BY Ian Chang in Reviews | 01 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 147

Wallace Berman & Robert Heinecken

BY Ian Chang in Reviews | 01 MAY 12

Wallace Berman Untitled #126, 1964- 76, single negative photographic image cut-out

The personae projected by Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken, by now hoary legends of the ‘artist’s artist’, inventing postwar California assemblage and auguring the Postmodern, could hardly have been more different, within the range afforded by the hyper-masculine bohemianism of the 1960s. Heinecken was an ex-Marine pilot who waxed macho about his Korean War years; Berman was ejected from World War II submarine service after a nervous breakdown related to the murder, by sonar, of a whale. Berman was a low-key hipster, habitually sceptical of institutions, who arrived early and became a fixture in Beat circles; Heinecken was a high-energy striver, who came into his own as an artist later in life, then found his most lasting influence as a teacher. Berman was a jazz freak who looked like a rabbi; Heinecken a porn freak who looked like a longshoreman. Where Heinecken was hot, Berman was cool; Berman subtle, Heinecken coarse. Even in death, they split: Berman died tragically and too soon, killed by a drunk driver; Heinecken faded away from Alzheimer’s in a nursing home.

And yet they claimed the same mantle, updating Dada for the Atomic Age, and pioneered the same effect, the serial juxtaposition of the newly steroidal mass culture, our common visual vomita. They were also friends. Friends close enough, as the curators note in the catalogue, that a pact they had made never to go respectable by cutting their shaggy hair, surely begun as a bar-room jest, became on Berman’s untimely death a solemn promise, which Heinecken kept to his own death some three decades later.

‘Speaking in Tongues: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken, 1961–1976’, a show at the Armory Center for the Arts that compared the two artists as part of the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time effort, worked hard to point out the commonalities between them. Befitting the age of deconstruction, they were both consumed with how individual meaning is created, and mass culture revealed, by the comparison of images. They seemed to believe, with an earnestness that feels sometimes dated and sometimes prescient, that we are what we see. This is not to claim face value – quite the contrary. Instead, the system of relations that constitutes us is obscure, though the evidence of the system lies in plain sight. Inside the black box of our televisions, our heads, our history, there is a code of self to which the imagery is the only key.

Berman’s signature work of the period is a seemingly endless procession of Verifaxed grids, in which a hand holding a transistor radio, cribbed from an advertisement, displays various pictures, mostly found: human figures, famous and not, nature close-ups, astronomical nebulae, religious icons, Hebrew letters, divination tools, etc. Together with his experiments in Kabbalah, mail art, avant-garde poetry and the like, the collages make Berman the cooler, wiser grandfather of a hipster aesthetic, the vibe of a thousand music videos that jump-cut their way through the YouTube archive. His grids make all differences equivalent, and thereby balance an aloofness, a wry distance expressed in their explicitly mechanical reproduction, with a pleasure in the mystery of signs, their continuing vulnerability to the occult – even, or perhaps especially, in a scientific era.

Heinecken applies the same principles to the more turgid mysteries of desire and consumption, making Berman’s religious fetish into a sexual (and commodity) fetish. So it’s no surprise that the bulk of his work in the show is based on advertisements and pornography. (The remainder foreshadows his later, more directly political work, whose heavy hand makes it seem if anything more puerile than the other – a kind of ‘hypocrisy porn’ itself.) The best known is his still-irresistible series ‘Are You Rea’ (1964–8), in which popular magazine pages were rendered translucent, then used as negatives for photographic prints, producing front-and-back superimpositions by turns hilarious, sinister and seductive. Aside from reminding us that the visual discourse of the 1960s was in many ways franker and less buttoned-up than our own, the prints threaten to reveal the hidden menace of our lust and consumerism – though at their best, they never quite give it up. More obliging are the multiple-exposed grids of faux-lesbian pornography, especially the numerically cheeky Cream Six Single and Nine Squares (both 1970), which abandon preachy critique in favour of luxurious but queasy send-up. In them, titillation remains unconsummated if for no other reason than that those arms and legs and genitals, chopped up like the meat they are, never quite meet.

In an epigraph to ‘Are You Rea’, Heinecken cites André Breton, who says ‘the mind has a marvellous facility in seizing the slightest rapport that exists between two objects taken at random’. One began to think the curators might have applied just such a mind, creating the ‘aleatory’ by force of will, because the two artists’ work is as different in style as the men were. Heinecken’s approach loves passive revelation, Berman’s loves active interposition. Heinecken indicts the down and dirty of now, while Berman joshes in the mystic ether of eternity. They each had a finger on the zeitgeist, but Heinecken had his on the zeit, and Berman on the geist.

So what did they have in common, besides a yen to cut up magazines? Their friendship, even, is only another code. The curators admit that little is known about the meeting of these minds. No lifetime of letters, no collaborations, no elaborate eulogies. All we have is the nearby addresses, the name of a dive bar, one Christmas card and the testimony of their long-suffering widows. But given its subjects’ methods, the exhibit’s missing centre seems no barrier to positive understanding. ‘Desire,’ Breton continues, ‘allows everything to itself.’

Ian Chang is a writer living in Los Angeles, USA.