Los Angeles

Wallace Berman

Many artists and critics continue to identify Wallace Berman as the leading luminary of the assemblage movement that swept California four decades back. Though it’s difficult to distinguish myth from fact in this respect—Bruce Conner, Edward Kienholz, Jess, and George Herms have all at one time or another disputed this characterization of Berman—his impact on the era remains clear. During his time spent living in LA, his home in Topanga Canyon became a haven for artists, musicians, and poets alike, providing them with a sense of community as well as a place to exchange ideas and information about common cultural concerns.

This exhibition of Berman’s “Radio Aether” series, which he worked on up to a year before his death in 1976, consists of the Verifax collages Berman began producing in 1964. An early form of photocopier, the Verifax machine had been developed by Kodak in the ’40s and was a cross between a printing press and a camera. A wet print process, it used disposable negatives and special paper.

The image appearing on virtually every Verifax collage from the series is a small AM-FM transistor radio held up by a right hand. Embedded in the center of each radio is another image. Though some pieces contain only a single composite image, the hand-held radio more often appears amid a grid of four or, in some cases, fifty-six squares. The composition sometimes resembles a cinematic tableau or a fanlike arc that looks like a deck of cards being shuffled. Overlaying the radio image are a panoply of others: skeletons, angels, flowers, guns, the iron-cross insignia, planes, cameras, men and women copulating, horses, warriors, spiders, and leopards are just a few. The sepia tones (resulting from the chemicals involved in the Verifax process) give the pictures the look of archaeological finds from the recent past. As with all his work, the symbolic, imagistic threads running through the compositional grids and fanlike arcs create mental maps that are open to individual interpretation. Personal associations attached to each image are mingled with others to produce new memories and new associations. It’s as if Berman’s radios were transmitting the images as something like a musical accompaniment to life, made visual. Even today, the collages remain powerful, complex works.

Rosetta Brooks