Wally Berman was an authentic Beat Generation character who linked North Beach poetry and jazz to Venice's coffee houses in the early days of the Ferus Gallery. Dennis Hopper was in with that crowd, and I've always suspected he based his character in "Easy Rider" partly on Berman.
Most of the vintage work done by such Ferus artists as Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Kienholz has long since been enshrined in museum collections but Berman--who died at 50 in 1976--made art that is still rather inexplicably available. His chained rocks covered with Hebrew script and Verifax collages of a hand holding a transistor radio are resonant icons of the time that just look better and better.
Nearly 50 works from 1963 on are on view at L.A. Louver's Market St. Gallery, and they carry the social sarcasm, dark anger and moral striving of early Bob Dylan who in fact shows up in a couple.
There's a reproduction of the famous photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot, inscribed with a grunting verse signed by Michael McClure. Berman's preoccupation with corruption shows up in devastating and freshly timely photos of flabby public officials, the family snapshots on their desks replaced by grungy pornography. Berman the mystic materializes in touching astrological charts and galactic images.
No artist is lucky to be set in direct comparison to Berman's peculiar integrity but that seems the inescapable point of a simultaneous show at the gallery's Venice Boulevard branch. Lee Jaffe, a New York artist still young in his career, is shown in works on paper that combine grainy photo images of tract houses and sexy dames printed on hand-made paper festooned with paint.
Titles like "The Piety of the Convert" can equate with either moralism or irony. The way Jaffe plays it with cosmetic chickies and swaths of purple and gold, we come away with a shallow flight from bourgeois boredom to the fascination of luxurious evil. It's bad Baudelaire which is better than good Rod McKuen. (L.A. Louver Gallery, 55 Venice Blvd. and 77 Market St., to Jan. 30.)