Two West Coast Art Communities Outside the Mainstream

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Two West Coast Art Communities Outside the Mainstream

Years ago, Bruce Conner sent me a black and white photograph of “GLOBE” (1972). After I got it, he told me over the phone that it was in a private collection and had not been seen in many years. I think he relished that it was a one-of-a-kind work that people would have difficulty seeing in person. This was true of a number of Conner’s greatest pieces, such as “CHILD” (1960), which the Museum of Modern Art had in its collection for many years, but did not show until Bruce Conner: It’s All True (July 3–October 2, 2016). Conner also told me that the inspiration for “GLOBE” was the paint company Sherwin Williams’s original logo, designed by George W. Ford and nicknamed, “Cover the Earth,” showing a paint can suspended in the air above the earth, pouring over it. 

This is one of many reasons to go the exhibition West Coast Collage and Assemblies: Helen Adam, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jean Conner, George Herms, Jess, Lawrence Jordan, Patricia Jordan, Dean Stockwell, at Tibor de Nagy (July 17–August 27, 2021). Encompassing a poet, filmmaker, and movie star, the exhibition consists of individuals who belonged to one of two coteries — or countercultural groups — that formed in California, starting in the mid-1950s. 

One group, largely associated with Los Angeles, included Berman, Herms, and Stockwell, while the other group was located in the Bay Area, and included the Jordans, the Conners, Jess, and Helen Adam, with the reclusive Jess and the voluble poet Robert Duncan at its center. 

Installation view, West Coast Assemblies: Helen Adam, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jean Conner, George Herms, Jess, Lawrence Jordan, Patricia Jordan, Dean Stockwell at Tibor de Nagy, New York

The figure who connected these two groups was Berman, whose one and only show during his lifetime was at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, until the L.A.P.D. Vice Squad closed it because a copy of his loose-leaf magazine Semina, which was included in a sculpture, was considered “lewd.” The offending material was a reproduction of an ink drawing of a “peyote vision” by an artist who went by the single name Cameron, a devotee of Aleister Crowley. 

A few years after that, the exhibition An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle was at the same venue (January 14–March 29, 2014), curated by Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff. 

Were it not for the Grey Art Gallery, I doubt that either of these exhibitions would have been seen in New York, as the artists in both were outliers interested in the occult, visions, mysticism, and experimental poetry, a combination that practically guarantees that the artist will not become a commercial success story. 

In addition to “GLOBE,” which is one of Conner’s singular works, I would add the series of original Verifax images that Berman assembled for his Radio/Aether Series (1966/1974), published by Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles as a portfolio of lithographs with letterpress, Radio//Aether (1974). In this series, Berman photocopied a hand holding a transistor radio, in which he has collaged different images — messages sent from the aether, the fifth element that fills the universe above the earth. Each work in the series consists of four images, whose meanings we are invited to speculate upon. 

Jess (Collins), “Goblin Pye” (1961), collage, 26 x 20 inches

One of the many ways the occult and mysticism have been misrepresented by the art world’s institutions is the suggestion that any work made under these signs leads away from everyday life, which is the opposite of what these works do. In the work of Conner, Berman, and the others in this exhibition, one sees critiques of American materialism, masculinity, and the preoccupation with the beautiful. 

In addition to the collages and assemblies, there is a poster for the 1963 Marcel Duchamp exhibition at the Pasadena Museum, which Berman sent to Duncan and Jess with a note; a photograph by Berman of the Ferus Galley with a handwritten sign announcing his show was closed by the Vice Squad; two photographs of Berman by Patricia Jordan, including one where he is wearing an earring made by Jay DeFeo; and two stacked photographs by Charles Britton (who is mysteriously not listed in the exhibition announcement) of Wallace and Shirley Berman in front of his studio above an interior shot of the studio. 

In addition to the ephemera — all of which adds to our knowledge and understanding of these two groups — there are two large, colorful collages by the filmmaker Lawrence Jordan, who is best known for his animated and live-action short films. I highly recommend the four-disc boxed set The Lawrence Jordan Album (2008), which has nearly eight hours of film. 

Jordan’s two collages, “Invocation of the Magi” (1995) and “Prodigies” (n.d.), which are nearly double the size of the other collages in the exhibition, reveal another side to this wonderful filmmaker who should be better known. 

I have always found Jean Conner’s collages — which do not resemble her husband’s in any way — witty and critical. “Bearcat” (1980) shows a bear with cat’s head collaged over its own, peering into a car window, one paw extending inside. A bearcat is an East Asian animal whose name might have inspired this collage. I am reminded of the visitors to Yellowstone National Park who think it is good thing to lower the car windows and feed the bears. 

Wallace Berman, Radio Aether Series (1966-1974), collage; 13 works, 12 x 13 inches

A number of pieces are dedicated to Robert Duncan, including a collage by the poet Helen Adam and a wall piece by George Herms. One thing seems pretty clear about both groups: they separated themselves from mainstream culture, including the art world. This is practically unheard of today.

Jess has five collages (or what he called “paste-ups”) in the exhibition. “Untitled Lean Mouth” (1953) consists only of phrases and sentences cut from different sources and arranged to suggest a narrative that dances nimbly around meaning. “Untitled (Tonsured Monk)” is one image glued onto another. In “Goblin Pye”  (n.d.), Jess uses a Victorian sheet printed with a grid of 12 engraved rectangles, each of which forms the ground that he intervenes in with his images, as well as a text that in its playfulness, musicality, and shifting meanings underscores how deeply engaged he was with James Joyce. 

Together, the five collages also make clear that Jess never settled into a style in this medium. That resistance to branding as well as a commitment to making art out of detritus, to apply paint to unlikely objects, such as a globe, which can never be seen in its entirety, and the inventiveness of their collages, convey the experimental, open-ended approach to art making that is common to all of the members of these two overlapping communities. 

West Coast Collage and Assemblies: Helen Adam, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jean Conner, George Herms, Jess, Lawrence Jordan, Patricia Jordan, Dean Stockwell continues at Tibor de Nagy (11 Rivington Street, Manhattan) through August 27.

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