‘The great artist of tomorrow’ said Marcel Duchamp, ‘will go underground’. How many have ever taken him at his word? Today, there are a great many artists whose work reflects an unrequited longing for the underground, but there are few (unless they are very underground indeed) who dare make their lives and work there—to ‘swing in the shadows’, as Wallace Berman put it. This exhibition brings to light an underground that did exist, not too long ago, barely noticeable to the culture at large, but of considerable artistic significance. Since his death on his 50th birthday in a 1976 automobile accident, there have been occasional exhibitions devoted to Berman’s work but this one—curated by Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna for the Santa Monica Museum, where it was first shown—is the first to show Berman, and his magazine Semina, as the hub of a remarkable network for which art, poetry and film (heavily supplemented by jazz and drugs) were the core of a practice of daily life. They were projects, as Richard Candida Smith put it in his important book Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California, 1995, ‘on the boundary between formal objectivity and the preunderstanding that a subjective network of friendship’ elicited.
Berman is best known for his verifax collages, in which he used a precursor of the photocopier to create concatenations of found images. In a typical Berman collage, the various images are inserted into the reiterated framing image of a hand-held transistor radio, often arrayed in a grid. (He slightly preceded Andy Warhol, who shot two films at Berman’s house, in his very different use of the grid format.) Contained within the radios might be figures from the day’s news (actors, politicians, athletes), occult symbols, untranslatable Hebrew inscriptions, animals, astronomical images, bits of pornography—anything that struck Berman’s fancy, really, but all seeming to add up to some delphic symbol of (as Duncan puts it) ‘a mystically charged, yet deeply troubled universe’. Berman is also represented here by photographs (which have not much been exhibited until now), assemblages, paintings, drawings and posters, as well as copies of each issue of Semina .
The magazine, usually an unbound amalgam of heterogeneous artwork and texts, was a context for the other artists and writers presented in the exhibition—some of them renowned, at least in certain circles (artists such as Bruce Conner and Jess, poets such as Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg, actor and filmmaker Dennis Hopper), some of them cult figures who have since become somewhat neglected (the Scottish writer and junkie Alexander Trocchi, Bay Area painters John Altoon and Joan Brown), most of them little-known outside the immediate circle—though that is changing, to some extent. A recent exhibition at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York of works by the woman artist, poet and occult practitioner who went by the single name of Cameron was evidence of a remarkable talent. But it was no accident that most of these names are at best subjects of rumour rather than knowledge. Their allusive, intimate, and humble art was not created for public display and sale; it was a medium of exchange and communication among the likeminded. They were mostly uninvolved with galleries, magazines and publishers, except those of their own founding—the Semina Gallery was the front room of Berman’s house—and their efforts were not directed towards editors, critics, collectors or curators (except, again, for members of the circle, such as Walter Hopps). Their present discovery by the organs of official culture does not necessarily violate the spirit of their work, however; they knew it was significant but, once disseminated (as the title of Berman’s magazine implies), would have to germinate underground before surfacing.
Barry Schwabsky is a critic and poet based in London