While you’re touring New York’s Beat Generation landmarks, drop by the Grey Art Gallery to find out what the “community of disaffiliates” were doing out in San Francisco. You’ll discover through Semina Culture that they were hanging out with Wallace Berman.
Instead of cutting up and rearranging his own writing like William S. Burroughs was doing, Berman published a cut-and-paste-style arts journal called Semina that showcased his friends’ talent alongside found objects. “Semina was sent out like a surprise communication from an erratic correspondent . . . and soon became an underground legend,” says exhibition co-curator Michael Duncan. The contents of the hand-printed mail-art spill forth to reveal the works of such icons as Robert Kaufman, Ray Bremer, Philip Lamantia, and Allen Ginsberg. For his premiere issue, Berman snapped a photo of artist Cameron for the cover and included a drawing she created during her first experience with peyote. Issue 3 is devoted entirely to that magical cactus fruit and includes Michael McClure’s infamous “Peyote Poem.”
Now don’t go taking any drugs, but imagine what would happen if the pages of Semina sprang to life and you get the idea behind the Semina Culture exhibit. Sure all nine issues of the journal are the crown jewels, but the exhibit is so much more than that. The work of fifty-two of Berman’s famous friends makes the exhibit a fascinating study of the artistic side of a generation known mainly for its literature. While “the visual masterpiece of the Beat era,” wasn’t available for display, the paint-encrusted stool Jay DeFeo sat on while making his impact painting, The Rose, is on view. Beyond that, there’s Lawrence Jordan’s shadowbox Pinkerton Found, featuring images of the Beatles, an old-fashioned piano player, and masked women. Jordan played Faust in Robert Duncan’s play Faust Foutu at the Six Gallery (where Ginsberg introduced the world to a little poem called “Howl”), and lo and behold on a few walls over hangs Duncan’s wax-crayon and collage on wrapping paper rendition of Faust Foutu. Another famous San Francisco landmark, City Lights, is the backdrop for Patricia Jordan’s photograph of Kirby Doyle. In one of the many photographs Berman took of his friends is New Yorker Diane DiPrima, who stayed with Berman and his wife when she visited California. Like Berman, DiPrima and her husband, LeRoi Jones (fyi: he goes as Amiri Baraka today and his controversial play Dutchman is currently on stage at Cherry Lane), ran a small press. Through the impressive display of paintings, collages, and sculptures, Semina Culture reveals that the Beat Generation’s art deals with the same themes as their writing: road-tripping, drugs, spirituality (Berman was into Kabbalah way before Madonna), and jazz.
So who exactly is Wallace Berman that he was at the center of the West Coast Beat movement? Turns out, he was actually a New Yorker. Born on Staten Island in 1926, he moved to Los Angeles in 1930, where he got into all kinds of crazy trouble. After dropping out of several art schools, he started making sculptures out of the leftovers from the antique-furniture factory he worked at. His most famous contribution to the art world is his verifax collages. Like Jackson Pollock (who hung out at the same establishments as the New York Beats), Berman died in an alcohol-related car crash in 1976.
Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle will be on display at the Grey Art Gallery through March 31. Located at 100 Washington Square East, there is a $3 suggested donation for non-NYU students. There is also a Semina Culture book available.
Pictured: Wallace Berman Self portrait, Topanga Canyon 1974 (printed in 2004), posthumous Gelatin Silver Print, 16 x 20 inches, courtesy Wallace Berman Estate.