Wednesday, January 23, 2019

It’s Been a Hard Day’s Life: Growing Up Berman

Tosh Berman (left) gesturing tantrically with family friend Allen Ginsberg. (Photo: Wallace Berman)

Review of the new memoir, Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World by Tosh Berman, published by City Lights Books.

"If the first movie your father takes you to as a child is . . .  And God Created Woman, you can be sure of two things. First, that your father is an extraordinary person. Second, that you are destined to lead an extraordinarily interesting life." – Ron Mael, Sparks
Both of Mael’s observations ring totally true in this engaging, endearing, and surprisingly modest chronicle of a life lived under the white hot lights of a radical couple of proto-hippie parents: Wallace and Shirley Berman, an avant-garde artist famed as one of the originators of “assemblage art” and his gorgeous and exceedingly generous (for letting him be who he was) wife and muse. The Bermans were obviously not your average family, and their son Tosh (from the Russian Antosha) is partly the living evidence of a life lived for reasons far beyond the quotidian behavioral realm of domestic security or conventional social structures. His father , and the legendary works of art he made, as well as the stratospheric friendships he cultivated, were a vital transitional link between the beat culture of the '50s and the hippie counterculture of the '60s. Thus young Tosh grew up on the circus high-wire in the big-top tent of accelerated Change.

So, three things can be stipulated at the outset: yes, his father was extraordinary; yes, his own life was extraordinarily interesting; and most importantly, perhaps, from my perspective, Tosh Berman's worldview was aggressively marinated in the most compelling and challenging times since the Roaring Twenties. His character, which comes across as soft-spoken, retiring and incredibly well travelled intellectually, is in fact a balsamic reduction of sorts: his view of reality has been basted, so to speak, in the simmering juices of an almost unimaginably surreal, not to mention decadent and creatively indulgent, upbringing. It is entirely accurate to call this book a self-portrait, not a selfie, but instead one taken at the crossroads of popular culture and avant-garde culture. It’s a collision of the two west-coast worlds, Hollywood royalty and fine art royalty, stirred stylishly together into a mind-expanding milkshake of hugely influential proportions.

My own family has ancestral roots in Hollywood, my cousin on a grandfather’s side being Charles Brackett, the writer-producer of Sunset Boulevard and other Academy Award-winning films, so I grew up naturally fascinated by the milieu, but for me that was ancient history, a saga I absorbed by watching his films on black-and-white television in the '50s and '60s. In Tosh’s case, though, as he so splendidly and candidly shares with a considerable honesty not common in celebrity memoirs, he was in a living movie himself, one of the co-stars, or perhaps a character actor, in the ranks of this feverishly unspooling hothouse atmosphere. This living television show -- dare I call it almost a reality show? -- in which he portrayed himself, “the kid in the corner soaking up the vibe,” could be called Welcome to the Bermans, the hippest and weirdest family on any block, let alone one split between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

This was no Ozzie and Harriet, or The Donna Reed Show, or Father Knows Best, however, far from it, and I’m having a hard time not calling it Father Knows Beat. After all, imagine growing up Berman and discovering at some point that your Dad is one of the iconic figures depicted on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album designed by pop artist Peter Blake. That’s him there wedged below Carl Jung, above John Lennon and next to Tony Curtis (in a photo-portrait by his actor pal Dean Stockwell) and identified on later map outlines as “a Los Angeles artist.” This is the kind of my-dad-versus-your-dad item that is so cool you don’t even bother telling people about it, because that wouldn’t be cool to do. So I’ll tell you instead.

But we can now celebrate the exhaustive escapades of growing up Berman and revel in the supernal coolness of the kid in the corner soaking up the vibe, since he’s decided to share them with all of us. And such a great cultural documentary it is: it pleads to be turned into a film someday, and who knows? Maybe that’s already in the works. The book Tosh, brought to the light of day by City Lights, a San Francisco legend, is a living and breathing archive of the times, a glittering library of the literati, aesthetic giants, music kings and queens, political, social and cultural icons, actors and actresses galore (with all of their kids in the corner too). His father –  a filmmaker, photographer, publisher and sculptor – was also a curator of people and situations, a mesmerizing and charismatic magnet for those like-minded imaginative individuals who intended to alter the landscape of art and poetry forever. And he did just that.

One of those other kids in the corner was a childhood friend of Tosh’s, Amber Tamblyn, herself the progeny of Hollywood royalty as a daughter of actor and genuine old-school movie star Russ Tamblyn, so I guess they must have bonded together, or banded together maybe, to help each other survive the slings and arrows inherent to growing up in the spotlights. In her rather tender prologue to the book, Tamblyn captures some of the sense of urgency embedded in their experiences and perhaps the survival mechanisms they employed as kids to make it from one exhibition to the next, from one film to the next and from one party to the next. Both of them were co-starring in a very, very adult, even X-rated world.

Lithograph of John Lennon by Wallace Berman, 1967.
It’s amusing to imagine these two kids hanging out in the downstairs rec room watching Wagon Train on television while upstairs the party rages on with artsy people bobbing about to Velvet Underground records, while they themselves were in fact living in an actual velvet underground. Imagine their young banter: “Hi, my dad starred in West Side Story” and “Hi, my dad invented West Coast assemblage art.” After that, there’s not much left to do but settle down to watch Ward Bond. Amber Tamblyn is perhaps the ideal voice to preface Tosh’s own personal recollections of growing up Berman. And it’s a task she undertakes with a kind of wistful and considerate kindness indeed.

Something of a treat having a book’s preface be penned by a childhood friend who shared a wacky coming of age in the midst of the multiple majesties of art and film, someone who, as Tamblyn does, shares the ultra-intimate insights available only to the ultra-insider. Describing her Los Angeles parents’ art-crammed apartment filled with items that have become magical relics to some of us, she asked her famous father who the long-haired and bearded man in a certain portrait photograph was: “A guru? A hippie? An artist? A visionary? A revolutionary?” It turned out that he was all of these things and more: it was Wallace Berman, who was the father of her friend Tosh, and also, she states, the victim of a drunk driver in 1976 at 50, who cut short an already legendary career as a conceptual artist, impresario, editor, curator, and all-round rabble-rouser.

He was also among those creative thinkers who, in the postwar tumult of contemporary art, helped to invent the future. She describes her father Russ softening his eyes, clasping his hands across his chest, looking down at the floor in a wistful moment of sadness and gratitude, before exclaiming, “Wallace, he was everything.” Amber Tamblyn also expresses something helpful to any reader of the friend’s book when she declares that one of the most stunning works of art Wallace and Shirley Berman ever made was their son, Tosh, born in 1954. In many ways, his book’s narrative, subtitled Growing Up In Wallace Berman’s World, is like a first-hand report from a passenger on board a speedboat as it approaches Niagara Falls. For many of us who perform some function in the art world, whether as makers, critics, curators, collectors or simply curious onlookers, it’s a precious document of a special time in cultural history.

Equally stunning as the stratosphere of giants he encountered from the loftiest peaks of visual art are the incredible musicians and bands with whom his father and friends consorted. There is actually, I suspect, enough material for a whole separate book solely focusing on the musical innovators in whose orbit his family moved during the formative years he describes in this memoir. I do hope someone convinces him to write about the way visual art is frozen music and music is time-based vision, as suggested by some of his amazing reminiscences of exposure to the leading recording and performing artists of that era.

Wallace with Tosh toddling (right), 1958. (Photo: Harry Redl); Tosh's mother, Shirley B. in 1956. (Photo: Charles Brittin)

For readers who might not or could not have a firm grasp of how incendiary and influential the post-war transition from beats to hippies was while also in the midst of mind-expanding definitions for what a work of art consists of and what it’s supposed to be and do, but who will have once they read Tosh’s personal, family and cultural epoch memoir, a brief sketch here ensues. Collage and bricolage, utilizing humble fragments of the everyday world in unusual combinations, were kind of co-created by Picasso and Braque, and concurrently, conceptual art was more or less invented by French visionary artist Marcel Duchamp in the early decade of the last century, along with the Dadaist movement, especially Kurt Schwitters, and was later perfected in the mid-'50s and '60s by an international movement known as Fluxus.

Fluxus focused on the ephemeral and anti-institutional aspects of art making, especially in publications, events, performances and what became known as mail art. In America, artists on both coasts including figures such as Ray Johnson, Bruce Connor and Wallace Berman rallied around a loose and flexible aesthetic that included radical montage and assemblage, an experimental merging of two dimensional imagery with three dimensional objects. It was a kind of theatrical sculpture made of ideas and incidents, often drawn directly from commercial industry, movies, advertising and popular culture motifs, hence the fact that eventually it evolved into something we now know of as pop art. But visionaries such as Tosh’s father Wallace Berman were way ahead of the curve, long pre-dating the official inauguration of popism as exemplified by Lichtenstein or Warhol. As a cultural historian, I would even also identify Berman as being one of the first exemplars of the postmodern, a term that wouldn’t really come into play until at least the mid-'60s, and not institutionally until about 1970. As such, he’s a big deal indeed.

Indeed, some of Wallace’s works, such as these untitled pieces below using both inkjet and verifax formats, are obviously visionary in their use of a hand-held device (in this case a transistor radio) as the format context and image-bearing delivery system for mystically intriguing and transitory visual messages. The connections to today’s digital devices, but imagined almost forty years before the digital domain erupted, are rather striking, to say the least. It almost amounts to visual art as a kind of science fiction: Berman was so far ahead of his time that he’s still in the future, and we’re all just barely catching up.

Two works by Wallace Berman: Untitled (Semina Gallery) Inkjet, 1961 (left); Untitled 84, Verifax, 1964 (right). 

But of course, all was not just a bed of roses in the realm of radical social experimentation, where the domestic structure of the family unit itself would also come into play as raw material for speculative change. And the book is an honest assessment by someone who was something of a lab experiment himself, socially speaking, so therefore the book’s self-editorial assessment is both apt and accurate: the triumphs and tragedies of growing up as the son of a famous beat poet. Tosh is a memoir of growing up as the son of an enigmatic, much-admired, hermetic, and ruthlessly bohemian artist during the waning years of the Beat Generation and the heyday of hippie counterculture. City Lights quite rightly identifies Berman senior as “a critical figure in the history of postwar American culture and their home life was a heady atmosphere of art, music, and literature, with local and international luminaries regularly passing through. Tosh's unconventional childhood and peculiar journey to adulthood features an array of famous characters, from George Herms and Marcel Duchamp to Michael McClure and William S. Burroughs, to Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, to the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and Toni Basil and Andy Warhol.” It’s been a hard day’s life!

Art, music and literature, embodied by a cast of international culture stars and experienced in the first person by the son of an artistic genius with all-too-human frailties, such were the primary educational benefits of the heady atmosphere in which growing up Berman unfolded. Cultural nourishment and intellectual vitamin supplements were pretty much the steady diet that informed the author’s childhood and youth, and they remain the key interests he has absorbed into his life both personally and professionally.

 Portrait of his son (and wife Shirley) by Wallace Berman.

It’s also fair to say that this book is an unflinching look at the intriguing attempt to conduct a drastically innovative counterculture experiment at the same time as being a kind of, almost, but not quite, normal everyday family. One can only imagine the elementary school show and tell sessions where kids described what their father does for a living. Miss Johnson: “And you Tosh, how about your father, what does your father do?” Tosh: “He changes history.”

Yes, in many ways, it’s Wallace Berman’s world, and all of us just live in it. One of the endearing charms of the author is the simple and straightforward way he addresses his father’s huge legacy, most often referring to him as Wallace.:“My father Wallace Berman was an artist. Or I should say, he is an artist; though his body is not here anymore, his art is very much a part of this world. It’s my hope that this memoir will reveal not only yours truly but also the presence of Wallace as a father, as well as the misery and disappointment of him not being here. But we do have his art, and he does live in my book.”

Tosh Berman is a writer, poet and publisher of TamTam Books, which focuses on post-war French figures such as Boris Vian, Guy Debord and Serge Gainsbourg, as well as featuring the literary works of Lun*na Menoh and also the band Sparks. For readers who want additional information on the influential work of his father Wallace Berman, the Michael Kohn Gallery released a book in 2016 entitled Wallace Berman: American Aleph, for which Tosh authored the introduction. But first, for a tender look at the tumultuous life and times of a visionary artist and extremely unusual family with astonishingly entertaining friends, read Tosh.

It’s a trip and a half.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book was Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. He is currently trying to complete a book on the life and work of Yoko Ono.

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