robert Alexander, and curator Walter Hopps that year. Somebody dropped a dime, and believe it or not, Berman’s show was raided by the LAPD vice squad because of the small reproduction of a weird flagrante delicto drawn by Marjorie Cameron (who used the mononym Cameron) that was a small part of Berman’s assemblage, “Temple” (1952–57), one of the principle assemblages in the exhibition. As a result, Berman was arrested on obscenity charges, tried, and found guilty.
Berman was a member of a circle of Beat artists who regarded art not as a profession but as an integral part of their everyday lives that had little to with the art market. Berman had an anti-establishment lifestyle, making assemblages and collages from everyday objects and thus was happy enough to leave the art gallery system. He was the abiding angel-headed hipster: an enigmatic, hermetic, bohemian collage artist who proved pivotal to the California Beat Generation scene.
An early enthusiastic Bebop jazz fan, his shredded, surreal drawing graces the cover of the Dial Records two-volume album be*bop JAZZ which opens the show. Symbolically charged by floating above the record cover, is a photograph Berman took in 1964 of Brian Jones intensely howling during the Rolling Stones’s Teenage American Music International (TAMI) show performance with fuzzy bassist Bill Wyman in the background. As the times were a changin, Berman befriended Jones while Berman smoothly slid into the role of groovy social duke of Topanga Canyon hippiedom – making a cameo as the commune’s seed-spreading dude in the film Easy Rider and appearing on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Jazz and rock and soul music were inseparable from Berman’s life and working method. His only child, Tosh Berman, whose book Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World is due out soon, told me that one of his dad’s favorite records to work to was the amazing trance LP Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka, a recording of the Moroccan group Master Musicians of Joujouka in performance in 1968 in their village. The woolgathering trance theme of the LP is also felt in the repetitions of the hand image that, in this musical light, look like they are holding up personalized Tarot cards, à la Alejandro Jodorowsky (though they were never used as a Tarot deck). Similar “hand” works blended by a quasi-magical or alchemical operation appear in Berman’s marvelous underground film “Aleph” (1956–66), in which, as in the collages, he uses Hebrew letters (though he was not religious and did not read the language) to frame a hypnotic, rapid-fire noise montage that conjures up the gritty energy of the ‘60s underground.
To the right of the Brian Jones photo is an intriguing “Untitled (Ray Charles, this is The Card That Reads 7)” (1965) collage that mysteriously places Ray Charles in relationship to horses, a horseman, and the number 7.
The grids of the Verifax hand collages could also easily be read as a unique system of notation indicating musical patterns and rhythms typical of West Coast repetitive minimal music, like Terry Riley’s 1968 In C. The repetitive component of the hand holding the absent transistor radio provides the rhythmic basis upon which a wild array of variations appears. Furthermore, the orderly structure of the grids entices the viewer to peruse the aligned images as a musical score, visually representing a piece of music’s time signature, phrases, measures, and tempo, with the black monochromes representing rests, that is, silences.
Wallace Berman: Visual Music continues at Frank Elbaz gallery (66 rue de Turenne, Paris, France) through October 11. The exhibition was curated by Sophie Dannenmüller.