'Unwholesome' message has meaning years later

Times Staff Writer

The distinguished poet Michael McClure once described Semina, the meticulously handcrafted little magazine that artist Wallace Berman produced for friends in nine issues between 1955 and 1964, as "unwholesome" and "un-American." He meant those neutralizing terms as a compliment.

"In the age where the eight-cylinder Buick, the grey flannel suit and the tract home represented wholesomeness," McClure wrote, "Semina was the ultimate unwholesome object, and we gloried in it."

Replace the Buick and the other symbols of Eisenhower-era complacency with a Hummer, a Prada wardrobe and a two-bedroom bungalow on the Westside going for a million-three, and the warped relevance of an absorbing new exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art comes into sharp focus. "Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle" is not overtly arguing for a return to the anti-establishment values of the Beat Generation or the Summer of Love. Dreamy atavism is not its aim. Yet its deft elucidation of an art based on the embrace of social communion and spiritual mystery stands in stark contrast to the corporate careerism characteristic of the art world today.

The show opens with a selection of 17 drawings, photographs, collages and assemblages by Berman, made between 1949 and his tragic death in an automobile accident in 1976 (he was barely 50). Together they provide a thoughtfully chosen thumbnail sketch of his evolution as an artist.

The earliest work is an eccentric, altar-like construction dedicated to the German Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse, whose mystically inflected books took the form of "novels of education." The last is a terrific example of the unprecedented photo-collages made on a copy machine that remain Berman's greatest artistic achievement. (They're called Verifax collages, after the early copier with which they were produced.) Using the format of a grid, the Verifax collages repeat the image of a hand holding a cheap transistor radio. Ordinary pictures of people, places and things -- most clipped from mass media sources -- are affixed to the radios' speakers, as if they're tuning in the modern image-music of the technological spheres.

In the center of this opening gallery is the show's reason for being: A vitrine holds one example of each of the nine issues of Semina that Berman produced. Its title, of course, implies origination and creativity.

The homemade magazines vary in form. Some are simple folders with pockets, others are envelopes filled with clippings and still others are bound in a more conventional manner. All include combinations of poems, photographs, drawings, handwritten notes and collages, some made by Berman and others made by several dozen artist and writer friends. The nine issues usually appeared once a year (none appeared in 1956 and 1962, but two were printed in 1960). The show's impressive, abundantly illustrated catalog includes an annotated accounting of their contents.

Semina was never sold. You couldn't subscribe or get it at the newsstand. You couldn't acquire it at a gallery. (During his lifetime, Berman had a single gallery exhibition -- famously raided by police, who were prowling La Cienega Boulevard on the lookout for obscenity -- and pages from Semina were scattered about inside Berman's temple-like assemblage sculpture.) The artist painstakingly produced unknown quantities -- perhaps a few hundred -- of each issue, and he sent them by mail, unannounced, to friends.

Each magazine was an assemblage, given as a gift. The art was located in the solitary practice of making them and in the social transaction of the offering.

In the show, it's startling to be reminded just how small and fragile each issue of Semina is. (Mere slips of paper, they are almost without color -- other than black, white and the earthen tones of the paper. Red, which in this context seems inexplicably like blood, is the only strong hue that turns up.)

Semina, a work of art held in the hands, appeals to memory, loss and an acute awareness of time's passage, heightened by the sense of touch. Textures vary from smooth and matte to slick and glossy. Some photographs are carefully tipped-in. Others are fuzzy and visually tattered, like artifacts retrieved from a dusty attic.

Issue No. 9 is tiny. A small manila envelope, barely more than 5 inches by 3 inches, it features on the cover the famous photograph of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, which Berman slyly altered. He doubled the image of a law enforcement official escorting Oswald, italicizing the chain of gun violence in the Kennedy assassination while emphasizing the mystery of how Oswald's killing could have happened -- live on national television. Inside is an elegiac wail of a poem by McClure.

The five-cent postage stamp in the corner was no doubt carefully selected, and it demonstrates Berman's detailed attention to interactive process as a linchpin for his art. It shows a big American flag billowing over a diminutive image of the White House. Splendidly patriotic, the stamp is canceled -- as Berman surely knew it would be when he dropped the little present in the mailbox. No. 9 was the final issue.

The catalog astutely traces relationships between Semina and the work of Surrealist poets such as Antonin Artaud and the mystical wing of Judaism represented by the Cabala. Another, more popular source goes unidentified, however, and given Berman's keen interest in the imagery and mechanics of mass media it seems too explicit to ignore. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 when a Bedouin shepherd boy stumbled on seven rolls of ancient parchment hidden in a cave on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, had grown to some 800 ancient manuscripts, texts and fragments when 10 more caves were explored over the next decade. The aged Hebrew and Aramaic communication galvanized the scholarly and the public imagination, culminating in the 1955 book on the ancient papyri by America's preeminent literary critic, Edmund Wilson.

It's hard to imagine the scrolls weren't at least part of the inspiration for Berman's "parchment paintings" -- thin paper brushed with wood stain, inscribed with Hebrew letters in black ink, then torn, abraded and mounted on small square canvases in imitation of ancient fragments -- which he began in 1956. Semina, begun immediately prior to the parchments, is like a sequence of modern manuscript fragments communicating mystical utterances in words and pictures, an artifact of 20th century spiritual intercourse.

Guest curators Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna ably organized the exhibition, which begins an 18-month national tour. The bulk of their show consists of work by and about participants in the production of Semina -- 53 of them in all. Art by contributors to the loose-leaf journal, as well as work by those who were part of the close-knit community around Berman, is accompanied by more than 50 of his photographs -- recently printed from vintage negatives and shown here for the first time.

There are paintings, drawings, assemblages, photographs and sculptures by important artists, including John Altoon, Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Llyn Foulkes, Jess, George Herms and Edmund Teske. Poets are abundantly represented, given the pivotal role of poetry to the publishing project. And numerous actors are also acknowledged, including Billy Gray, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and the late Bobby Driscoll. (Driscoll was the tragic child-star of Disney's 1946 hit, "Song of the South," which coincidentally is the inspiration for Kara Walker's current exhibition at the Gallery at REDCAT. His drug addiction proved fatal in 1968, a fate that befell more than one in Berman's circle.)

With more than 300 works, the show is somewhat daunting. A few surprises do crop up -- don't miss Toni Basil's three-minute film, whose deft editing transforms an ordinary pingpong match between Gray and Stockwell into an energetic dance routine -- although it's unlikely that the selections will reconfigure established understanding of the more significant artists among the brood. Yet the show's size and scope are effective because they elucidate the central, often misunderstood artistic integrity of Semina: As art it functioned as a luminous agent of social communion. The show outlines a kind of socio-spiritual genealogy chart.

Of course, when Berman began his publishing project in 1955, there was barely any art world at all in the United States, never mind in L.A.

Today, when new art has merged with global public spectacle, it is easy to forget how minuscule the community of artists, poets and their followers was, until relatively recently. "Semina Culture" chronicles the formation of the first such postwar community in Los Angeles. A counterculture, it flowed easily between Northern and Southern California, and its crystallization was an essential feature of the content of Berman's extraordinary art.

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'Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle'

Where: Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays

Ends: Nov. 26

Price: $3

Contact: (310) 586-6488 www.smmoa.org

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