Hep Hep Hooray

Left: John Zorn (right). Right: Cover of Semina magazine at Boo-Hooray gallery. (Photos: Jude Broughan)

“THERE MIGHT BE no hepper hepcat in the history of post-war hep than Wallace Berman,” writes counterculture archivist Johan Kugelberg. “He’s like a Neal Cassady who actually did stuff.” Born on Staten Island, Berman moved west with his family in the 1930s, and it was here that he became an artist. Relocating from LA to San Francisco in 1957, he developed the “Verifax” collage technique, using Kodak’s early photocopier to layer and juxtapose magazine clippings in grids of variations. Though Berman was never an A-list name (he “remains obscure,” continues Kugelberg, “compared to all the biters who subsequently bit his originality and style”), the artist did achieve some notoriety after the police, having found one of the works in his first exhibition at Ferus Gallery to be “lewd and lascivious,” closed down the show. Arguably, this hepcat’s importance originates as much in being at the center of a web of connections as it does in his aesthetic—something bourn out by the stellar list of contributors to his journal Semina.

Published in miniscule editions between 1955 and ’64, Semina was the assemblage pioneer’s “scrapbook of the spirit,” a flurry of image and text mailed out to Beat-generation mates like William S. Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi. The home-produced, hand-printed zine combined photography and collage with poetry and other writing in an ever-changing but always compact and collectible form perfectly suited to postal dissemination. Last Sunday afternoon, Kugelberg’s Boo-Hooray Gallery launched an exhibition showcasing all nine issues, related ephemera such as a Sony ad that Berman appropriated and reworked multiple times, and a book reproducing the publication’s entire run. Berman was killed by a drunk driver in 1976, but as one of those cultural figures who popped up, Zelig-like, in some unexpected places—he had a bit part in Easy Rider and graces the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s—I still half-expected to clock him here.

But while the artist himself attended purely in spirit, Kugelberg, an individual of commendably diverse tastes who this summer collaborated with Gavin Brown’s Enterprise to catalogue and preserve hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa’s vast record collection, was on hand, joined on this occasion by Berman’s son Tosh and an assortment of friends and associates that included artist Dylan Stone, critic Carlo McCormick, and Living Theater veteran Tom Walker. As snow began to fall outside on a bustling preholiday Canal Street, early visitors munched on salted pretzels and mustard and the event assumed a cozy, familial air. Adding to the air of nostalgia was a selection of Berman’s photographs from the ’50s and ’60s depicting the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Russ Tamblyn, and painter Jay DeFeo, the last spread-legged in front of her famously hefty magnum opus The Rose.

Once a decent crowd had gathered, Kugelberg announced the entertainment—a musical interlude par excellence courtesy of downtown thrash-jazz legend John Zorn. Looking compact and youthful in T-shirt, camo pants, and dangling tzitzit, the just-turned-sixty saxophonist and composer, accompanied by a similarly deft and imaginative double bassist, treated us to a blistering twenty-minute ad-lib—though not before a brief altercation with one onlooker to my left. Snapping away in contravention of earnest pleas that we live in the moment by ditching our ’phones and cameras, the hapless individual soon came to regret his hubris. “You didn’t pay one bit of attention, did you?” snarled Zorn, lunging forward to bat the camera out his hand. “What is with these motherfuckers?” Later, a beaming Kugelberg congratulated the pair as they packed up: “Gentlemen, you guys just fuckin’ killed it, didn’t you?” Berman, a lover of all things improvised, would surely have concurred.