Berman and Son

Kevin Killian

The work of Wallace Berman (1926-1976) seems to be getting more and more popular every time I turn around—or is it that a body of work once wildly off the beaten path has come to seem central? Central, that is, to our understanding of the way art developed in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Perhaps Rebecca Solnit’s audacious book Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War (City Lights Books, 1991) led the way. I know that until I read Solnit I knew Berman’s work only vaguely. I thought of him as “Tosh’s father that died.” Tosh Berman, the son of Wallace and Shirley Berman, came to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive as part of their L@TE: Friday Nights @ BAM/PFA series last month to talk about his dad and to present Aleph, a film project the elder Berman worked on for years and years—a decade maybe? It was a household project so omnipresent it didn’t even have a name until recently; the family would just refer to it as “the movie.”

“My father never officially had a name for this work,” Tosh tells me. “In fact he rarely titled any of his artworks.” It was the late filmmaker Stan Brakhage who, supervising a prevopis restoration of the film, read the word “Aleph” on the film canister the negative was stored in, and applied it to the film itself. “It’s a good title,” Tosh shrugs. “But as far as my memory goes, [Wallace] never mentioned the title before he showed the film.”

“Aleph” has recently made its appearance on DVD in one of those Treasures of Avant-Garde Film compilations we film nerds love so much. Well, we love them and we hate them, since no longer can we brag to each other that we were present at that rare Telluride tribute to Gordon Shirley Cook on his 95th birthday—or whoever—because now we have all avant-garde history wrapped up in a box so simple that a child could operate it. We say that this is what we always wanted, but now that it’s here, what was all that sweat for? Why did we brave the snowcapped peaks of Telluride?

Exposed to Wallace Berman’s work, audiences of several persuasions unite in a raw fandom, paralleling, perhaps, the way the artist himself seemed keen on blurring the boundaries between the arts. Many respond to the transcendental side to the man, while others take his conceptualism (and his interest in new technologies) as a prescient salute to the post-human.

Aleph can’t be eight minutes long, but it embodies hundreds of jump cuts from still image to still image, punctuated, if that is the right word for process that seems to reverse punctuation, or at least to ameliorate some of its jagged feel, by extremely brief sequences of moving image. You can’t always be sure what you’re looking at, at least partly because of Berman’s use of hand-painted film elements, as well as his practice of filming in a movie theater off the theater screen, just as black market profiteers might do today. So the image isn’t always precise. The striking footage of Mick Jagger, Tosh explained, was part of The T.A.M.I. Show (the seminal rock documentary of the mid-60s recently restored and issued on DVD). The funny thing is that Wallace Berman, who always seems to have been where the action was, was there at the rehearsals for the T.A.M.I. show but disdained actually filming any original footage himself, preferring to wait for the film to come out to garner the material. In Aleph the meaning of experience is everywhere in question: as the copy precedes the original, the simulacra in which we move attain a precious radiance.

Tosh showed us Aleph twice, once in its silent original version, and the second time with a score newly commissioned from John Zorn “and the Aleph Trio.” In the vast chamber of BAM/PFA’s Gallery B, the reaction was mixed. Some loved the Zorn addition, a high-powered bebop fueled rush of shifting, upbeat rhythms, while some preferred the less programmatic original. “A lot of times [Wallace] would show this film silent, but if the mood hit him, he would play a recording. My strong memory is him playing Bop jazz of all sorts—from Coltrane to Parker. But also James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album. And also Edgard Varése.”