that berman tug...
every year or so i find myself gravitating back towards the work of wallace berman, spending, once again, a few weeks looking at images and trying to understand why his work continues to resonate so deeply. i can't remember the first time i saw the work, but it was most likely in the early-1980's, and it is also likely that my response to the verifax works had something to do with them being an obvious precedent for the xerox aesthetic of the punk zines and fliers that were already a major part of my world (and in fact, one of my first projects in art school circa 1982, was a series of surrealist and dada influenced xerox collages, using images of walruses and elephants, guns and military images, comic books... and porn... what do you expect... i was 18!).
the recent (and incredibly excellent) berman/heinecken show at the armory center in pasadena, speaking in tongues, pushed my view of berman's work to a whole other level (and similarly, as i hardly knew heinecken's work beforehand, the discovery of his work was also a revelation). not since the 1996 semina culture show at the santa monica museum, had i been able to see so much of berman's work in a single space...
as may rolled around, that annual "berman tug", had me returning to the 1992 exhibition catalog "support the revolution", which contains a bunch of wonderful texts, all of which i re-read. the two paragraphs below are from a much longer text by eduardo lipschutz-villa, and they place some of berman's concerns within a number of areas that i feel connected to:
"... it has been said that his [berman's] work deals in codes pertaining to the kabbalah, an occult theosophy of rabbinical origin transmitted verbally through generations. the kabbalah is based upon an esoteric intrepretation of the hebrew scriptures. it follows then that berman's work is often nonsensical when one tries to read it as hebrew. and yet, it's difficult to say; kabballah is not something you just learn. extracted and distilled from lengthy discussions held among spiritual experts concerning the writings of the talmud, one cannot simply learn the kabbalah over a period of years. however, there are two important considerations we can discuss here. one is the use of typography as a formal mode of expression, which could in fact relate to the yetzirah, a doctrine stating that god created the universe through letters, that the world is rooted in language, thus in alphabet systems. learning and understanding these alphabet systems is essential if one wishes to get closer to the essence of being. berman stated many times, "art is love is god".
the other consideration is that berman understood the basic concept of kabbalah and used it as a point of departure. his interest in it probably stemmed from early investigations into the occult. in the fifties, berman was involved with the california occultist cameron. his personal attraction to mysticism is clear. at the same time, he was uncomfortable with negativity associated with occultism. as though recanting his early involvement, berman searched for the positive side of to mysticism. i believe this is what led him to encounter the kabbalah. without fully understanding it, he embraced it conceptually and devised his own codes. understandably energized by this new system, berman launched his crusade."
of course, there's a ton of departure points in the excerpt, and of course, a relationship to language and systems (or language systems) and codes is, obviously, something that has fueled my work for years; but there is, of course, more to it. in the late 80's i met with a rabbi for the first (and only) time and while i spoke to him about my work, he offered me some insight into the kabbalah and some of the ways that letters and numbers came together (in ways that seemed, at least to me, like a kind of word alchemy). it was a brief conversation, but like the best talk, rather than offering me a clear path, it opened the door towards fumbling experiments, wonder and wandering... and so i began to experiment with words, letters and numbers more deeply.
when villa says that the kabbalah is "not something you just learn. extracted and and distilled from lengthy discussions..." it sounds very much like something one could say about zen - and how in both cases although words do have built-in distinct and specific meanings - they also remain slippery, unfixed and most importantly, open always to interpretation, and hence, there is no true end point... and it would seem that such situations are about extending the conversation, rather than reaching a fixed destination.
i don't know about berman, but for myself, this is the way that an artwork offers most, and my aspirations for my own objects would be to offer some of the same... to create works that have the ability to reveal and deny continually, so that conversation and experience evolves through both a generous and rigorous path (for both the maker AND the audience) and has the ability to transcend an end point - or a specific interpretation. when villa says "understanding these alphabet systems is essential if one wishes to get closer to the essence of being", again, i am struck by the idea of "getting closer" as a state of mind rather than a definitive truth.
when i was making paintings with visible letters and words, i was very interested in the idea of offering an object with a perceived meaning or statement, but which would not resolve into a kind of anticipated dead end. it was a constructed situation where language would suggest specified meaning, but that meaning would not resolve comfortably, and so one would need to re-think it - or more appropriately, to re-look it... to be in the work, rather than to stand outside of it and try to figure it out. i was not after an experience that simply offers a meaning, as much as i was trying to instigate a meaningful experience.
certainly, berman's works exploit concrete and recognizable images, although it would not be a stretch to say that many of the works themselves are certainly abstract - even the radios (like stepping stones) are a fixed framework for a series of images (or situations) - and much like poetry, are a framework for a series of experiences, interpretations, inventions, conversations.
i'm not sure why it has taken me years to think about berman's work in relation to jasper johns; and i'm kind of surprised that i haven't seen anything that connects their works. certainly in terms of graphic language rauschenberg would be a better match (especially in relation to graphic presence and multiplicity of images), but in terms of personal iconography, cultural artifacts, image power (and baggage) as well as personal narrative/biography, johns' work, especially from the 80's onwards, seems to embrace a similar hermetic and personal path... at least more so than rauschenberg's; and like berman, johns used images that were icons - and in that i mean using single images of cultural power that can also speak deeply personal/private way, in spite of the baggage. rather than offering puzzles to be "figured out", it seems to me that both berman and johns are taking charged objects or images and making them their own - shifting from the general to the private, and by somehow owning the image, remaking the image anew - and offering a multitude of new interpretations and relationships that such objects seemed incapable of owning. most of all i love how both of their works can be generous (opulent for eyes and minds) and hermetic (stubborn in terms of reveal) at the same time; and both artists' works seem to question the concrete end, as they seem to continually subvert expectations.
i suppose it is the mechanical reproduction in berman's work that has sporadically brought warhol into the conversation, yet i believe that much of that conversation revolves around the fact that warhol had an exhibition of soup cans at ferus, and both berman and warhol reveled in the repetition of images. but even though peter blake put berman into the collage on the cover of sgt. pepper, i find it difficult to see berman as a pop artist, in the same way i find it difficult to see ruscha as a pop artist (a much longer discussion). sure, the visual languages are compatible, but clearly berman's concerns and warhol's were coming from vastly different places - and perhaps the two extremes have a lot to do with the difference in the art cultures on the east coast and the west - warhol coming out the culture of advertising and pop, while berman being part of the jazz scene and the beats. (and i would love to see someone do a comparison of some of warhol's publications and berman's semina - as well as their respective posters and book/record covers - as i think it would accentuate the different scenes tremendously).
i'm also a bit surprised that while the duchamp show at the pasadena museum is mentioned often in relation to berman, i haven't read anything about berman's relationship or knowledge of kaprow, who also had a show at the pasadena art museum at a time when berman could've known him. while kaprow seems to have been interested in spectacle (at least at that point in his work/life), berman's work always had an element of quiet (radios only existing in image, so that the images remain a grid of silences.)
last week, bill stern gave a great talk at lacma about california design called "what's so california about california design", and what was really interesting about the his take, was that he offered less of a timeline of great designer's greatest hits, and spoke more about how certain designs and aesthetic decisions were the products of specific local conditions and histories - exploring the reasons why design evolved in los angeles so differently than in new york. while reading about berman over the last few days, i began to think about some of the artists that berman didn't work with, but who also seem compatible with some of berman's ideas/concerns, and i started to think less about the beats (whom he knew of course) and serial imagery, and more about lee mullican and the other dynaton artists (whom, of course, i am a geeky fan of); but how, like berman, these artists made works that were also clearly an attempt to imbue on object with a deep belief in mystical experience... berman's and mullican's works are evidence of a belief that the making of an object (or the creation of an artwork) is both an ordinary act and a spiritual act, so that the human is, at times, the shaman; and the the shaman is also, at times, the human...