Books

Growing Up in the Avant-Garde Circles of Wallace Berman

Through his father, Wallace, Tosh Berman was in the middle of a vivid circle of artists, writers, and musicians who regarded art as the opposite of cultural business.

Image courtesy of City Lights

Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World by Tosh Berman is an intimate autobiography, interleaved with several short biographies, composed for all those artists and art lovers for whom money is not a motive. Tosh, the son of Shirley and Wallace Berman, relates in mellow prose (I easily read the book over a weekend) his experience as a boy and young man within a freethinking circle of West Coast beat-hippie artists, writers, actors, and musicians who regarded art not as a profession, but as an integral part of their everyday lives that had little or nothing to do with the art market.

Semina, Wallace Berman’s countercultural magazine of art and poetry, was the gorgeous glue that brought this mind-boggling array of intriguing people (some very famous, others not so) into the Bermans’ lives and created the conditions for their bohemian art-as-life. Semina was published in nine issues between 1955 and 1964, and its circulation never exceeded more than a few hundred copies. Even as this luscious à la mode mag depicted the values of a budding subcultural aesthetic, it was not for sale.

Wallace sold his art privately and occasionally sent out an early form of mail art. He had but one art exhibition — in 1957 at the famous Ferus Gallery — but with the financial support of Shirley he led an anti-establishment creative life, making assemblages and collages from everyday images and objects — and, little by little, putting together his most excellent underground film Aleph (1956–66). Indeed, Wallace, the quintessential angel-headed hipster, was the enigmatic, hermetic Californian everybody knew. He ran an open-air art gallery, also called Semina, in a burnt-out, abandoned structure in Larkspur, near San Francisco, in 1960; had a cameo role as the commune’s seed-spreader in the film Easy Rider (1969); and even appears in the crowd collage on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

Tosh’s book is fascinating, fleshing out details on how Wallace morphed from West Coast Beat generation raja into hippie headmaster of LA, centered in the Beverly Glen and Topanga Canyon areas, and, for a time, of San Francisco. This life was not always easy, but it lead Tosh (an only child) to his own creative life as a writer and poet (see, for example, his 2014 book The Plum in Mr. Blum’s Pudding). He is also the publisher of TamTam Books — named after the 1935 film Princess Tam Tam starring Josephine Baker — where he has focused on post-war French personages like Boris Vian, Guy Debord, Serge Gainsbourg, and Jacques Mesrine.

Tosh describes sometimes funny, sometimes weird details that make up the texture of his atypical life: from a devastating mudslide to his shared passion with Wallace for 1960s pop music to his absolute aversion to smoking weed to his pretentious declaration of the best music to have sex to (at the time): side two of Evening Star, the 1975 studio album by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. All based on first- or second-hand experiences, Tosh’s tale includes petite profiles of his mother Shirley, his four grandparents, the Ferus Gallery, and such avant-garde stars as Brian Jones, Allen Ginsberg, George Herms, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, and Marcel Duchamp. He also describes encounters, from a youthful point of view, with Jim Morrison, Sammy Davis Jr., Walter Hopps, Taylor Mead, Marjorie Cameron, Phil Spector, and John Cage. Eschewing celebrity adulation, Tosh brings a refreshingly naïve perspective to these, and other encounters, offering a rare proximity of the prominent and the prosaic. His book is filled with wild, with-it insights, buttressed by bounteous black and white photos, yet it is based in a rather ordinary, mid-20th century American upbringing, with extraordinary moments.

My two favorites images are reproductions from Wallace’s outstanding Verifax collage series that he made from the mid- to late-1960s. “Untitled #84 (Yoko One)” (1967) and “Untitled #57 (Brian Jones)” (1967) are impressive even in reproduction, both black and white images of a hand holding a Sony transistor radio, with portraits of Ono and Jones on the radios. The works evoke auditory perception and the wide distribution and reproduction of 1960s art and music, and the feeling of exhilaration associated with the period. These monoprints comment on the glorified artist’s hand, here rendered absent through mechanical reproductive technology. By working directly on Verifax plates he eliminated the “original” collage in the ordinary sense.

The story comes to an end in 1976 with Wallace’s premature death in a car crash. In general, the book conveys a very detailed picture of the emerging California art scene. Through Wallace, Tosh was in the middle of a vivid circle of artists, writers, and musicians who were in close contact with the LA film industry, yet who regarded art as the opposite of cultural business. As such, it is a small but spot-on first-hand document of Los Angeles in the middle of the 20th century and a validation for all those who see art as not as business but as cultural messaging.

Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World by Tosh Berman (2019) is published by City Lights and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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