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Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle

October 18, 2006 - December 10, 2006

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Wallace Berman: Silent Series #1, 1955-72; Verifax collage on wooden panel; 24 x 26 1/8 in.; museum purchase.

The exhibition Semina Culture revolves around Wallace Berman—artist, poet, and, above all else, catalyst for a group of mid-twentieth-century artists, performers, and poets commonly referred to as Beat. Between 1955 and 1964, among his other activities, Berman published nine issues of the unbound magazine Semina, which he printed on a hand press and distributed to friends through the mail. As exhibition co-curator Michael Duncan wrote, “Semina was sent out like a surprise communication from an erratic correspondent . . . and soon became an underground legend.” The magazine serves as the organizing principle for the exhibition, which features works by its contributors—including artists Jay DeFeo and Bruce Conner, poets Michael McClure and David Meltzer, performers and countercultural figures Dennis Hopper and Russ Tamblyn, among many others—as well as portraits and ephemera documenting an extraordinary yet under-recognized moment in postwar American artistic and literary culture.

Semina was a loose-leaf journal published sporadically in editions of a few hundred; each issue consisted of a folder or envelope containing a random ordering of drawings, collages, photographs, and poetry by Berman and his circle along with poets and artists he admired from the past. More than the sum of its parts, Semina is an artwork, “a new kind of assemblage of images and text,” according to Duncan. Duncan draws connections between Semina and the Boîte en Valise (1941-66), a witty gathering of miniaturized artworks by artist and gamesman Marcel Duchamp; the “little magazines” of the 1920s, such as Transition, Dial, and Broom; and especially the 1940s journal View (copies of which Berman owned), which presented poetry and features on artists like Man Ray and Joseph Cornell, who also designed the magazine's covers. (An example of Duchamp's Boîte as well as works by Cornell and Man Ray are currently on view in the BAM exhibition Measure of Time.)

The heart of Berman's activities was a small house on Crater Lane in Los Angeles (photographer Charles Brittin called it an “artistic dissemination center”), where young artists gathered informally and were exposed to Berman's eclectic passions, which included French poets Charles Baudelaire, Jean Cocteau, and Paul Eluard, radical playwright Antonin Artaud, and German mystical writer Hermann Hesse, as well as the Kabbalah and new jazz and classical recordings. Brittin described the atmosphere at the house: “People came happily and sat down and left four hours later. What happened is that you'd listen to some music and smoke some pot and talk and look at things.”

Although the core of Berman's circle lived in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area—Jay DeFeo, John Altoon, Arthur Richer, Bruce Conner, George Herms, Ben Talbert, Jean Conner, Jess, Cameron, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Michael McClure, Jack Hirschman, David Meltzer, Robert Alexander, John Reed, Larry Jordan, Patricia Jordan, Bob Kaufman, Dennis Hopper, and Llyn Foulkes were key figures—it also included avant-gardists centered at Black Mountain College (Robert Duncan, Jess, and John Wieners) as well as New York poets (Allen Ginsberg, Diane DiPrima) and Warhol Factory filmmakers (Jack Smith and Taylor Mead). Semina Culture includes paintings, photographs, collages, drawings, assemblages, artifacts, and poetry by all of these artists and others, over fifty in all, illustrating their artistic and intellectual interactions. Many of them are also represented in a large selection of Berman's photographic portraits, several of which have never been seen before this exhibition.

The exhibition also includes a selection of Berman's Verifax collages, the artistic works for which he is best known. These works feature a grid of repeated images (made using an early form of photocopying) of a hand-held transistor radio. Within the rectangular space of the radio appear images drawn from newspapers along with the Hebrew letter aleph, the Egyptian ankh, and other hermetic symbols (Berman was a devotee of esoteric mysticism, games, and systems). There are frequent references to jazz, French poetry, and sports figures.

Berman withdrew from public exhibition of his work after his 1957 show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles was closed by the police and he was charged with public obscenity. He died in a motorcycle crash in 1976, the day before his fiftieth birthday. Berman's slogan “Art is Love is God” sums up his belief that life, religion, and aesthetics are inseparable, a point of view made richly manifest in Semina.

A complementary PFA film series, Beat-Era Cinema, offers additional glimpses of the Semina artists and their work.

Constance Lewallen
Senior Curator for Exhibitions

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.