Arrested by the vice squad during his first solo exhibition at L.A.’s legendary Ferus Gallery in 1957, Wallace Berman (1926–1976) turned his back on commercial galleries. Taking his art underground, Berman mailed his collages, poems, and handmade magazines only to close friends. Even with such a limited audience, Berman proved influential: A generation of artists would claim him as a progenitor of the West Coast outposts of Beat, Fluxus, and Pop.
Berman’s unassuming art is stuffed into the Whitney’s “American Century, 1950–2000,” but his legacy is best examined elsewhere. At Roth Horowitz (160a East 70th Street, through December 10), Berman is paired with East Coast Fluxus artist Robert Watts. Berman and Watts were strangers who shared an appreciation for the subversive and ephemeral. But while Watts was drawn to the public spectacle of Happenings, Berman retired into esoterica.
Berman’s letters are colored by references to drugs and the Cabala, as are his Semina magazines, made from cardboard envelopes filled with typed poems and small drawings. Made with an early photocopy technology, Verifax, that reversed images in white on black, Berman’s arresting collages endlessly repeat a photo of a hand holding a transistor radio, replacing its center with pictures cut from popular magazines. In this banal frame, sports, porn, news, and advertisements vie for attention with letters in the Hebrew alphabet, often in nonsensical combinations.
On paper, Berman’s studied mysticism appears at odds with the materialism of Jeff Koons, Allan McCollum, Al Ruppersberg, and Andy Warhol, his compatriots in a show at Nicole Klagsbrun (526 West 26th Street, through December 18). While making much of an aesthetic preference for repetition, this exhibition establishes Berman’s place in a history often biased toward East Coast artists. Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish one artist from another, which no doubt confuses general visitors even as it surprises those who have overlooked this seminal figure of the early L.A. scene.