My New Year’s Resolution

Posted by on December 31st, 2009 at 2:50 AM

My resolution for 2010 is to spend more time in Chelsea, visiting galleries that showcase postwar and contemporary art. Unlike most New Year’s resolutions, this one should be doable.

I spent an amazing day in the western edge of Chelsea last month, catching up with the latest exhibitions. I was particularly impressed by the Wallace Berman show at the Nicole Klagsbrun gallery at 528 West 26 Street. The show is open through January 9th, so there is still time to check out the collages, paintings, and serial imagery of one of the more intriguing figures to emerge out of 1950s Beat culture.

Wallace Berman (1926-1976) was born on Staten Island but spent most of his life in southern California. According to the usual web sources, he was expelled from high school for gambling and worked for several years in a furniture factory. For roughly a decade (1955-1964) he published a mail art journal called SEMINA that featured letterpress text printed on colored paper and found materials. Some of the contributors to SEMINA included Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Jean Cocteau, and Allen Ginsberg. The only solo exhibition of his work during his lifetime, at LA’s Ferus Gallery in 1957, was closed on its opening day by the local police. He was killed by a drunk driver on the eve of his 50th birthday.

Berman’s work is both distinctive and eclectic. He worked in a variety of media, including film, photography, painting, and collage.  He often incorporated words and phrases into his images, and he had a special fascination with ancient Hebrew letters, which he often dropped into his paintings and collages. His Verifax photocollages are reminiscent of some of Warhol’s work, but I find them to be more mysterious than anything Warhol produced.

At the 2009 MoCCA Festival, Gary Panter talked on stage with Frank Santoro about twentieth century artists who cartoonists and alt-comics fans should know more about. A helpful summary of the panel can be found here: Wallace Berman may not be in the same league as some of Panter’s favorites (e.g., Picasso, Duchamp, de Kooning), but he is an unfairly neglected artist whose work still resonates. As the poet Jack Hirschman wrote about Berman, “all his images have about them a texture of tough bodily concentrated realism mixed with demonic funk-sense of the forlorn and violent eros of wanderers in the lush Los Angeles night of the ’60s.”

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