New York

“Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle”

Having meandered across the country on a five-city tour, “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle,” which originated at the Santa Monica Museum of Contemporary Art in late 2005, found its final destination at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery this January. The loose trajectory from West to East is hardly unrelated to the exhibition, which—while rich in SoCal, Beat-era flavor—highlighted the vehement cross-pollination between coasts as it was manifested particularly within Berman’s wide-ranging group of friends and acquaintances. Indeed, while the quintessential (but never mainstreamed) bohemian was the ostensible hub of the show, his roles as facilitator, interlocutor, and documenter to more than fifty other artists, poets, performers, and personalities meant that the show felt like a family affair.

Including work in nearly every medium by figures such as Jay DeFeo, Allen Ginsberg, Walter Hopps, Jack Smith, Toni Basil, Bruce Conner, Dennis Hopper, and Michael McClure, the show also featured many images of Berman’s pals as seen through his eyes and, alternatively, Berman as seen through theirs. Joan Brown, who regarded Berman as the driving force of what she called their “moral group,” is captured by Berman in a 1958 photograph, peering over her own 1957 sculpture Man on Horseback (also included in “Semina Culture”). The subject’s gaze is direct and intimate; she is asking a question or has just been asked one, has just revealed something or had something revealed to her. It’s an instance of how people can look when caught on film by someone with whom they share their thoughts, their lives, their practices. Berman was able to coax this look from many people, and “Semina Culture” is all about the affects and effects of such exchanges.

Exchange, of course, was the basis of Berman’s most famous project: Semina, a kind of loose-leaf mail-art journal, of which there were nine issues between 1955 and 1964. Including artwork, poems, and ephemera by Berman, his peers, and his transhistorical idols, Semina was produced in limited quantities via verifax and distributed in clandestine fashion. It was a discussion piece rather than an economically viable product, a point made clear by Berman when he withdrew from the gallery system in 1957, after having been charged with obscenity for an issue of Semina shown at Ferus Gallery as part of his first (and last) solo exhibition. Copies of all nine issues of the journal are included, as well as are examples of Berman’s other output, from collages to drawings to mailers.

The assembly of art and artists here has particular resonance for our own moment, which manifests both artists productively indebted to Berman’s model (e.g., the queer feminist journal LTTR) and those who plunder only its “look.” It would be easy to experience much of the work that was on view in “Semina Culture” on the level of the merely aesthetic; the show, for all its “datedness,” looked very now, very chic. But the cocurators, Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna, have taken pains to remind their viewers of context—yes, these were a good-looking, hard-living bunch whose work was largely and willfully “outsider” to what one might call the “cleaner” artistic paradigms of the day, but they were united in more than these traits. If little of the work or writing explicitly states these figures’ shared dissatisfaction with then-current discourses and increasing market demands; their belief in the poetics of the subject, or their (perhaps) romantic hope that the desire for dialogue in and of itself constitutes a kind of resistant force, one can still see these things in their eyes.

Johanna Burton