Wallace Berman, Untitled, c. 1968.

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

Transistor Radio

The game board employed by Berman, at its most expansive and complex, consists of the fifty-six square grid depicting handheld transistor radios that comprise his most ambitious Verifax collages. These works are enormously impressive, engaging both the images and the instruments of the mass media in a sophisticated structure that speaks to the concerns of Minimalism as much as to those of Pop, all done using an obsolete means of mechanical reproduction that imparts through its very mechanism a handmade artisanal feel, one that resonates with the “vibe” of California assemblage more than that of Andy Warhol’s New York Factory.27 In a sense, Berman’s collages might be the work of an archivist laboring alongside George Herms’s extraordinary Librarian of 1960.28

At the heart of these assembled collages lies the image of the portable transistor radio, a little device that was revolutionizing the dissemination of American popular culture at exactly the same time that the Verifax copier was itself being replaced as an outmoded reproductive technology.29 Berman’s use of it as a framing device for the dissemination of images rather than news or music is arguably brilliant, since it apparently allows the artist himself to intrude at every moment into that process of dissemination.30 Even if the images themselves are recycled or appropriated, their arrangement, their “encoding,” is the province of the creative intelligence (the hand) that controls their relationships at every stage of his message’s unfolding. Duchamp notwithstanding, we are in the presence here of a controlled act of composition, not the operation of random forces. It is not so much that we are intended to “talk to the hand,” as it is that we should see the hand as in some sense speaking to us. In any case, it is the hand of the artist that controls the transmission (not unlike the Control Voice that introduced the TV science fiction masterpiece, The Outer Limits [1963–65] or, for that matter, the voice of God) and that, in theory, guarantees its coherence and meaning.

This does not necessarily make the messages any easier to decipher; nor should it; nor, undoubtedly, was it meant to. As any even superficial survey of their intellectual circle makes abundantly clear, Berman and his friends were steeped in a literary and artistic tradition stretching back to French symbolism that placed a premium on a sometimes scintillatingly corrosive, sometimes violently abusive confrontation with linguistic and pictorial convention.31 At times, this confrontation was focused through a more or less political lens that saw existing conventions as a set of hegemonic constraints imposed on those who, like Berman and his comrades, “dug romance.” At others, it was as if the structure of language and meaning tout court were but servants of “Logic or Death,” to be utterly overthrown in pursuit of some higher “Mystery.” For us, then, the immediate question becomes, where along this spectrum of revolt do the Verifax collages fall? Do they speak in biblical (that is, apostolic and transparent) or American Pentecostal (that is, apocalyptic and opaque) tongues? Perhaps in both, and neither. For sure, they are not transparent, giving up their meanings as if seen through a polished plate of glass. Nor, however, are they opaque, impenetrable, meaningless. Rather, seen from the perspective of an age steeped in digital media, awash in images configured and reconfigured in endless (re)juxtapositions, they appear oddly “primitive” yet familiar, distant yet insistent, like messages left on the wall of a cave, difficult to make out, yet capable of yielding up a plenitude of meaning.

At the opening of his beautifully reflective poem, “When I Was a Poet,” David Meltzer probably does a better job than I of capturing what I’m trying to get at here, which is a sense both of the artist’s infinite grasp and of the infinite craft his hand must exercise in order to produce the pictures (a code of reiterated elements infinitely complex in its simplicity—like the DNA of an entire culture) that we can only “read” through the exercise of an equally infinite patience:

When I was a poet I had no doubt knew the Ins & Outs of All & Everything lettered in-worded each syllable seed stuck to a letter formed a word a world 32

Topanga Canyon Talmud

You look back where once fearful shadows stalked and see the sea, a shadow in the mind, move beneath moonlight. Letters, number, codes lead to nothing.33

The revolt of Berman and his circle, like that of the Beats with whom they were complexly entangled, like that of all those who “dug romance,” was both a search and destroy operation and a quest: an attempt to find another, better, more cosmic meaning, an attempt to penetrate that one great “Mystery” that lay embedded equally in the heart of the human heart (“heart central,” as David Meltzer called it34) and in the heart of the cosmos. This search for alternative ways of seeing, knowing, and being led in many directions, into the (literal) wilderness, psychopharmacology and exuberant sexuality, Jungian psychology and kundalini yoga, Zen and various other esoteric Buddhisms, the I Ching, native American myth, Jewish mysticism, Christian gnosticism, the private epiphanies of the insane, the junkies, the winos, the derelicts, and all along the endlessly twisting and turning flights of jazz, wailing now in inconsolable grief, now in absolute exultation. It produced at least one genuine Zen master (the poet Philip Whalen35) and a generation of “best minds” left “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” in the unforgettable opening lament of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” It also had a profound impact on the art practice of Wallace Berman.

Although Berman’s art touches many of the paths noted above, his art is among those most closely associated with the strain of Jewish mysticism embodied in the discipline of Kaballah. With all of the fuss recently generated by the Kaballah Centre of Los Angeles and its stable of celebrity supporters,36 it is easy to forget that Kaballah is a discipline (not a New Age fad) with a deep and profoundly mystical tradition.37 Kaballah privileges the power that it recognizes as inherent in the literal “presence” of the Hebrew language and its alphabet, rather than privileging the meaning of a particular text. Apparently, Berman wants us to believe that he is no New Age fellow traveler. His use of Hebrew letters and soi-disant Hebrew phrases appears as strategic and thoughtful as any aspect of his practice. And his assumption of the Aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) as a kind of personal tag bespeaks a real commitment…but a commitment to what exactly?38

As Berman in fact knew no Hebrew, his Hebrew “texts,” and especially his works in which such texts are essentially the only formal elements, present something of a hermeneutic problem. As potential codes, they are more opaque even than the sator square: literally meaningless as given, and clearly beyond the application of any potential translational or transformational operation that might conceivably generate some meaning. It is hard even to call them self-referential.39

And yet, as something simply “being there” they are hardly negligible. Although in a way that might be difficult to specify, they carry “weight,” and in that weight we might discern a kind of meaning. Or if not meaning in the traditional sense, then perhaps a kind of “being there” that is at once also a “being significant.” We might make this argument, for example, with respect to Berman’s beautifully delicate papyrus paintings, where short sequences of relatively large Hebrew characters have been carefully inscribed on a prepared and pre-degraded ground.40 Although the “texts” are meaningless in and of themselves, it is precisely in their being bound to this ground that they acquire an almost archival resonance—of great antiquity (as the Dead Sea scrolls), of fragility and decay, perhaps even of the apocalyptic violence of the Holocaust. And if we remember the old idea that pre-lapsarian Hebrew was a perfectly transparent language (used by Adam to name each in their proper essence the birds of the air and the beasts of the field), we might even see in the papyrus paintings that now-opaque and meaningless tongue miraculously caught by the artist even in the act of degrading toward meaning.

In a similar attempt to account for the generation of meaning through the reciprocal interaction of text and ground, we can look, for example, at the wonderful Topanga Seed of 1969–70. The seed itself is a large chunk of hard and heavy dolomite rock of pleasing shape: neither too sharp in its angles nor too rounded in its curves, solid and well grounded. On it have been arranged blocks of quasi-Hebrew text, most of them identified with a single marking letter that might indicate a sequence. The blocks of text on the “front” are arranged roughly in two columns, perhaps a glancing reference to the traditional organization of the Tablets of the Law, but there are blocks of text also on the other faces of “the seed.” Unlike the sator square in the Verifax collage discussed above, the text here adheres to the surface of the rock, as though the mysterious power of literate culture channeling the divine speaking of the Logos has been grafted indissolubly to the bedrock of the Earth itself, which now becomes the seed of a new knowing that embraces the whole world, the whole cosmos. Or it may be that the Earth itself speaks, again in a tongue unknown and unknowable, a final Talmudic commentary on a text that has the power to unravel Logic and defy Death.

Wallace Berman, Topanga Seed, 1969–70. Dolomite rock and transfer letters.

Wallace Berman, Topanga Seed, 1969–70. Dolomite rock and transfer letters. Courtesy of the Getty Research Institute. Courtesy The Grinstein Family. Photo by John Kiffe.

Desolate Angel

As is only right, fitting, and proper, Berman himself has not left hints enough outside his work to give the game of the work away.

Nor is it possible here to disentangle all of the strands of that work, which is more wide-ranging than either I or the Armory curators and catalog writers have been able to suggest.41 What I can do, however, is to end with a final comparison, one that sets Berman into a historical context broader than any that has been suggested up to now.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Old Woman Reading, 1631.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Old Woman Reading, 1631. Oil on panel; 23 1⁄2 × 19 inches. Collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

 

Wallace Berman, <em>Untitled (rocks at Point Mugu with Hebrew Letters)</em>, early 1970s.

Wallace Berman, Untitled (rocks at Point Mugu with Hebrew Letters), early 1970s. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Estate of Wallace Berman and Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles.

In the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a relatively small painting by the young Rembrandt (monogrammed and dated 1631) that depicts an old woman reading what appears to be a book of scripture. She is dressed in quasi-biblical garb and is often identified as the prophetess Hannah, who recognized the infant Christ in the temple at Jerusalem (Luke 2:36–38). In Rembrandt’s picture, however, it is the book which engages her whole attention: a book bathed in light and written in the same kind of crypto-Hebrew that Berman employed so often in his work. Not only does she bend forward slightly and even seem to have her lips parted as though enunciating the text aloud, she seems literally to caress one of the open pages with her wrinkled right hand as if it were not just the words of the text as meaningful discourse, but the physical presence of the words themselves holding her attention. Clearly, the words are for her a source of power, not just by virtue of what they say, but also by virtue of what they are, physical tokens of the power that speaks them in the language most fit for divine discourse and the revelation of divine mysteries.

Compare this to a photo of Berman from the early 1970s, Untitled (rocks at Point Mugu with Hebrew Letters). Unlike Rembrandt’s old woman, Berman strikes a pose of almost supreme and bemused detachment. His left hand rests on the depicted rock, as if presenting it to a presumed audience. His right hand rests lightly across his chest in a limply theatrical gesture. He looks up, his eyes following the almost invisible power lines into the sky (could it be heaven?). His brows are slightly knit, his expression almost quizzical, as if he waits for the answer to some question. With his long thin hair and his loose shirt, he might almost pass for an angel sent to earth on some mysterious mission. Although clearly placed in relation to an unseen audience, to whom he might be intending to reveal the meaning of the words of power graven on the stone at his side, he seems alone, in a world of his own. While Rembrandt’s old woman struggles to master the text, to grasp its meaning, Berman seems unconcerned with such trivialities. Does he in fact know the secret contained in the pure code of the meaningless text? Will he reveal that secret to us? Will he unlock the mystery of its power? As he strikes his pose in the photo, he proffers none of the answers that we seek. And why should he? He has given us the rock, the text, the work; and it is now for us to seek out the rest. To give anything more would be…uncool.
Glenn Harcourt received a PhD in the history of art from the University of California, Berkeley. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

Footnotes

  1. The Kodak Verifax was a photo-direct reproductive system that produced a wet copy (hence a copy capable of manipulation, a fact that Berman exploited in his own practice) and one that tended to fade over time, also potentially useful from an artistic perspective. The 1960s was in fact the decade that saw the replacement of pre-xerographic methods with the now ubiquitous Xerox and its epigones as the standard for office copying.
  2. See Pacific Standard Time, 92, fig. 2.25.
  3. The transistor radio “boom” had actually begun in the late 1950s, but was given particular force by a drop in prices that had a major impact on the market beginning in the early 1960s. In 1961 came the airing of an episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in which Dobie’s “beatnik” friend Maynard attempts to use one of the new personal portable transistor sets (a Zenith Royal 500—top of the line at the time) to bring jazz into the classroom (http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=o5yvMExqKNA). Bob Denver’s expression is especially wonderful as the sound of the transmitted jazz transports him to a world of his own as he intones, “Oh, I hear. I hear.”
  4. Berman’s wife Shirley has categorically asserted that the depicted hand looked “just like” Wally’s; quoted by Bohn-Spector, Speaking in Tongues, 17.
  5. The history of this tradition has in recent years been valorized by any number of recondite philosophical and literary-critical tendencies which share a repugnance for the notion of “meaning” in itself, seen either as a more or less transparent articulation of the play of pure power, or as one of the disiectamembra of a now discredited Enlightenment. But as Charles Rosen points out in the New YorkReviewofBooks,“Ofalltheconstraints imposed on us that restrict our freedom…one of the earliest…is the constraint of a language we are forced to learn so that others can talk to us and tell us things that we do not wish to know.” Charles Rosen, “Freedom and Art,” New York Review of Books (May 10, 2012), 28. Is it any wonder, then, that we revolt, both against languageandagainstthosemeanings that “we do not wish to know?”
  6. This is how David Meltzer begins the title poem, which in turn opens When I Was a Poet, 11.
  7. Meltzer, from “Night Reals,” When I Was a Poet, 124.
  8. Meltzer, When I Was a Poet, 22: the last phrase in the title poem.
  9. After a number of “false” spiritual starts and a year of English teaching and Zen study in Kyoto, Whalen entered the San Francisco Zen Center to study underZentatsuRichardBakerin1972, was ordained monk the following year, and received transmission (signifying the passage of the Dharma from master to pupil and heir) from Baker in 1987. He ended his religious career as head of the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco. His collected poetry is a landmark corpus in Beat literature. Michael Rothenberg, ed., The Collected Poetry of Philip Whalen (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007).
  10. See Harriet Ryan, “The Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles is the Focus of an IRS Investigation into Tax Evasion,” Los Angeles Times (May 6, 2011); available online at http://articles.latimes. com/2011/may/06/entertainment/la-etkabbalah-investigation-20110506.
  11. A key resource for Berman and his circle would have been Gershon Scholem’s classic 1965 study, On Kabbalah and its Symbolism. A more recent study that I have found helpful is Rabbi David A. Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Jewish Mysticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998). For an erudite examination of the place of Kabbalah and Gnostic spirituality in America generally, see the wonderful explication in Harold Bloom, Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996). Although Bloom (b. 1930) is one of America’s most respected academics and hardly a “Beat,” he belongs solidly in Berman’s generation, and his reflections, despite their genesis in the run-up to the millennium, are compelling and definitely apropos to our inquiry.
  12. For the background here, see Carolyn Peter, Speaking in Tongues, 33. The ambiguity of the argument developed in her paragraph that begins “Berman’s curiosity about the written text…” sums up the interpretive problem nicely. Berman’s practice may “appear…strategic and thoughtful,” but this is no guarantee that it actually is so.
  13. For Berman’s own“take”on this issue, see the paraphrase by the poet Jack Hirschman, quoted by Bohn-Spector, Speaking in Tongues, 16: “Hell, I dunno what they mean, I just like the way they look together.” This strikes me as obviously disingenuous.
  14. Berman began producing these works in the mid 1950s, and continued using the technique, at least in his collaged correspondence, until the late 1960s. See Speaking in Tongues, fig. 25 and Pacific Standard Time, fig. 2.13.
  15. Although a number are employed in a documentary way, Berman’s photographs have been virtually ignored by the Pacific Standard Time curators. For a useful summary, see the catalog by Kristine McKenna and Lorraine Wild, eds., Wallace Berman Photographs, which accompanied an exhibition at the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California, in 2007. Colin Westerbeck, Speaking in Tongues, 6, has a brief discussion that draws particular attention to a brilliant (and disconcerting) portrait by Berman of his wife, Shirley. Also absent from my discussion, although (thankfully) not from the exhibition Speaking in Tongues, is Berman’s foray into film-making, the eight-minute Aleph, shot in 8 mm and 16mm over a ten-year period beginning in the mid-1950s and lovingly restored by Stan Brakhage after Berman’s death. See Bohn-Spector, Speaking in Tongues, 17, for a brief mention. Like the photography, this mesmerizing short film deserves an essay in its own right.
Further Reading