LA Now Lecture Series
February 11 2020
Wallace Berman (1926–1976), Greeting Card, ca. 1962, gelatin silver print, 4 x 3 in.
Kicked out of high school, the Navy, Chouinard art school, and then arrested for the only element of his only show not created by him, Wallace Berman was quite the character - and so is his son Tosh. Tosh’s dad, Wallace Berman, was part of the “beat” movement in the 50s and was known as the driving force behind California’s assemblage movement. An online journal explained he shared his art through a mail collection called Semina, which is a written testament to his priorities as an artist. Best described with his son’s words, Wallace was a “borderline criminal” who was “white, jewish, smoked pot, rolled dice, and loved jazz.” Beginning at seventeen, “he created the Charley Park album cover for Dial Records” when “his focus was primarily on beep-bop jazz,” and ending as the “father of assemblage art” he truly made his mark. If one needed more information to describe this quiet giant in art, in his book Tosh gives another description of his dad being a “jazz obsessed zoot-suiter who danced extremely well.” But to put it simply, as Tosh did last Thursday, “[his] dad just did assemblage.”
Like his dad, Tosh said his “attitude towards school was shaky” and “from [his] dad, [he] learned failure.” I enjoyed the pieces of his talk when Tosh would further explore ideas from his book. He said, “[his] dad waited in the car for [his] high school graduation.” According to his kin, “it was just the way he was,” and there was no explanation for it.
As a young child he “had a hard time distinguishing between the TV box and reality” as his world was filled with a collection of creatives. When Tosh shared his “whole world” growing up “was adults” I could relate at least to the chaos of introductions and flurry of too many names. As his son explained, Wallace also “made his own currency.” Apparently at the local farmer’s market, it was a usual occurrence for Tosh’s family to pay their tab with artwork and his father was “quite the barginner.” I find this tidbit to be absolutely pure as I believe art is a beauty that should be shared just as fluently as it is created (which might not be fluently at all), not coveted.
Growing up Tosh said, “[his] major responsibility in [his] dad’s studio was to make sure the music was always on.” I can relate to this directly as I also grew up in a very musically influenced environment. In an interview, Tosh explained he was “with [his] dad consistently for [his] first 20 or 21 years.” In that time, Tosh shared that the duo “never talked about work” and “sometimes [Wallace] would ask for at least two hours of one song on repeat,” but otherwise “[they] communicated silently.” In another interview, Tosh reiterated that his father “never talked about his artwork or his techniques or why he did” anything. He explained his father was heavily influenced by Charles Baudelaire. He shared that, “even though he never went to a temple in his life,” Wallace also had a fascination with kabbalah, just like Baudelaire. I find it fascinating to connect all of these tokens of art history through Baudelaire’s lens - as the then and now artists continue to do.
I believe the most important token Tosh left with his audience was his statement about his dad’s priorities as an artist: “My dad never thought about his audience.”
This statement is important because Wallace is, then, the epitome of an artist who is creating for the sake of creation. Not to sell or to duplicate, but to beautify the world surrounding oneself for the sake of beauty - beauty itself. In other words, Wallace crafted his ideas in a collage of their own and the closest the outside world will ever be to understanding those ideas true to form is Tosh Berman. Sometimes the unspoken have the most to say and just as Baudelaire wrote in A Painter of Modern Life, “beauty must encompass the absolute and the particular, the eternal and the transitory,” Wallace lived his life as the both the front-line innovator and the recluse in the corner. Although only one reality was truly visible to him while he was alive, quietly creating assemblage art, his legacy continues to propel Baudelaire’s ideas. For someone who “spent his time trying to not be in the spotlight,” Wallace Berman shone a light on areas of art that were barely illuminated before.
(Other notes below)
Wondering about Wallace?
On the Record (In the Studio): “Who’s Next In Line or anything by the Supremes”
My favorite new word (courtesy of Tosh Berman)?
I was surprised to know...
Wallace “ died on his birthday when he turned fifty years old with [Tosh] in his studio.”
To be continued… (for Lun*na)