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Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle

Interview with George Herms

Wallace Berman: George Herms, Topanga Canyon, 1965; gelatin silver print; 8 1/2 x 6 in.; copyright Edmund Teske Archives, Laurence Bump, Nils Vidstrand; courtesy Stephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.

The following is excerpted from an interview Senior Curator for Exhibitions conducted with artist George Herms on July 20, 2006, at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Herms was a close friend of Wallace Berman, whom he credits with setting him on the course he has followed since they met. Several works by Herms are featured in Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle.

When did you meet Wallace Berman?

He walked into my life on my twentieth birthday. He visited the house in Topanga where I was babysitting and gave me Tears of the Blind Lions by Thomas Merton. He signed it "Have a good birthday, Wally B." I found it recently—fifty years later—and now have it on my desk.

What was your impression of him?

Wallace was with Bob Alexander, and the two of them made quite a pair. Both poets and artists, they were ten years older than I was and I started emulating them. I had no idea you were supposed to an apprentice, then a journeyman—I just started out making masterworks. (Laughter)

Was this after you returned from UC Berkeley?

I went to Berkeley as a College of Engineering student for six weeks, and after football season was over (I played football), I quit. My parents pleaded with me to finish the semester, so I went back and finished the final five weeks. Over Christmas vacation I came to Los Angeles and on the first night I was thrown in jail for having beer in the car. It was the beginning of my search that led to Mexican jungles. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, but after I met Berman and Alexander my life changed. The only poetry I had read at that point was Erotic Poems by Philip Lamantia. Although I had been a high-school sports writer, I grew up with no knowledge that it was possible to be a poet or an artist. I thought art was something that had happened in Paris in the 1920s.

The Bermans lived on Crater Lane in Beverly Glen Canyon in West Los Angeles. Was theirs a sort of open house?

There wasn't that much coming and going. It was Shirley making spaghetti so we could eat. This went on in Beverly Glen and in Larkspur and San Francisco—wherever they lived. It was never a salon situation, and he never did any guru-type thing. It was always just Wally and Shirley and Tosh. I became a plastic artist probably because of an evening in their home when I tried to read my writing, I was writing on these twenty-five-foot rolls of shelf paper with no punctuation, which left no breathing room. I was young and had stage fright and heart palpitations and there was no place to breathe. It was a terrible experience! (Laughter)

Didn't you once trade houses with the Bermans?

I lived in Hermosa Beach, south of Los Angeles, and they lived in Beverly Glen Canyon in West Los Angeles. After his 1957 exhibition at Ferus Gallery was closed by the police for obscenity, Wallace was extremely distraught, so we traded houses so I could cover the phone calls and give the family a little peace. At that time galleries were like shoe stores to me. If you wanted high heels you went to this one, another style, you went to another. But Wallace had turned an art gallery into a temple and that convinced me that making art was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was shocking when the show that I considered beautiful and spiritual was busted and called obscene and pornographic. After that, Wallace devoted himself to Semina magazine rather than exhibiting his work in galleries. We lost about ten years’ worth of what could have been beautiful shows, but we did gain this incredible magazine.

Did you help him assemble Semina?

I never did that. John Wieners, John Reed—different people—helped him paste, although Wallace did most of it himself. Wallace created Semina 7, the only issue that consisted only of his own work, in Larkspur (Marin County), and it ended up being my favorite. At that time we were both living in houseboats in Larkspur and our lives where totally involved with each other. He put the Seminas together, and I was his ping-pong partner and foil. I learned more about life and art playing ping-pong with Wallace Berman . . .

Like John Cage playing chess with Duchamp. . . . Was it Berman's work that was important to you or was it his way of life?

It was as a role model. As I said, Berman and his friends were ten years older than I was and in full stride. It was a wonderful time. No one's name was important. Everyone was called "man." And what you did—it could be painting, poetry, or music—was just called "the work." Pigeonholing hadn't happened. Explanations weren't necessary, and there was no critiquing. Here at Skowhegan where I am teaching this summer, there are scheduled critiques, and I tell students that I am not a "critter" I'm a green-lighter, and Wallace Berman was the original green-lighter. He was doing what he wanted, and if you wanted to emulate him, you had to do what you wanted to do.

Tell me about Secret Exhibition.

Just before I left Hermosa Beach, I had my first exhibition, which I called Secret Exhibition.

That became the title of Rebecca Solnit's book on California art.

Yes, but the only people who saw it were John Reed and Wallace. I took all the works I had made in Hermosa Beach back to the vacant lots where I had found a lot of the stuff. I was scavenging and beachcombing and setting up these objects and assemblages in the front yard like little tableaux like others might display cactus plants or lawn sculptures. I thought of them as shrines as I do all of my work. The assemblage movement owes a lot to the shrines made by Mexican cab and bus drivers that I had seen in 1955, before I met Wallace. When we go to the beach, I tell my children that they don't have to bring everything home. Instead they can set up little shrines to say thank you to the universe for letting them find these beautiful things. That kind of shrine-making that no one may ever see has totally gotten lost in the race for something called a career. Career wasn't a word artists used then, or a concept.

Secret Exhibition wasn't documented, I take it?

No, documentation comes later.

Tell me about the time you moved to the bay Area.

In Hermosa Beach I was married to Polly. She had been in college for eleven years and never got a degree. Our plan was that she would get a teaching degree and teach, and I would paint. We rented a thirteen-room house on Haste Street in Berkeley near the Cinema Guild. I would go there after 9 p.m. when the box office closed and saw the movies Pauline Kael was showing; Larry Jordan was projectionist. Wallace, Shirley and Tosh came and stayed with us until they found a place on Jackson Street in San Francisco. Two doors down were Bruce and Jean Conner and Michael and Joanne McClure and Wally Hedrick and Jay DeFeo were around the corner on Fillmore. Others would come and stay for a time.

I hear you are planning to present a theater piece during BAM’s Tribute to Wallace Berman event on October 29.

Yes, I am calling it "Wallace at 80." He has been gone for thirty years. What he would have done in these thirty years! He was always ahead of the curve in everything; he was a zoot-suiter and then the first one to wear long hair. He would always be somewhere the night something started.

Some people have that . . . karma?

It's curiosity, a love of the unknown, and fearlessness. It's not about seeing something you already know about or are comfortable with.

Getting back to Semina, you created a facsimile edition that LA Louver Gallery published.

Yes, I did it as an homage to Wallace, because there wasn't a complete set in anyone's possession. Between Hal Glicksman and myself, we had one full set. It took me five years to create the entire series, either using Berman's negatives or taking the best image from an original set and making a photo offset of it. It was incredibly hard to find papers that were common in the 1950s. It bothers me that there are people who say that Berman didn't know anything about photography. He was self-taught, but his contribution in the area of photography is way beyond what people know today, and also to me he was greatest editor of all time. What would he have done with computers! Also, I would say his San Francisco Seminas captured the quintessence of the North Beach scene.

How did he come to make his Verifax collages?

When Billy Jahrmarkt, who ran the Batman Gallery in San Francisco, moved to London, he gave Wallace his Verifax machine. Verifax was an early form of photocopying that didn't involve a negative. Again, the notion that he wasn't adept at photography was a myth. In fact, he did a lot of photography and went beyond straight photography by exploring a new method that was more consistent with his needs and aesthetic. He would have been an ace at Photoshop. His Verifax pieces were made slipping an image behind a hand holding a cut-out image—that's a Photoshop concept.

Berman traveled in many circles.

Yes, and he was the consummate correspondent. He would send a thank-you note for a dinner. Sometimes a work of art would become a thank-you note. Life and art got very close together. Wallace was the most complete human being I ever knew.

Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle has been organized for the Santa Monica Museum of Art by co-curators Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna.

Support for the exhibition and catalog Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle has been provided by: Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons, Charles Brittin, LLWW Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pasadena Art Alliance. The presentation of the exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum is supported by the Consortium for the Arts at UC Berkeley.