Life's work: Wallace Berman's controversial oeuvre at LA's Kohn Gallery
From 1957 to 1961, Wallace Berman lived in the Marin County township of Larkspur, California, where he took over an abandoned house on Madera Creek and turned it into Semina, a private gallery space where he would host one-day art exhibitions featuring his own work (and those of his contemporaries). It's fitting then, that curators Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon have recreated the footprint of the space – 'a phantom Semina gallery' – inside LA's Kohn Gallery for 'Wallace Berman: American Aleph'.
'What we're trying to do is really create a survey from the moment he started until he passed away in 1976,' says Bohn-Spector. Though Berman is known mostly for his Verifax collages (made by placing cult and commercial images over the template of a handheld Sony transistor radio from a 1964 advertisement in Life magazine) and as the high priest of Semina culture – the visual language disseminated through the titular art and poetry journal that Berman published (with work by William Burroughs and Walter Hopps, among others) for a few hundred select individuals in the post-war Beat counterculture – the show begins with Berman's early drawings that he made as a teenager, inspired by jazz greats like Jimmy Durante, Louis Armstrong and Slim Gaillard.
These hang on the outside wall of the phantom gallery, while inside it there is a photo, which appeared on the ninth and final issue of Semina, capturing Jack Ruby assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald (altered with the Michael McClure poem 'Double Murder') as well as photos of the sculptural collages – Temple and Veritas Panel – that he created for his one and only one-person show in 1957 at the Ferus Gallery, back when Walter Hopps and Edward Kienholz were directing it.
'Everything was lost from that show except for the box hanging on that cross,' says Bohn-Spector, pointing to Factum Fidei, the mixed media combined with a faded photo of sexual penetration dangling off a white crucifix from a rusty chain. Mellon notes that Berman was arrested at the opening for an illicit drawing that Marjorie Cameron did for Semina, which was displayed on the floor inside one of the collages during the opening.
'Rumour has it that [Edward] Kienholz called the cops to make it controversial and they didn't even find the pornographic stuff,' explains Bohn-Spector. 'The vice squad ran right by it and came back. Finally, somebody had to point it out to them. It wasn't even his work. After the arrest, Dean Stockwell bailed him out and he felt like he had been backstabbed. So he left LA and went to San Francisco where he met Jay DeFeo.'