In Search of Wallace Berman


New York dealer Nicole Klagsbrun recalls her first time seeing a work by Wallace Berman, in the 1980s when she was running the storied, now-defunct Cable Gallery. The work in question was a reproduction of one of the artist’s black-and-white “Verifax” collages (so-called for the primitive copy machine Berman used to produce them) published in a magazine: “The image just struck me, and the writing. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to and I kept trying to find it. Of course there were no annotations; there was nothing to guide me.”

Such is the inscrutable charm of Wallace Berman (1926–1976), an artist typically associated with the Beats for his situation in a Post-War, West Coast context. For a self-selecting group of dealers and collectors, working with the legacy of Berman has become an exercise in muddling the roles of enthustiast, historian and curator, as well—as evidenced by the current show at Klagsbrun, a solo show of career-spanning work. Pieces on view come from the dealer’s personal collection; others were borrowed from museums, or represent the Berman Family Estate.

Berman became a minor legend for refusing to show his work to an audience beyond his friends and family. His 1957 show at the Ferus Gallery was shut down by the Vice Squad two days after it open; he was subsequently fined for exhibiting “lewd” material in the form of his artist magazine Semina, and temporarily fled Los Angeles. He never exhibited properly in a commercial gallery again.

Part of Berman’s appeal has been the network of child stars and misfits—Dennis Hopper, Taylor Mead, Dean Stockwell—who clearly looked up to him. Somehow, the reclusive Berman shows up on Peter Blake’s cover for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The show that re-ignited interest in Berman—Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, organized by Kristine McKenna and Michael Duncan in early 2007—located him at the center of a collection of overlooked, eccentric assemblage artists. (WALLACE BERMAN, UNTITLED MERMAID TAVERN POSTER, 1973. COURTESY OF NICOLE KLAGSBRUN GALLERY)

“I thought it would be appropriate to do something that would be more about the world of Wallace Berman,” says Klagsbrun, which means looking beyond the artist’s better-known serial collages featuring and ephemera, to his variegated practice, including record covers, Polaroid transfers, and a film, Untitled (Aleph) that Berman worked on throughout his life, and which he edited by splicing the filmstock during private screening sessions. Here the silent film is scored to an experimental piece by John Zorn and projected larger than life—it’s surely the most monumental showing of Berman’s moving-image work to date.

Klagsbrun has arranged three collages as a re-installation from the notorious 1957 show, but over all, the approach centers the work and Berman’s formal innovation. Says the dealer,  “I could have borrowed more pieces, but I’m not a museum. And I didn’t want to take on the responsibility of something historical.” There are some idiocratic pieces; Klagsbrun highlights a collage that includes an image of a penis—which is rare for an artist whose work with nudes prefers the female form. Klagsbrun also asked Berman’s widow, Shirley, for permission to blow up a photograph of her husband, ecstatically marking the wall behind his home with a distinctive graffiti of Hebrew characters in meaningless configuration. (It’s a wall that soon after fell into a cliff, along with the artist’s house and much of his collected works.)

Klagsbrun organized a group show with Jeff Koons, Allen Ruppersberg, Allan McCollum, and Andy Warhol in 1999. At the time, she reports the show garnered, “a good reaction, but nothing special.”

Reception—and prices—have changed.

Berman featured earlier this year in a two-person show with Richard Prince at Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles, who also presented him solo at Art Basel in June. The Berman family (Shirley, and son Tosh) still owns much of the estate, and there is a palpable finitude to the corpus. “Wallace created it so there would be a very small market,” Klagsbrun explains. “In the beginning, when I was fighting to get into it, and you know I got some work at auctions, so you know there wasn’t much interest. And then all of a sudden, there was one or two more people bidding—then all of a sudden you couldn’t get them anymore.” The myth comes full-circle.

Wallace Berman, 1926–1976, is on view through January 9, 2010. Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery is located at 526 W. 26th Street No. 213, New York.