Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World

By Tosh Berman

City Lights Books | 2019

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

tosh berman

A Personal Memoir That Demonstrates Limits of Genre

I wanted to like this book. It is about the art scene that roughly bridged the beat era of the 1950s and the 1960s in Los Angeles. This occurred when I was a teenager. Then I excitedly anticipated each installation at the Pasadena Art Museum, which was briefly the magnet for cutting-edge art.

A brash a new wave of artists emerged in Southern California in the late 1950s that bore allegiance to no school and practiced an outlier art, challenging the New York-centered abstract expressionist hegemony that had once been a rebellion but had become what the newcomers considered an authoritarian establishment.

Rather than eschewing figurative representation as had Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, many of these new artists pulled imagery from mass culture and blew it up, repeated it and even celebrated it. Of course, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns were already breaking the hold on the East Coast, but L.A. had no real art scene of its own

Some of the young artists to emerge were homegrown but a significant number came from the Midwest, and rather than heading to New York where the competition was tough and was in some ways a closed shop, they flocked to Southern California where they could start something entirely new. Among this new guard were artists who have since become iconic figures. Among them were Ed Moses, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Claes Oldenburg, David Hockney, James Turrell, Helen Pashgian, Ed Keinholz, Ed Ruscha, and Wallace Berman.

Berman died in 1976 but throughout the ’60s the self-defined beatnik was at the hub of the art scene that bloomed around the Ferus Art Gallery and its enigmatic cofounder Walter Hopps and partner Irving Blum. City Lights has just published his son Tosh Berman’s memoir Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World in what appears to be a hastily edited volume, which is sometimes chronological while bearing chapter headings mostly named for middling to luminescent celebrities that Tosh knew. It seems that his father was a magnet for the likes of Dennis Hopper, Brian Jones, Allen Ginsberg and host of greater and lesser known artists and bohemian hangers on, all ended up in his Topanga Canyon home.

Tosh Berman also is credited for a photographic collection of his father’s works, Wallace Berman: American Aleph, published in 2016 and for which he wrote the introduction.

Perhaps City Lights took on this project because it’s the niche publisher for all things beat but other than that it’s hard to see what the allure may have been for this, unfortunately, rather superficial and frankly poorly written personal history reveals very little about Wallace Berman other than some basic facts of his life that could be gleaned from a quick Google search.

Wallace Berman was born in New York City in 1926 to a Russian Jewish family that moved when in he was in grade school to Boyle Heights, then a Jewish-Mexican enclave of Los Angeles, finally settling on westward with much of the Jewish community to the Fairfax area near Hollywood. Until he was apparently expelled for gambling, Berman attended Fairfax High, whose later alumni included Herb Alpert and Phil Spector.

Before he was old enough to order a drink, Berman frequented the clubs in the vibrant jazz world on Central Avenue, where surprisingly, he became good friends with Sammy Davis Jr. This is only the first of the celebrity names dropped in the book. Apparently, Wallace bounced around at a series of menial jobs before enlisting in the Navy in what Tosh says was “his late teens.”

He didn’t mention that this would have been in middle of World War II and he seems incurious as to why his father wasn’t drafted along with nearly all able-bodied men. I mention this because it’s among the many omissions that leave the reader wondering. At any rate his stint in the Navy apparently was short-lived because he had a nervous breakdown and received a medical discharge.

After that he enrolled in Chouinard Art Institute but was kicked out for “reasons unknown.” Chouinard is pivotal to the story of the emerging arts scene because many of the artists to burst into fame in the 1960s were at one time enrolled there. Chouinard would later, under the sponsorship of Roy Disney, be transformed into the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

Tosh would have us believe that his father was mainly a self-taught artist, and, indeed, he writes of long hours spent in the house alone with Wallace admonishing him not to disturb him while in his studio. As for his mother, Shirley, Wallace sent her out to work office jobs so that he could find himself as an artist. Tosh devotes a chapter early in the book to Shirley, who he says couldn’t have had an easy time with her budding artist husband.

In one of his habitually convoluted sentences that can only evince a  “huh?” he says “Wallace wanted to be the househusband, working on the artwork and taking care of my basic needs, while his wife got a salary of some sort — in other words, very much like the street mentality of a hustler and pimp.”

What a harsh, if genuine, assessment of his family dynamics!  Later his says of his father that he “required a partner in crime who totally supported his quest for all things that were compelling in the world. Everyone agreed that Wallace finding Shirley was a magnificent thing.” The opaqueness of constructions like this plague this book.

Tosh tells us that early in the marriage Shirley began keeping a journal, but Wallace forbade her to continue, surmising, the son says, that secrets of their lives that he wanted kept private would be revealed. For the readers of this book that is dismaying. Shirley may have provided insights that seem to be lacking in this superficial tour of a family history.

He speculates that because his father was kicked out of school he never had much regard for education and subsequently he never asked Tosh much about his schooling, never went to school functions, and never talked with Tosh’s teachers. Tosh says he was never more than an indifferent student, although he attended some of the best schools Los Angeles had to offer in the 1950s and 1960s. He believes he was forever plagued by having to repeat kindergarten. After that, he says, “the problems just did not stop.” In assessing his school experience, he makes the following startling statement: “My highly educated opinion [an odd choice of words] is that I’m slightly retarded.” I’m afraid this book is evidence of the truth of that self-evaluation.

A case in point, without belaboring this, is a statement that jumps out in his self-named chapter: “To be born is genuinely an amazing thing.” Wow!

What we know about the artist Wallace Berman is that he was influenced by Dadaist artists Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp. He created assemblages in which he combined three-dimensional objects with paintings, later photocopies, on canvas. Controversy erupted over his first exhibited work titled “Temple,” that was shown soon after Ferus gallery opened in the summer of 1957. His piece incorporated a drawing of a sexual coupling by artist Marjorie Cameron with a crucifix enclosed in a wooden crate. An irate attendee called the police and the gallery was raided and Berman was arrested for and convicted of obscenity and fined $150. His friend, actor Dean Stockwell paid the fine. This series of events served to put the artist on the cultural map.

Subsequently, Berman experimented with Verifax copies of images taken from popular culture. One of his assemblages is foregrounded by a picture of Lenny Bruce with what appears to be butterflies flying out of his head while a thuggish cop beats on his skull with his fist. Above the cop’s head is an iron cross. A 1967 collage titled “Untitled (Faceless Faces with Kabballah)” shows rows of well-dressed couples with their faces blotted out with a caption in Hebrew letters. And, though his son Tosh says he didn’t study the Kabballah, nor did he know Hebrew, he incorporated Hebrew letters in many of his works. This was perhaps inspired by the shop windows he would pass daily on the Fairfax Avenue of his youth

A better book, but with flaws of its own, about the Berman circle is Hunter Drohojowska-Philps’s 2013 Rebels in Paradise: The Lost Angeles Art Scene of the 1960s.

In her book she says that, “Berman’s work was heralded as link between Beat and Pop” with works like one with a repeated image of a hand holding a transistor radio, each with a different image placed on the face of the radio ranging from whimsical to erotic to spiritual. From Warhol on the East Coast to Berman on the West, the currency of Pop artists was in holding a mirror up to society.

Berman also briefly published the journal Semina, which published artworks, poetry, and essays by emerging Southern California artists and writers mostly of the beat persuasion.

One wonders how Berman would have evolved as an artist had he not been killed by a drunk driver near his Topanga Canyon home on his 50th birthday, but his legend probably deserves a serious look.  This disappointing book only whets the appetite.

Michael Moreau is a frequent contributor to The Neworld Review

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