Wallace Berman, Off the Grid @Totah

JTF (just the facts): A total of 45 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung against white wall in the two room gallery space, the office area, and in the stairway down to the basement viewing area. The following works are included in the show:

  • 16 single negative Verifax collages (some with acrylic additions), 1964-1976, each sized roughly 6×7 inches
  • 1 9-part positive Verifax collage, c1965, 18×20 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1961/later, 10×8 inches
  • 1 offset poster, 1965, 21×17 inches
  • 1 offset lithograph from Semina facsimile, 1961, roughly 5×4 inches
  • 1 photograph and hand written poem, 1964, sized roughly 29×29 inches
  • 1 collage, 1970, roughly 6×5 inches
  • 1 offset poster published by John Martin, 1967, 25×22 inches
  • 1 woodstain and ink on parchment on canvas, 1956-1957, sized roughly 20×20 inches
  • 3 4-part negative Verifax collages, 1964-1976, sized 13×14 inches
  • 2 4-part positive Verifiax collages, 1964-1976, sized 13×14 inches
  • 1 Verifax collage, c1968, sized roughly 37×33 inches
  • 1 Verifax collage on book page, 1964, sized roughly 10×8 inches
  • 1 paint on photograph mounted on board with hand applied varnish, 1963, sized 34×30 inches
  • 1 25-part negative Verifax collage, c1975, sized roughly 34×31 inches
  • 1 print, 1946, sized roughly 13 x11 inches
  • 1 Verifax collage with writing, 1964-1976, sized roughly 18×9 inches
  • 1 Verifax collage, c1965, 7×7 inches
  • 1 acrylic, Verifax collage, and transfer lettering on board, 1964-1976, sized roughly 13×10 inches
  • 1 Verifax collage with proof stamp, c1965, sized roughly 5×8 inches
  • 1 collage, c1965, sized roughly 13×9 inches
  • 1 negative erifax collage, c1965, sized roughly 10×9 inches
  • 1 offset poster, 1963, 20×16 inches
  • 1 set of 13 offset lithographs, 1966-1974, each roughly 12×14 inches, in an edition of 50
  • 1 inkjet print, 1961/later, 20×16 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1961/later, 8×10 inches
  • 1 Polaroid transfer on magazine map, c1964-1976, sized roughly 5×4 inches
  • 1 16mm film transferred to video (black and white, silent), 8 minutes, 1955-66

(Installation shots and film stills below.)

Comments/Context: One way to read the history of photography is to break it down into an incremental timeline of scientific and technological breakthroughs. This backbone of relentless improvement is a catalyst for change – when each new innovation arrives, it open doors for new kinds of artistic expression and makes room for new artists to emerge that can take advantage of the new possibilities.

Before the introduction of the dry photocopying process perfected by Xerox, which by the late 1960s had already begun to dominate the market for photocopying, several competing technologies were being used to make copies. The Verifax copier was developed by Kodak in the early 1950s, and used a wet colloidal diffusion transfer technique to make photo-direct duplicates. Special papers were used by the Verifax system, and it generated matched positive and negative outputs which were then peeled apart. The costs and complexities of this approach were ultimately bested by Xerox, and the Verifax essentially disappeared by the mid-1970s.

But for Wallace Berman, an artist living in Los Angeles at the time and steeped in the underground rhythms of the Beat Generation, the Verifax copier was an artistic touchstone. Starting in the mid-1950s, Berman had been experimenting with photography, printmaking, film, and collage techniques, bringing various influences, from the syncopation of jazz and the media awareness of Pop Art to Surrealism and the mysticism of the Kabbalah into his works. In a sense, he was searching for a way to incorporate all of these ideas into a unified aesthetic, and the Verifax copier provided a handy solution.

This gallery show offers a decently broad dose of Berman’s work, bringing him back into the conversation for really the first time since his Whitney retrospective in 1978. The earlier works on view offer pieces of the puzzle: initial collages, lithographs from his handmade zine Semina, works incorporating Hebrew letters, and the beginnings of grids and repetitions. In several of these experiments, Berman repurposes mass media imagery (predating many of the artists of the Pictures Generation), provocatively inserting nudes into staid business portraits and the political photographs from Yalta, and mixing celebrities with mystical mandalas. His silent film “Aleph” gathers many of these ideas into a frenetic stream of consciousness, where overlaid hand coloring and letter forms interrupt pop culture and personal imagery with messy abandon.

Berman’s main legacy lies with his Verifax collages, made between roughly 1964 and 1976, particularly those that use the image of a disembodied hand holding a Sony transistor radio as their structural backdrop. In each collage, Berman replaced the speaker grill of the radio with an appropriated image; from there, positive and negative (reversed tonality) single collages were created, which Berman then left as stand alone objects, overpainted with acrylics, arranged into grids of 4, 9, and even 25 component collages, or used to make offset posters. Examples of all of these artistic endpoints are on view in this show.

Berman’s selections for the included imagery were wide ranging, with jarring provocations coming from various directions. He incorporated nudes, body parts, spacemen, mushrooms, Egyptian figures, football players, crosses, the capitol building, rockets, soldiers, snakes, an Iron Cross, and the swirling vortices of storms, just to name a few. When seen in his larger grids, these selections start to feel like a cross section of popular culture, or arrays of signs and symbols that were sure to elicit a response. The best of the Verifax collage grids seem to show us secrets in each hand (almost like today’s smartphones), tapping into the rushing vein of 1960s era life as it swept by.

The graphic power of Berman’s works has helped enhance their artistic durability – as both single images and grids, the Verifax collages are consistently fresh and bold, where the hands and then the grids put compositional structure around an ever changing parade of pop culture icons. With the benefit of hindsight, these works now feel risk-takingly “early”, charting out paths of both content and process that others would successfully trod decades later. With his heady mix of 1960s influences, Berman’s works still stand apart from those who followed. For those who have forgotten him (or never knew his work in the first place), this show offers a rare opportunity to get reacquainted.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $4500 and $275000, based on size and rarity. Berman’s works have only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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