Wallace Berman: Desolation Angel

Glenn Harcourt

no symbols where none intended —Samuel Beckett1

Fuck Scott Carpenter

On May 29, 1962, Wallace Berman typed out a short letter to his friend, the poet David Meltzer.2 In inimitable Berman style, the letter is part missive, part collage, part exercise in willful typographic perversity: a perfect example of the ephemeral and social art practice that characterized one important aspect of Berman’s output during a protean yet tragically truncated career.3 As I hope will become clear, it also encapsulates a poignant, angry, petulant, and prophetic meditation on (art) history, the fact of mortality, the fatality of logic, and the specter of a civilization both rationalized and romanticized by science and technology. Although Berman’s work is often described as comprising a kind of “secret code [we’ll return to both of these ideas, ‘code’ and ‘secret,’ presently], a language that may have been most easily understood by his close circle of friends,”4 this particular text, while perhaps not entirely pellucid, does leave considerable room for interpretation.

Wallace Berman, Letter to David Meltzer (football players), 1962. Typed letter with photographic collage, 9 1⁄2 × 7 1⁄2 inches.

Wallace Berman, Letter to David Meltzer (football players), 1962. Typed letter with photographic collage, 9 1⁄2 × 7 1⁄2 inches. Collection of Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons, New York.

Perhaps the easiest “points of entry” are provided by the brutally ad hominem attack, “FUCK SCOTT CARPENTER,” and the inscribed date. As it happens, Berman’s letter to Meltzer was composed just one week after M. Scott Carpenter became the fourth American astronaut to fly in space, his mission in Aurora 7 being the first after John Glenn’s epochal demonstration of America’s “Right Stuff” proved the capacity of NASA to put an astronaut into earth orbit and bring him safely home again.5 But Scott Carpenter was no John Glenn. Widely perceived as the least lockstep of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, he declined to function simply in the role of an engineering test pilot which NASA had blocked out for his mission. Fascinated by the mystery of the glowing “fireflies” observed earlier by Glenn and enraptured by the experience of being in space, Carpenter apparently misjudged the amount of fuel needed for a safe return. He ended up having to pilot his craft manually through re-entry, and overshot his intended landing target by over two hundred miles. In the words of flight director Chris Kraft, Carpenter needed a shot of “uncanny luck,” or he could easily have become America’s first space flight fatality.6

Berman, however, seems not to have perceived Carpenter as any different from “ALL THE [other] UPMORE CATS” like John Glenn, who embodied that most deadening of all rationalistic concepts, “LOGIC.”7 As such, they seem opposed to the shadowy “Dada prizefighter,” with whom Berman opens his letter and who has mysteriously “vanished” in the wake of NASA’s ongoing triumph. But vanished where? Perhaps into that “History,” which like “Motherwell” and Berman himself have somehow “goofed.” (Here Berman’s reference is most likely to Robert Motherwell, editor of the fundamental collection Dada Painters and Poets [first edition 1951], which would have been an important intellectual and art historical resource for Berman and his circle.)

Admittedly, it is difficult to puzzle out Berman’s precise meaning here. It is not at all clear, for example how “History” as a capitalH concept might conspire to “goof” in regard to its own unfolding, although Motherwell and Berman might easily be mistaken in their evaluation of historical events. But it does seem to be the case that, whatever else the equally elusive “UPMORE” might imply, it cannot describe one who, “like me” (Berman) and Motherwell and the Dada prizefighter, has “dug romance.”

Alas, “romance” is itself a notoriously malleable concept, and one that has often been applied to precisely the kind of endeavor exemplified (albeit in different ways) by Carpenter and Glenn. Yet it is a concept that here holds the key to Berman’s meaning, “cuz’ withou/t it there is no Mystery & without that there is only — let/me see whats that word oh yeh Logic or Death or som/ething or other[.]”

So “FUCK LOGIC” and in doing so deny death, which is itself a matter of some urgency since for each of us, Berman adds parenthetically and presciently, there are only “fifty or so years…on this shot.” And what better way to do that than by becoming a kind of anti-Scott Carpenter for whom romance and rationality—Logic and Mystery— are forever sundered, although ironically enough, Carpenter himself seems to have had his death-denying “other” already inbuilt. In a sense, I would argue, this letter succinctly, if at times ambiguously, sums up Berman’s basic artistic program. This is not to say, however, that it provides some kind of skeleton key capable of unlocking Berman’s meanings across an entire career. Indeed, one of the central issues raised by Berman’s work involves the very question of meaning’s possibility in a world where both romance and rationality are inextricably intertwined in the service of a dominant ideology (for which NASA can perhaps serve here as a convenient metaphor). And the answer to that question, in turn, has profound implications for the process, the potentialities, and the limitations of interpretation. It is to those questions (and their answers, I hope) that we now turn.

Speaking in Tongues

The basic issues involved here have been clearly laid out by the relevant curators and essayists involved in the Getty Research Institute’s brilliantly encyclopedic set of exhibitions, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945—1980. Especially trenchant were the essays that accompanied the exhibition Speaking in Tongues, a dual re-evaluation of the work of Berman and the “photographist” Robert Heinecken mounted at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.8 Nor is it my intention to challenge the basic insights articulated in this substantial body of scholarly work. Rather, I want to examine a few points in somewhat more detail, and perhaps from a somewhat different perspective, both to enhance our understanding of Berman’s work, and to explore some of the ways in which both that work and the discourse around it can bring into focus some issues of more general importance to the enterprise of interpretation.

What better place to begin than with the title to the Pasadena Armory show? Speaking in tongues—technically referred to as “glossolalia”—brings to mind a practice associated with American Pentecostal Christianity.9 It denotes a state of possession by the Holy Spirit, in which the believer speaks, shouts, prays, even sings in an unknown “language.”10 Although such utterances can be seen as having prophetic force, they are fundamentally understood as comprising gifts of the Holy Spirit, enactments of a divine response to intensity of faith in the living Word. As such, they are clearly related to the kind of physically encoded and equally ecstatic gifts made manifest by Catholic saints like Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila.

They are also extremely difficult to interpret. They are what they are, or, perhaps better, they say what they say. But as to what, exactly, that being or saying might mean, that is a rather different matter, since what they testify to is a specific state of being, rather than a particular doctrine or theological argument. One speaks the Word, which is God (John 1:1) and hence transcendent and unknowable.

In the beginning, however, the phrase “speaking in tongues” referred to quite a different kind of gift that was bestowed on the disciples by God on what became the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–13). At that moment, as tongues of fire danced over their heads amidst the sound of a great rushing wind, the disciples were miraculously granted the ability to speak so that each man present (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, etc.) heard them speaking “in his own [native] language” (v.6) despite the fact that “all these who are speaking [are] Galileans” (v.7). This is quite the opposite of the phenomenon described above. This “speaking in tongues” is not something transcendent and unknowable, but something quite practical—the ability to speak so that every listener can hear the Word of God and understand. The language(s) spoken by the disciples are transparent to the message they seek to convey; so that, in a sense, translation (read: “interpretation”) becomes almost unnecessary—“almost” because, in whatever language it is spoken, God’s word is never merely transparent. We can see this distinction operative, for example, in two of Berman’s more “traditional” collages, the passionate yet delicate Untitled (Lenny Bruce), 1963, and the beautiful and evocative “signature” piece, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.11 In the former, the iconography, though not strictly “kosher” by art historical standards, still allows us to read the image easily as an homage to the pivotal performer of cultural revolt, seen “as a beaten-down Poet Laureate crowned with a wreath of dried leaves and butterfly wings.”12 At the same time, Albert Goldman’s brilliant description of Bruce as “an oral jazzman” in performance, reproduced here from the more extensive quote given in Claudia Bohn-Spector’s essay in Speaking in Tongues, might as easily apply to much of Berman’s own art practice: “Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance [speaking now in American Pentecostal tongues] where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that came to him from out there— from recall, fantasy, prophecy.”13

Wallace Berman, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, 1964. Mixed-media collage, 44 1⁄2 × 32 1⁄2 × 2 inches.

Wallace Berman, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, 1964. Mixed-media collage, 44 1⁄2 × 32 1⁄2 × 2 inches. Collection of David Yorkin and Alix Madigan, Los Angeles. Courtesy the estate of Wallace Berman and Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles.


  1. This is the last line of Beckett’s brilliant novel Watt, which is, among other things, deeply concerned with the question of the relationship between“being” and “meaning.” Written in France during the closing days of World War II, it was first published (in English) in Paris in 1953. Samuel Beckett, Watt (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 254.
  2. Meltzer was a good friend of Berman’s and active mainly in San Francisco as a Beat generation poet and musician. For an interesting selection of biographical and other information, including a detailed natal chart, see Meltzer’s website, http://www.meltzerville.com/. I have used Meltzer as an erstwhile “spirit guide” to Berman’s work while laboring over this essay. Quotes are taken from the work collected in David Meltzer, When I Was a Poet (San Francisco: City Lights, 2011). Also central to an appreciation of Meltzer’s poetry are Michael Rothenberg, ed., David’s Copy: The Selected Poems of David Meltzer (London and New York: Penguin, 2005) and his extraordinary Beat epic, Beat Thing (Albuquerque:La Alameda Press, 2004). For his work as a reading poet, see Poet With Jazz 1958 (2005) on Sierra Records; and for his quasi-mythical SF psych-folk-rock band, The Serpent Power, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pp6m2O 4iPPo&feature=related. In addition to providing excellent contextual material, I hope these citations will help to stimulate interest in Meltzer, whose work is under-appreciated.
  3. Berman (1926–1976) was killed by a drunk driver on the night before his fiftieth birthday.
  4. Carolyn Peter, “Wordsmithing: Mixing the Verbal and the Visual in the Art of Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken,” in Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon, Speaking in Tongues: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken 1961–1976 (Pasadena: Armory Center for the Arts, 2011), 36.
  5. For the classic journalistic account, see Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979).
  6. See Eugene Cernan and Don Cavis, The Last Man on the Moon (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 51–52 and http:// www.scottcarpenter.com/. Carpenter reported much later that he felt “interested but not [personally] involved in” his perilous situation, a stance he described from his technical point of view as “really handy,” but which might, in other contexts, have been described as characteristically “hip” or utterly “cool.” As things played out, Carpenter flew only that one mission for NASA. The extent to which internal NASA politics were involved is not entirely clear; but in 1967 Carpenter was ruled medically ineligible for space flight after two surgeries had failed to correct arm injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash in 1964. Both Berman and fellow artist Billy Al Bengston (among many others) might have been proud.
  7. UPMORE: a Berman neologism. It may be associated specifically with the “upmore” mission of the Mercury astro- nauts; but in a looser sense it strikes me as a kind of antonym for the slangy “lowdown,” an adjective associated with Berman and his “subterranean” buddies, to borrow another descriptive term from Jack Kerouac.
  8. Speaking in Tongues: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken 1961–1976, Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, California, October 8, 2011–January 22, 2012. In my view, Heinecken was the artist who stood to gain the most from this exhibition. True, Heinecken finally received the career-spanning retro- spective at the Museum of Contempo- rary Art, Chicago, in 1999 (Speaking in Tongues, 5) perhaps denied Berman by the truncated nature of his tragically ended career. Still, Berman’s place in the Pacific Standard Time (PST) pantheon seems secure (especially after the 2005 Santa Monica Museum show that resulted in the massive publication Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle, ed. Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna (New York: D.A.P., and Santa Monica: Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2005), whereas Heinecken’s explicitly sexual, not to say pornographic, subject matter, as well as what the curators of the show see as his adherents’ misguided desire to re-brand his practice as “pre-post- modernist” require a serious exercise in historical revisionism. Although all of this resulted in a discussion that was both challenging and, I suspect, contestable, I will invoke Heinecken and his work only when they are im- mediately relevant or important to my discussion of Berman. On Heinecken’s supposedly faux Post-Modernism, see Colin Westerbeck, “Tongue in Cheek: The Strange Relationship between Robert Heinecken and Wallace Berman,” in Speaking in Tongues, 6–7. “Photographist” was Heinecken’s own identification of the nature of his hybrid art practice. The arguments provoked by his well-known predilec- tion for hardcore pornography should require no recapitulation.
  9. For our purposes here, Encyclopædia Britannica <http://www.britanica.com/ EBchecked/topic/599257/glossolalia> gives a reasonable summary.
  10. I have placed “language” in quotation marks here to indicate that such spoken “texts” are opaque to linguistic science, as well as to the charismatic speaker and his or her audience.
  11. The date of Berman’s Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag is universally given as 1964, despite the fact that the James Brown song to which the title has reference was not released until June 1965. Perhaps the title was applied retrospectively?
  12. Claudia Bohn-Spector, “Rearguard Revolutionaries: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken,” Speaking in Tongues, 14. The notion of Berman and Heinecken fighting a sort of cultural rearguard action is, I think, a brilliant one. Lenny Bruce’s (in)famous 1961 Carnegie Hall concert is available on YouTube; http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=1edm2x5gx9Q &feature=results_video&playnext=1 &list=PLE830D886EF3B08D3 for Part 1, and also on CD from Capitol/World Pacific Records (1995).
  13. Bohn-Spector, Speaking in Tongues, 14, with reference at note 55.
Further Reading