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February 18: Wallace Berman’s Assemblage Art

Lawrence Bush
February 18, 2017
Wallace Berman, who pioneered “assemblage” art, introduced elements of kabbalistic symbolism to his work, and appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, died on his 50th birthday on this date in 1976 in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. Berman lived most of his life in southern California, where he founded a mail-art magazine, Semina (1955-64) and a makeshift gallery of the same name, and collaborated with Beat generation poets and artists. His only public gallery show took place in 1957 and was shut down by the vice squad because of his inclusion of a nude image in one of his assemblages. His only film, Aleph, was a silent meditation infused with kabbalistic mysticism. Berman was involved with jazz musicians and created album covers for Charlie Parker. In 2016, the Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles presented “American Aleph,” Berman’s first comprehensive retrospective. “Spiritually inclined, yet steeped in popular culture and the political events of the day, he conducted reconnaissance far beyond the borders of Southern California, mining the American psyche and broadcasting his ideas through mysterious letters, publications, and multi-layered art works. . . . Berman was a transitional figure, who deftly blended the art of the European avant-garde with native vernacular traditions, like jazz and folklore, and his own hybrid version of American and Jewish mysticism.” --Claudia Bohn-Spector, Kohn Gallery

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.