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F18  FRIDAY, JUNE 5, 1991

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George Herms spent four years working on the facsimile restoration of his friend's magazine: "Before meeting Berman my spiritual development was all from books. Wally opened the book of life for me."

BERMAN

Continued from F1
John Altoon, and photos by Charles Brittin and Walter Hopps.

The underground publication was not for sale. It rarely reached more than 300 people, just friends and fellow artists who happened to be in Berman's address book. It was more like a private sharing of musings, insights and epiphanies than anybody's idea of a magazine. Only nine editions appeared. The last, in 1964, included the notorious news photo of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.

Today, Semina is considered an important early example of mail art, a direct forerunner of Conceptualism and a wonderful looking glass into avant-garde L.A. and San Francisco culture in the '50x and '60s. A limited edition of 300 facsimiles of all nine magazines has been made and introduced with considerable bunting by Peter Gould's L.A. Louver Gallery in a just-opened exhibition called "Poem Makers." On June 26, Beyond Baroque will hold a reading by McClure and Meltzer, with screenings of films by Berman, Stan Brakhage and Larry Jordan.

The exhibition displays the facsimile Seminas in vitrines. Walls and pedestals bear examples of Berman's free-standing works - Verifax collages, rocks painted with letters from the Hebrew alphabet - plus assemblage works by San Francisco collagist Jess [[text cut off]] Berman's old mate George Herms, the most distinguished visual poet left in Los Angeles from the original California Assemblage movement.

"Before meeting Berman my spiritual development was all from books. Wally opened the book of life for me," Herms said.

Herms was art director for the facsimile, a painstaking four-year labor of love. Berman's old chum Hal Glicksman, who owns one of the remaining half-dozen full sets, provided the prototype. Supporting documents and photos were loaned by the Smithsonian Institution's  West Coast branch of the Archives of American Art. Archive director Paul Karlstrom called the acquisition of the Berman papers the "high point" of his career.  

All of which goes to prove that, on evidence, such pack-rat collecting, scholarly sleuthing and compulsive attention to detail are not the things that mummify history, but rather revivify it.

Something in the alchemy of translating Semina into facsimile makes it feel like an art object. It now resonates an aura that combines the magical delicacy of Joseph Cornell with the moral fervor of Ed Kienholz.

It is downright astonishing the way Berman's life and art reverberate through the culture - from the dawning American bohemian movement of the '40s through '50s Beats, '60s hippies and present-day hip-hop kids. All forged variations on youthful countercultures to sluice open canals of creativity.

For a reputed recluse, Berman was amazingly well-wired to his times. Raised in a somewhat threadbare middle-class Jewish household in the Fairfax district, his family once took in a struggling young entertainer named Sammy Davis Jr.

Too smart even for Fairfax High, Berman quit early and began to hang out with Robert Alexander - a fellow poet, artist and printer who was, unlike Berman, a heroin addict. Avid young intellectuals, they haunted the jazz clubs along Central Avenue. The emotional vectors broadcast by black musicians and "sporting life" people felt authentic to them. They thought of themselves as "outlaw artists."

Berman once wrote a song with Jimmy Witherspoon and illustrated jazz record album sleeves. Years later he was included in the crowd of celebrities on the cover of the Beatles' classic "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album. Somewhere along the line he became a shrewd gambler. Herms remembers a late night in San Francisco, when Berman was accosted by a guy who thought he'd cheated in a card game.

"It was the only time I ever saw Wally go completely pale," Herms said. "Then he said, 'I didn't mark the deck. I just noticed the marks and read them.' What impressed me was how fast Wally recovered. He had this pool-hall hustler's approach to life and a dancer's grace. He knew how to bob and weave."

In 1952, the artist married Shirley
Please see BERMAN, F19
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