WALLACE BERMAN & SEMINA
the lost treasure trove of the Beat Generation
Reporter: Henrik Aeshna, Paris, Year of the Dragon
If I could link SchizoPoP Manifesto to someone else’s work over the past few decades, this would possibly be New York-born artist Wallace Berman’s Semina. When I first stumbled upon one of his magnificent collages the satori was as fast as a lightning revealing the enlightened, ravaged face of a long lost soul merz-brother. So welcome to Semina Culture.
This groundbreaking hand-printed, loose-leaf art & poetry journal run from 1955 to 1964 in 9 issues was the secret treasure box of the US West Coast underground avant-garde/Beat scene, along with its twin newsletter journal, Floating Bear, edited by Leroy Jones (Amiri Baraka) & Diane Di Prima. The format was a letterpress text printed on loose sheets of paper featuring drawings, collages, found objects, poems, photographs & mail art - much like Kurt Schwitters’ Dadaist ephemera MERZ or something between Surrealism & Fluxus -, and the issues were given or mailed out to its contributors, including John Altoon, Charles Brittin, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, translations of Jean Cocteau & Antonin Artaud’s texts on Mexico, Allen Ginsberg, Marion Grogan, Dean Stockwell, Walter Hopps, Larry Jordan, former child movie stars (i.e., Dennis Hopper), Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, David Meltzer, Stuart Perkoff, John Wieners, and Berman himself under various pseudonyms. Berman (1926-1976) was a very influential figure behind these artists, writers & renegades (most of whom ended up in poverty, disgrace or suicide), and if there’s someone likely to be the Beat Generation’s visual artist par excellence, mostly when referring to its early times, this would indeed be him, or just as a writer has stated: “Semina Culture reveals that the Beat Generation’s art deals with the same themes as their writing: road-tripping, drugs, spirituality (Berman was into Kabbalah way before Madonna), and jazz.”
Highlights: the whole of issue 3 is dedicated to Michael McClure’s “Peyote Poem” (actually, it was Berman who introduced McClure to the Mexican sacred drug), and issue 5 is made up of Artaud’s revelations about Mexico (depicting his journey to the heart of the Sierra Tarahumara in search of peyote in the mid 1930s), with loose-leaf poems by Bob Kaufman, Philip Lamantia & John Wieners also evoking their own experiences with the cactus. Interestingly too, it was in Semina that William Burroughs had his first text ever published, the poem prose about the junk-addled character Rose Pantopon, which would later be rearranged into a new section in Naked Lunch.
"In his first-and-only exhibition, in L.A., in 1957, he was arrested for showcasing a “lewd” peyote-induced drawing of a copulating couple by a friend, Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel, a.k.a. Cameron (1922-1995), an artist, performer and black magic practitioner influenced by Aleister Crowley. The infamous drawing appeared in the first issue of Semina."
Among those who formed Berman’s circle in L.A. & San Francisco, all say he was charismatic but reclusive, a mystery-drenched catalyzer who was totally immersed in his spiritual art (including the ‘bop-kabballah & jazz’ vision which would influence Ginsberg & David Meltzer). Still in his teens, he had already a mauvaise reputation as a trouble boy, having been expelled from school for gambling & other délits. In his first-and-only exhibition, in L.A., in 1957, he was arrested for showcasing a “lewd” peyote-induced drawing of a copulating couple by a friend, Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel, a.k.a. Cameron (1922-1995), an artist, performer and black magic practitioner influenced by Aleister Crowley. The infamous drawing appeared in the first issue of Semina. Following such a revolting incident, where he was found guilty & fined $150, he moved with his wife to San Francisco, announcing: "I will continue to print Semina from locations other than this city of degenerate angels." After that, I wonder how he made it to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover….!!!
Also worthy of interest is Berman’s silent short film Aleph (1955-1956), a meditation on life, death, mysticism, politics, and pop culture, which includes stills of collages created with a Verifax machine.
And another demi-phantasmagorical anedocte around Kerouac’s jazz daîmon angel muse Charlie Parker : “Wallace Berman designed the cover for this 1947 78rpm record set on the Dial label that showcased the emergence of bebop jazz. Berman and his friend Robert Alexander were in the studio when a drug-addled and increasingly erratic Charlie Parker made this notorious recording of “ Loverman .” On this hot and rainy night, as Alexander recalls in a 1988 interview, Parker stormed off shirtless down Sunset Boulevard with his saxophone around his neck. »
"Art is Love is God" ("Untitled" by Wallace Berman, also published in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, edited by Alan Kaufman)