Wallace Berman, Untitled, 1971, glass photo collage on wood,
7.625 x 7.75 inches (Courtesy Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery)
For someone like me, who came of age as an artist and art critic in Los Angeles in the 1970’s, Wally Berman (1926 - 1976) was an enigmatic legend. There wasn’t much of his work around to see because Berman was notoriously shy about exhibiting; but what I did see stayed with me. They were haunting, dark, creepy and fragile objects, redolent of mold. His work was somewhat in the vein of the much better known Edward Kienholz, but more mysterious, gentle and poetic.
Sadly Berman’s work pretty much disappeared over the years, but happily it was re-discovered a couple of years ago because of the exhibition Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle at the NYU Grey Art Galley. Since then Berman’s work appeared in group shows here and there, and now we have a show of his work at the very hip Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, 526 W. 26th Street, #213, (unfortunately this Saturday is the last day) -- so I guess Wally Berman’s work will endure.
Two things about this exhibition struck me. The first was Berman’s rapid-fire collage film, Aleph, 1956-66. Seeing it projected full scale was powerful stuff. It looked surprisingly cutting edge, reminiscent of the videos of Klaus vom Bruch . After seeing the original silent version, I didn’t think any sound track could possibly work, but John Zorn’s new jazz score for the film actually improved it.
The other revelation should have been obvious, but I never really realized it until now: Berman’s work is patently hand-made. I recently blogged about Mondrian’s work in that respect, and how touchingly human it is. What Mondrian did with impersonal geometry, Berman did with photography and other mechanical mediums. Berman tears, scratches, paints and stains the photos, film or prints -- he does everything he can to make it plain that a human being made them. The result is these fragile, poetic human things -- things perhaps too vulnerable to exhibit in public.