This is much more the effect that one gets from Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, where the imagery is “louder,” more aggressive, almost incantatory in its use of repetition,14 and where the identity of the figures and events (with the exception of James Brown himself at the upper right) seems to hang maddeningly just on the edge of consciousness.15 The moment of interpretation is here encapsulated more as a struggle for meaning, which can almost, but maybe never quite, be won. Or, as David Meltzer writes retrospectively in his poignant memorial poem “Doom Cusp:”16

Am in the ozone no zone liminal fat w/past bogged down in tense present


detoured to there where nobody’s here u nless they’re dead

almost there

Indeed, Berman’s collage even seems to underline the importance of that final “almost,” especially in the doubling up of not-quiteidentical images in close proximity, as though they were being observed through an apparatus intended to bring them into a sharper focus as yet unachieved. At the same time, that same doubling draws our attention forcefully to the degradations inherent in processes of production and reproduction; and in the case of the two primitive portable televisions, which display quite different pictures, to the idea that differences of this type (even those that degrade a “pristine” original) can in juxtaposition increase information, magnify resonance, and (perhaps) facilitate interpretation.

Unknown photographer, Wallace Berman at Larkspur, 1958.

Unknown photographer, Wallace Berman at Larkspur, 1958. Gelatin silver print. No dimensions given. Courtesy Estate of Wallace Berman and Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles.

Sending in Code

“Code” is probably the single most commonly used word in discussions of Wallace Berman’s art practice. It certainly permeates the analysis in the Speaking in Tongues catalog. And it seems completely apropos. One has only to look at one of the fifty-sixunit Verifax collages, with the relentlessly repeated handheld radio “broadcasting” a sequence of allusive images embedded in a mysterious syntactical structure, to imagine oneself looking at some kind of coded transmission. Perhaps we see the visual equivalent of David Meltzer’s “scriptic dance conveying/ all the possible poses of mystery”17 in the juxtaposition of common scenes and objects defamiliarized and made somehow ominous in the process of their appropriation and reiterated reproduction.

We will return to the issues raised by this kind of transmission shortly. But first, it might be well to remember that the word “code” carries at least three distinct connotations, all of which are more or less relevant in the present circumstance. In the first and almost trivial instance, the word can refer to a code of behavior, a way of being and doing. In Berman’s case, this would be a code that inter alia grew out of “an involvement with the world of jazz, which was the culture of hipsterism.”18 In many ways, this code of the “cool” and the “laid back” hardly serves at all to separate Berman from the larger cultural milieu within which he moved and worked; indeed, it defines that milieu in general rather than Berman’s particular space within it.19 That particular, personal space, within which coded behavior allowed Berman to fashion a distinctive self, was the space of the quiet yet charismatic “outsider” at the very center of things, the self-styled “Yiddish Indian,”20 who “would never talk about…his art and his creative process…. By his code, this would be very uncool.”21

Secondly, the word “code” can define a set of cultural relationships and meanings which are both inherent in our lived culture and capable of conscious manipulation within that culture—meanings are “encoded” into objects and their relationships via conscious or unconscious processes of cultural production, and can be “decoded” (that is, made manifest and available for critique) by means of a set of analytical procedures associated with the discipline of semiotics, as well as through particular strategies of artistic practice. In this sense, the idea of a “code” is often associated with the work of Roland Barthes.22

Although the previous paragraph’s discussion is nothing if not a gross over-simplification, it is nevertheless useful insofar as it draws our attention to the following: that one line of critical art practice during the period that spans Berman’s career was explicitly or implicitly concerned with the “decoding” of popular culture, that is, with laying bare the ways in which that culture articulated an ideology in which images of sex, power, greed, amoral professional advancement, violence, brutality, etc. lay always just below the surface of a life that appeared as deservedly happy, wealthy, fulfilled, serene, and at peace in its own self-realization. As the catalog of the exhibition Speaking in Tongues makes clear, Robert Heinecken was a master at this kind of decoding, perfecting a working practice, for example in the portfolio Are You Rea (1964–68) that revealed the tensions and dislocations “hidden in plain sight” in the popular media.23 And his later magazine interventions and reconfigurations, although perhaps less brilliant in technical strategy, often perform a similar and politically motivated decoding function, sometimes to great effect, as in the Untitled (n.d.) work captioned “This is the way love is in 1970,” which disfigures the iconic beauty of Ali McGraw with Heinecken’s “signature” appropriation—a photograph of a grinning Cambodian soldier holding the decapitated heads of two Viet Cong soldiers, one in either hand.24

Robert Heinecken, "Are You Rea," tite sheet, 1967.

Robert Heinecken, Are You Rea, title sheet, 1967. Offset lithograph, 8.7 × 6.3 inches. Center for Creative Photography University of Arizona.

In my opinion, Berman’s forays in this direction, with the exception of the 1964 Untitled (Office Management) are less successful. The Untitled (salesman) of circa 1965, for example, appears now as dated as the images that the artist has composited. Rather, Berman’s strength lies in the opposite direction, not as a code-breaker but as a code-maker, an originator of secret languages that articulate hidden meanings in a process that does not de-mythologize the mundane, the popular, the everyday, but instead sacralizes or sanctifies it. With this turn we come to the third sense in which the word “code” can be invoked in relation to Berman’s art practice. In invoking it himself, as he most certainly does, Berman sets himself to a practice that is dangerous both in its working out and in its unraveling, since the endpoint here is just as easily opacity as it is transparency. The potential reward of this strategy is a transcendent opening up of meaning, but the potential price is a hermetic sterility. Let us look briefly first at that price.

Wallace Berman, Untitled (C3-C2 girls legs), 1975.

Wallace Berman, Untitled, 1964. Verifax collage, 7.1 × 9.4 inches. Collection of Loïc Malle, Paris.

Sator Square

In 1964, Wallace Berman produced a simple Verifax collage: a single oblong panel framing a similarly shaped and ultra-primitive Sony portable TV; a hand reaches in from out of frame to the right, adjusting one of the set’s controls. Against a murky background where we can discern the word FORD as if crafted in spindly chrome, the picture tube reveals the naked torso of a headless woman. We see her body from shoulders to pubic triangle, thin with a tight waist and breasts asymmetrically arranged, since her right arm stretches up and out of the frame while her left hangs resting at her side. As if printed on her chest between the breasts is a text: a five-by-five grid of letters that spells out the famous palindrome “satorarepo tenet opera rotas” as if it were a numerical “magic square,” reading left to right and top to bottom, right to left and bottom to top, as well as top to bottom and left to right, bottom to top and right to left.

The sator square has its origin in Roman antiquity; it is first attested in the ruins of Pompeii, buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, and has been found at Roman sites as far distant as Corinium (Cirencester in modern England) and DuraEuropos (an archaeological site in modern Syria). Despite its wide circulation and brilliant formal integrity—try constructing such a square in English—it remains in many ways mysterious. Its cultural origin and original context are unknown, although it is often massumed to be of Christian derivation and has been ingeniously interpreted on that assumption. One of its five words, arepo, is attested nowhere else in extant Latin literature and is of uncertain meaning, to say the least. It has been seen as ecclesiastical in nature and has reportedly been appropriated for magical use. All that being the case, what is it doing on the naked chest of a woman in Wallace Berman’s funky world of Verifaxed mass media?

Wallace Berman, Untitled, 1964.

Wallace Berman, Untitled, c. 1968. Verifax collage, 49 × 46 inches. Collection of Shirley Berman.

It comes to us as some message from an alien world, in this case the world of the past. But what does it mean? Does it constitute a code? And if so, what is the key that unlocks its meaning? As a first approximation, we can make the simple assertion that what the square “means” is nothing more or less than what it “is”: a complex five-by-five grid of letters that spells out a clever four-fold palindrome in Latin. Importantly, both this being and this meaning are literally circumscribed by the outermost frame of letters. The sator square is utterly self-referential and hermetically sealed; it cannot be used to generate more information or to articulate relationships external to itself. Hence, it cannot be used to leverage an interpretation, and in that sense it is meaningless.25 It seems to hover in front of the woman’s naked body, yet it tells us nothing about her, nor does she illuminate it. It remains impotent in its perfection, as she is impotent in her fragmentation, incomplete even as an object of desire. If the sator square is indeed a code, or if it is intended to appear as a code in the context of Berman’s practice, it is a code without a key, and as such perfectly useless.

And this, I would argue, is an image of the potential price to be paid, the wager that Berman (an inveterate gambler and a hustler at heart) must cover to remain a player in a very high stakes game, in which the artist fashions a private archive of images into a code both intelligible and meaningful.26 This cannot be a code for which we are given an explicit key (despite the fact that codes are by definition at some level just such systems of equivalence), but rather one which nevertheless in some way makes its meaning available for interpretation.


  1. In all of these aspects, the collage clearly mirrors the song that serves as its namesake: com/watch?v=WsvmVDejbe4.
  2. This last effect may owe at least something to the “non-persistence” of memory, that is, to the fact that as a viewer who was alive at the time of the work’s production, and old enough then to have been at least marginally aware of my cultural surroundings, I am confronted by a series of obviously mass media images of which I can say “I know that kind of picture,” without being able to say “Of course, that’s when…” This puts me in the uncomfortable position, assuming the images were intended to be specifically recognizable, of, as it were, having to research my own cultural autobiography, or of momentarily inhabiting that liminal zone where lived experience becomes the archive of cultural history.
  3. David Meltzer, “Doom Cusp,” When I Was a Poet, 49–50. The epigraph states: “In Memory of Wallace Berman.”
  4. Meltzer, “Dogma,” When I Was a Poet, 133.
  5. Jack Hirschman, quoted by BohnSpector, Speaking in Tongues, 11.
  6. Bohn-Spector, Speaking in Tongues, 10–11. Bohn-Spector gives a thumbnail sketch of that milieu as it coalesced around the Berman home on Crater Lane in Los Angeles’ Beverly Glen. At the other end of the spectrum, we might place George Herms, who fashioned a public persona exemplified by the low-brow hi-jinx of his ongoing Tap City Circus. See Nancy Perloff’s appreciation in Rebecca Peabody, Andrew Perchuk, Glenn Phillips, and Rani Singh, eds., Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945–1980 (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2011), 81. It is hard to imagine a platform more radically different from Berman’s own ongoing Semina project (Lucy Bradnock and Rani Singh, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag: Crafting the Art Scene,” Pacific Standard Time, 78–80; 82). See also Speaking in Tongues, 6–7, where Scott Rankin describes Robert Heinecken’s behavior, his way of being as a teacher as establishing “A Code. A standard” for his students to live up to. Berman clearly eschewed involvement with this kind of code. I suspect the whole idea of a “standard” would have been alien to him as well.
  7. Hirschman, quoted by Bohn-Spector, Speaking in Tongues, 11. See also Bradnock and Singh, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Pacific Standard Time, 80: “To his friends, Berman’s mystical persona was just as much a work of art as the objects he made, and he was viewed by many as something of a shaman. To others, however, he was merely a ‘goofball.’” (The “goofball” reference comes from Ed Moses.)
  8. David Meltzer, quoted in Speaking in Tongues, 11.
  9. See, for example, Roland Barthes, The Fashion System (Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 1990) and S/Z (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1974). For a trenchant critique of Barthes’s approach, see Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 202, esp. 203. The codes with which we are concerned here are primarily those that Barthes and Culler refer to as “symbolic.” For a relentlessly complex and complete treatment, see the chapter “Theory of Codes” in Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), 48–150.
  10. Bohn-Spector, Speaking in Tongues, 16–17. The plate Are You Rea #5 “Of Eve” (1967) provides a particularly brutal example.
  11. Since McGraw is here depicted as a perfect embodiment of “natural” girlnext-door innocence, her radiant good looks unmarred by anything “the least bit make-uppy looking,” the brutal defilingofherimagestillfeelspainful,at least to me, even though the original caption of the Cover Girl ad, retained by Heinecken, makes it plain that her beauty is neither natural nor all that innocent. This is a brilliant piece of work, easily the equal of “Of Eve.” See also Speaking in Tongues, figs. 29 and 30, for two other excellent examples of Heinecken’s “guerilla design.”
  12. A similar “magic square,” although of the more standard numerical kind, is one of the objects that discomfits the winged figure of Genius in Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514).
  13. The sator square, in contrast, is intelligible (we can read its individual elements and easily make out its structure) but meaningless.
Further Reading