Flash Gordon, the Grid, and the Midcentury West Coast Art Scene
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American art had been drawing from Sunday newspaper funnies in various ways long before Roy Lichtenstein’s painted comic books panels Popped onto the gallery scene. In 1950s New York, Robert Rauschenberg affixed Moon Mullins, Gasoline Alley, and Terry and the Pirates onto his paintings and assemblages, recontextualizing them with coded signals about his closeted desires.
But it was California that exploited the medium with the most adventurous vitality. Among the Bay Area beats, Jess out-ghouled Chester Gould with his postwar, mad Tricky Cad collages while Bruce Conner sculpted a sacred, profane altar to St. Barney Google. In early 1960s Hollywoodland, Kenneth Anger’s revolutionary Scorpio Rising film included cutaways of kids from the Dondi and Li’l Abner strips, montaged and framed so they appeared to be having a transgressively gay old time. And Anger’s boho buddy Wallace Berman took the medium on a whole other, transcendent trip.
Besides being one of Southern California’s most significant midcentury artists, Wallace Berman was both the ultimate hipster and a pre-Pop proto-hippie. By the mid-1940s, nearly two decades ahead of Tim Leary’s acid-laced Pied Piper patter, he’d already turned onto drugs while at Fairfax High, tuned in to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and dropped out of Chouinard Art Institute, now CalArts. His first solo show at L.A.’s Ferus Gallery in 1957 was busted for obscenity, but it also launched a career that soon earned him global recognition. Ten years later he was backing up the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s album cover designed by British Pop artist Peter Blake, along with the likes of Brando, Beardsley, Dylan Thomas, and Bob Dylan.
Five years ago I covered Speaking in Tongues, Wallace’s joint show with Robert Heinecken at Pasadena’s Armory Center, which was part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945 – 1980, a monumental six-month series of exhibitions across the city. You’ll find my Print interviews with curators Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon, here and here. And they’ve now gone on to create Wallace Berman: American Aleph, a major retrospective at L.A.’s Kohn Gallery. The show covers his entire career and demonstrates the ways in which his relevance far exceeds West Coast regionalism.
Wallace Berman: Untitled (BeBop Jazz Yellow Cover), 1940. image ©2016 Kohn Gallery.
One room is devoted to Wallace’s artbooks and sculptures from that obscenely seminal 1950s Semina show at the Ferus. There are several examples of his famed 1960s sepia-toned Verifaxes, collaging imagery as wide-ranging as Janis Joplin, Yoko Ono, an astronaut, a rocket ship, a devotional statue, and a snake into photos of a transistor radio and other electronic communication devices. The work spans from his 1940s pen and ink illustrations to his lesser-known earthworks from the 1970s. Wallace died in 1976, at age 50, but during his far-too-brief existence on earth he was inspired by everything and everyone from jazz and Jewish mysticism to William Blake and Lenny Bruce. And then there were the comic strips.
In the show’s catalog, Claudia notes how during Wallace’s teen years Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers “inspired him to draw and instilled a lifelong passion for the grid as his preferred form of pictorial organization.” And during a recent event at the gallery I spoke with Shirley Berman, Wallace’s wife and the subject of many of his photographs on display. As we discussed Wallace’s transistor radio Verifax of an old promo shot of Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, inscribed “Portrait of Kenneth Anger,” she explained how Wallace and Kenneth would bond over watching these action-adventure movie serials that were popular during the 1930s and ’40s. She also recalled Wallace’s love of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant which, like Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, possesses a mythological grandeur. Also, they both separate their text and images into discrete entities rather than employ cartoon balloons.
I also had a conversation with their son Tosh, which evolved into our interview below. We chat about the appeal of newspaper strips to his father’s generation. Tosh, himself quite knowledgeable about the comics medium, also touches on Japan’s manga and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat as well as movie serials and men in outer space.
Meanwhile, if you’re in the neighborhood be sure to get to Kohn Gallery before the show closes this Saturday, June 25th. And anyone anywhere can pick up the handsomely illustrated exhibition catalog designed by Lorraine Wild’s Green Dragon Office, which includes essays by Claudia and Sam and a foreword by Tosh.
Wallace Berman: Untitled (Sound Series #3), 1967-68.
Michael Dooley: How do you view your father’s relationship to comic strips?
Tosh Berman: I always had a retro taste in comics as a kid, and I think that came from my dad’s love of comics. And we’re not talking about comic books, but comics in the newspaper. He liked the serial form, including the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials as well as the continuing narrative in a comic strip. I think he admired the pen work or inking of someone like Alex Raymond. So he followed the artist more than the story, perhaps?
And there’s obviously a grid-like obsession in my dad’s work, and comics have a similar grid as well. I suspect that Wallace had very little interest in the narration of the comic strip but more how images are placed among each other.
What do you think appealed to him about the Flash Gordon strips in particular?
As a kid, he probably loved the outer-space fantasy aspect of the strip. But over time, Raymond’s technique is quite thrilling to the eye.
Wallace Berman: Untitled (Portrait of Kenneth Anger), 1973.
Kenneth Anger: title card and still from Scorpio Rising, 1963.
Your father saw Kenneth Anger as Buster Crabbe.
Both Ken and my dad loved popular media of their time and day. Anger, I think, was more obsessed with those images. His love of Flash Gordon was known to my dad. So it was a combination of a tip-of-the-hat to Ken and to acknowledge their common love for a culture that Flash Gordon represented to both of them.
And what about Foster’s Prince Valiant?
I think more for the artwork than anything else. Very detailed work!
I think he liked Krazy Kat as well. Good art, and that strip was kind of trippy for its time and age.
Wallace Berman: Untitled, c. 1968.
His West Coast contemporaries also utilized comics in various ways.
It’s a generational thing. A lot of artists in my dad’s generation loved comics, and I think not really the comic book, but the comics that appeared in the newspaper. All those artists are basically the same generation, so the main medium was the comic strip.
I think one can argue the influence of the comic strip on a lot of artists, but especially on artists from a certain era and time, and maybe place. Warhol, I’m sure, felt the same way about comics as my dad. Kenneth Anger again, same generation. I don’t think the comic strip would be that great of an influence if the artist was born in the 1950s. So, right time, right place for these particular artists.
Right now, I suspect that there are a lot of Japanese artists who are influenced by manga; it’s so much part of the Japanese culture. The comic strip in the 1930s were on the same platform as manga at its highest. Now I have to presume a lot of contemporary artists are probably more influenced by photography or cinema than comics.
And his own perspective on comics would be different today, as those serialized strips have evolved into graphic novels.
Overall, if my dad was alive I sort of doubt he would fall into the comic hole. What he would admire is the drawing skills of such artists. But I haven’t the foggiest idea what he would think of the 21st century graphic novel. He wouldn’t be against it, of course, but I’m not sure if he would have read them.
It’s hard to say, really. Wallace was very much a contemporary man. He didn’t look back that much or at all. So anything new would be of some interest to him. The sad part of someone dying so young is that they are still growing. And at the time of his death, Wallace was still moving onward and upward.
Wallace Berman: Untitled poster, 1967
Wallace Berman: Untitled (A1-Cosmic Burst), 1974.
Wallace Berman: Untitled, c. 1940s.
Wallace Berman: Untitled (Office Management), 1964.
Wallace Berman: Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, 1964.
Wallace Berman: Second Annual Film Festival poster, 1963. image ©2016 Kohn Gallery.
Tosh Berman next to Wallace Berman’s Veritas Panel (1957) in the Kohn Gallery’s Ferus/Semina exhibit room. photo: M Dooley.
Curator Claudia Bohn-Spector discussing the Wallace Berman exhibit at the Kohn Gallery. photo: M Dooley.
Shirley Berman with photographer Ellen Berman (no relation) next to a wall photo of her husband at the Kohn Gallery’s entrance to Wallace Berman: American Aleph. photo: M Dooley.
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About Michael Dooley
Michael Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.