New York

Wallace Berman

Louver Gallery

Wallace Berman upsets familiar codes of meaning even while miring himself in them. Long before it became fashionable, he used sensationalist mass-media imagery—all-American, vulgar visuals devoted to sex, violence, and whatever else could be regarded as simultaneously forbidden yet commonplace—as an expressive vehicle. Moreover, he didn’t isolate and slick them up, treating them with touristic detachment and converting them into art à la Pop. Rather, he flung them at us in all their mesmerizing, indiscriminate abundance—one senses that for him their variety was more exciting than any particular image—emphasizing their raunchy but peculiarly affectless character. It was as though he knew that, without their daily fix of trashy images, Americans have no sense of identity, collective or individual. Thus, he seems to celebrate the addictiveness of mass-culture images, but here’s the catch: he does so with nonironic reverence. He ritualistically presents the images in a grid, marking each with a cabalistic Hebrew letter. This suggests that in fact the profane image is unwittingly the sign of a sacred mystery. Berman’s seriality—repetition of the same, the secret of all mass production—becomes a kind of altar on which the local subject matter of the images is disclosed as enacting, unknown to itself, a sacred mystery of cosmic import. Berman “mystifies” them, or rather, indicates their inherent mysticness.

Berman’s newsworthy images are typically presented on the surfaces of hand-held transistor radios (he anticipated the fraudulently intimate miniaturized TV). By reason of their self-containment in the grid format and the cabalistic letters, their content becomes peculiarly self-canceling as well as “transcendent.” They retain their populist character but acquire an oracular dimension, as though they were omens from another world—different ways in which God became signifying flesh. Berman’s mysticism is intense to the point of hysteria. I think this hysteria is especially embodied in his use of materials such as magma and stone. Both no doubt are meant as emblematic, indeed, ecstatic articulations of pure being. Berman seems fixated on them, while he varies the mundane images, he repeats the use of these materials hypnotically. It is as though Berman wants to hammer home their primordiality. In some works this sacred matter juxtaposes with the profane images, in others it is literally marked with a Hebrew letter. These fantasy letters cancel out their sense of pure materiality, signifying its uncanniness. I think that Berman values the solemn yet sensuous Hebrew letters (cabalistic meaning would be impossible without the shapeliness of the Hebrew alphabet) for their inherent exoticism, as well as for their mystical import. They are the ecstatic shapes the tangled desire for transcendence takes when it cannot be instantly satisfied. Berman’s defiance consists in his sense that the most prosaic things are not what they seem, that they are poetic vessels in which the mystery of existence is concentrated in action.

It should be noted that these pictures probably reflect Berman’s attempt to come to terms with his Jewishness, or, more particularly, with Jewish iconoclasm, which puts him in a difficult position as a visual artist. Jewish iconoclasm forbids the naming and picturing—the signifying—of God, but Berman, a mystic idealist, wants to name and picture the holy spirit. Unless it can be materialized as a sign, it cannot be esthetically enjoyed—a way of worshiping it. Berman solves the problem as Jews have done since their religion began: the divine, signified by its unsignifiability—known by its unknowability—is assumed to be a universal presence, latent in the most mundane reality. Its presence is demonstrated, as it were, by the ritual presentation of the mundane reality, making it look more integrated—less contingent—than it empirically is, and creating the illusion that it is divinely fated. As noted, Berman’s grid initiates such ritualization, and his cabalistic letters finalize it. They signify that the divine is hidden but temporarily contained in what they mark. The point is to suggest divine determination of reality by presenting it ritually in the form of a sacred object—indeed, an obscure eschatological text.

Berman’s cabalism is also his perverse response to America, which refuses to recognize its own mysteriousness by compulsively constructing its banality in an interminable series of “typical” popular self-representations. By dialectically sublating these images in his cabalized grid, Berman insists that America is also dense with mysterious being. His ordered heaps of frenzied images, cabalistically privileged—the Hebrew letters baptize them into mystery, making them revelations to those who can see—shows him to be as all-American as Hawthorne and Melville. Like these authors, Berman finds holy madness everywhere in mundane America.

Donald Kuspit