Seminal Beat

A tribute to an unsung maverick of beatnik culture

Most people associate the Beat generation with bohemian libertines like Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac. But few realize that some of the most iconic manifestoes of the movement didn't stem from the ostentatious mavericks we think of when the word "beatnik" comes to mind. Take one of the unsung superstars of the time, poet and visual artist Wallace Berman. Known by critics as the "father of assemblage," Berman worked with found and discarded objects. His method was closely tied to the poetry of Beat culture, but it also belonged to a postwar underground. Sadly, it has since been relegated to obscure essays in art history textbooks.

Semina Culture: A Tribute to the Life and Work of Wallace Berman, a catalog to a recent Berman exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, draws the enigmatic artist out from the shadows of his conspicuous peers. Ubiquitous yet below the radar, Berman achieved a degree of recognizability as one of the faces on the album cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and from a minor appearance in the 1969 film Easy Rider. But it was his art, usually in the form of cryptic collages, that gave him a place among the era's most creative minds. Berman's sepia-toned, copy machine-reproduced drawings of a hand-held transistor radio, its flat front surface acting as a screen for a procession of cabalistic images, are among his most interesting. The works convey the almost arbitrary transmission of thoughts and images from our collective unconscious, and mix 1950s pop-culture signifiers such as astronauts with symbolic Hebrew letters. Despite Berman's renown in avant-garde West Coast art circles, his public career was cut short in 1957. His first and only exhibit, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, was shut down by the LAPD. After being slapped with obscenity charges, Berman went into recluse mode, moved to San Francisco, and withdrew from the art scene.

Along with showcasing the previously unexhibited work of artists influenced by Berman's fascinating oeuvre, the Semina Culture catalog includes examples from Semina, Berman's free-form art-and-poetry journal, published in nine issues from 1955 to 1964. Semina, which Berman produced in limited editions and passed out to his friends, was a sort of forerunner to the zine -- a handmade, slipcovered folio made from letterpress text, colored paper, and found material. Berman included the work of trendy belletrists like Antonin Artaud, William Burroughs, and Jean Cocteau. He also used the nom de plume Pantale Xantos to write recondite meditations like, "Im clean my buzz has its base/ From the juice of the Czechoslovakian/ Nectar: Tequila."

Wallace Berman's Wife, from 1959's 
Semina 4, part of Semina 
Culture: A 
Tribute to the Life and Work of Wallace 
Wallace Berman's Wife, from 1959's Semina 4, part of Semina Culture: A Tribute to the Life and Work of Wallace Berman.

Get the lowdown on Berman's eccentric genius with a slide show from Semina Culture editors Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna and a panel discussion with Berman's son Tosh and Beat luminaries Jack Hirschman, Michael McClure, and David Meltzer.

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