PRINT March 1964

Art is Love is God

THE CALIFORNIA ASSEMBLAGE MOVEMENT stems from one artist, Wallace Berman, who in 1947, with very little formal art training began to draw with bizarre, naive and vulgar American surrealist overtones. In these drawings he projected all the underground vernacular of the jazz world and the dope addict, sometimes reconstructing portraits of jazz musicians such as Joe Albany and Charlie Parker or erotic fantasies with overtones of magic realism mixed with bebop and surrealism. In 1949, while working as a laborer with distressing imitation American period furniture, he moved absolutely naturally into assemblage sculpture by combining together waste odds and ends lying around the factory. Later, he was to add photographs, drawings and word images or to combine these diverse elements into a tableau.

Berman is the major link to the existential and surrealist poets, dramatists and writers, and he established assemblage in California as a poetic art with strong moral and spiritual overtones. He will often employ the legend ART IS LOVE IS GOD, but has no simpering holier-than-thou attitude. The spiritual overtones in his work are very genuine and real but tempered by an incredibly raw and existential wit which is expressed with great simplicity and directness. There is a strange and compelling mixture of awareness and ingenuousness in Berman that almost defies verbalization. A completely unobtrusive artist (there is no mention of him in the Museum of Modern Art’s encyclopedic compendium on the Art of Assemblage), his first and only exhibition took place at the old Ferus Gallery in 1957. Despite being given the opportunity to withdraw one item, he refused and was arrested, convicted and fined for inciting lewd and lascivious passions, the exhibition being abandoned and much of the work destroyed. He has not exhibited again preferring to work on Semina, a printed container or album of diverse images—poems, photographs and drawings. With a small handpress he is able to print without the limitations of the professional printer, risk of censorship or the need to domesticate his art. The restrictions of bulk and storage disappear as do the bonds of creating objects to be exhibited or sold. (He gives them away to friends.) The first issue of Semina was in 1955 and there have been seven more since, each edition approximately two hundred in number. He prints his own work often mixed up with poets or artists he most admires (Berman was the first to print the work of Burroughs).

It is difficult to determine if Berman structured Semina in admiration of the album format—a container of diverse elements—or out of the sheer necessity of bypassing the problems and expense of binding or even because of a notion that in creating things in a beat way, they have a charm of their own. Probably it was a mixture of all three, but it allowed him to place a matrix of images in an envelope in random order, the images inevitably changing sequence at every inspection. As William Seitz has written “. . . Identities drawn from diverse contexts and levels of value are confronted . . . metaphysically and associationally (and modified by) the unique sensations of the spectator.”

Berman has had a strong influence, directly and indirectly, on a number of artists, in particular George Herms, Ben Talbert, John Reed, Bruce Conner (and to a much lesser extent) Edward Kienholz as well as a whole stream of younger artists. Talbert’s work picks up on a particular aspect of Berman concerned with the toughest form of vulgar narrative, the highly erotic issues of pornography. As such, Talbert’s work is virtually unexhibitable and, consequently, hardly known. Herms is an acolyte of Berman and in close accord with his spiritual overtones—he invariably marks his work with the legend “LOVƎ” Reed was a proto-pop artist and assembler of junk who drifted into Berman’s orbit and then disappeared. Conner came in from Kansas to the Bay Area where Berman and Herms were living at that time. Up to then he had painted and worked in an essentially flat form of collage. His meeting with Berman was to induce a decisive change—he adopted the nylon stocking as a container and veil, to work in the most ethereal of poetic symbolism. Kienholz had developed independently using a more painterly procedure, later collaging lumps of wood and objects onto his surfaces. Berman’s exhibition at the Ferus Gallery (which Kienholz directed at that time) indicated the answer to his own problems. Berman is a highly skilled photographer and as such is never dependent on found images. His ability and skill in this direction was to influence all these artists with the exception of Kienholz, who almost never uses photographic images. Conner, for example, made a number of very interesting movies by collaging newsfilm, comics and shot sequences. California assemblage, as a result of Berman’s influence, is completely autonomous, full of rich narrative and the closest development to a true surrealist root in the American vernacular.

John Coplans