Wallace Berman was a seminal artist of the Beat Generation and a crucial figure in the history of twentieth-century postwar California art. Berman was at the center of a circle of artists, writers, and musicians, who fused poetry, jazz, ritual, and art to create an idiom that was dually expressive of both hope and disaffection.
Considered the father of California assemblage along with Bruce Connor, Berman is also well known for his folio journal called Semina (1955–1964). A collection of photos, poetry, calligraphy, and art printed on cards that he sent in a limited edition to friends and colleagues, Semina is highly valued as a quintessential Beat art form. However, Berman’s photomechanical prints, or Verifax collages, were his largest body of work.
Not only did Berman tune into the culture and pluck out things he was interested in, creating a visual diary of the time, he also subverted the social message through his presentation. Berman liberally used Hebrew letters as both decorative element and kabalistic symbol as a way to assert his Jewish identity and his orientation toward the mystical. Such surrealist juxtaposition and mysticism impart new meaning to Berman’s images. What results is a sort of poetic language of the soul, a twentieth-century iconography, in which spacemen and presidents replace saints. And though his work can be read as a form of pop art, Berman’s “distancing” reads more like hermeticism, or very potent poetry.
An enigmatic personality with an aristocratic bearing, Berman had a brief and intense life. He died on his fiftieth birthday, killed by a drunk driver in Topanga Canyon.
Works in Our Collection
Verifax collage, c. 1972
11-3/4 x 12-7/8 inches
Gift of Ruth and Murray Gribin