Summer Reading in the Art World

Hosted by

Wallace Berman, Untitled #7, c.1964-1976. Verifax collage, 6x6.5 inches, framed 12.5 x 12.5 inches Photographed by Karl Puchlik. Courtesy of Kohn Gallery

We listen to recorded books and audio newspapers. We read on our laptops and phones. Reading words on paper would seem to belong to the antiquated 20th century.

That is not the position of dozens of small presses who publish novels, poetry and non-fiction, many of them right here on the West Coast. And this weekend they are gathered at the first Little Literary Festival being held at Hauser & Wirth, an art gallery downtown but also a publisher which is co-hosting with the L.A Review of Books.

It is an opportunity to meet authors such as Tosh Berman, who will be signing his delightful memoir, Tosh, growing up in Wallace Berman’s world on Saturday. It is one of the few memoirs to make me laugh out loud at some parts and gasp with shock at others.

Son of artist Wallace Berman, Tosh knew of an LA that we can only envy. Not just the poets, artists and musicians of the post- war era but with all the other characters who ran outside the confines of convention. (Tosh’s paternal grandfather ran a Staten Island candy store that seems to have served as a front for a speak-easy. Tosh remembers his maternal grandmother working as a butcher at Hollywood Ranch market after her earlier years with a traveling circus.)

As an attention getting adolescent, Wallace Berman dressed in zoot suits and hung around the jazz clubs of Central Avenue. He drove around L.A. in a convertible with his cat wrapped around his neck. He was an award winning swing dancer but also a hustler, making money by dealing pot or playing craps. After being expelled from Fairfax High, discharged from the Navy, and even tossed out of Chouinard Art Institute, he was 100 percent committed to the Beat ethos of jazz, art and personal freedom. Despite all that, he married artist’s model Shirley and had Tosh, who was raised in a home dizzyingly, at time distressingly free of restrictions.

Berman is known for the combination of words, symbols and photographs in hand-printed magazines called Semina and verifax collages made with an early version of a copier.

Championed by curator Walter Hopps, he had but one gallery show, at Ferus in 1957. It was shut down by the police for including an erotic drawing and Berman went to jail. The trauma led him to move to San Francisco and then Larkspur for a few years before returning to L.A.

Wallace Berman had an almost shaman-like impact on people. Private to the point of paranoia, he avoided interviews or having his own photograph taken, though he repeatedly photographed his wife and son. In 1976, he was killed in a car crash with a drunk driver in Topanga on his 50th birthday.

Despite a substantial resurgence of interest in his art — there is a small show now of his collages at Kohn Gallery, there has never been much sense of what he was like as a person. His son, of course, had the ultimate insider’s perspective and the result is this joyous book.

Refreshingly for a Me-Moir, Berman does not veer from the unpleasant moments but he neither does he wallow in them. He credits his mother Shirley, only 19 when she married to Wallace, who was 28, with holding a number of full-time, low-level jobs to support her husband, the “artistic genius.” This meant living in modest conditions, a tiny house off Beverly Glen, which Wallace’s mother had received as an additional gift for subscribing to a magazine! She finally deeded it to Shirley because Wallace refused to sign anything with his name on it.

When living on a houseboat in Larkspur, while Shirley commuted daily for work in San Francisco, Tosh was raised by Wallace. When Tosh had to repeat his first year in school, kindergarten, it was shrugged off by his father, who thought all aspects of school were a waste of time.

In Northern or Southern California, Tosh was an only child who grew up with his parents friends so he was treated as an adult.

His father took his very young son to see the film And God Created Woman starring Bridget Bardot, who he still adores, leading to one of Tosh’s great lines: “It seems childhood never leaves. It just continues with facial hair and erections.” He hung out with his father at City Lights before he could read and was given first editions of the Wizard of Oz by poet Robert Duncan and Jess. Surrounded by books, Tosh educated himself by reading and has long had his own publishing imprint, Tam Tam books.

So, not a conventional upbringing but he was featured as “Boy” in Andy Warhol’s first film Tarzan and Jane Regained… Sort Of in 1964 at their house off Beverly Glen. Regulars who came from the world of film to hang with Wallace were Dennis Hopper, Toni Basil, Dean Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn, whose poet/actor daughter Amber wrote the introduction to this book.

And then, there is the mudslide of 1965, which destroys their house and much of what is in it. But Stockwell buys them another in Topanga! Neil Young soon rules the Topanga scene and the Bermans are a big part of it.

All of this time, Tosh yearns for a world outside the small, hermetic and pot-infused realm of Topanga, a wish that comes true when the family go to London, staying in the flat of art dealer Robert Fraser, who happens to be in jail due to infamous Rolling Stones drug bust. It was Fraser who had included the faces of L.A. artists like Wallace and Larry Bell on the cover of the Beatles, Sergeant Peppers album. It is the verbal, stylish London that sparks Tosh’s enthusiasm and subsequent lifelong interest in style, rock music and words.

Yet, it is his off-beat, funny accounts of growing up Berman that makes the book such a pleasure. It is like a mosaic of fragments coming together to offer a view of a lost world.

Fittingly published by City Lights, Berman will be signing copies of his memoir this Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Little Literary Festival, which is held July 20 and 21 from 11 a.m to 6 p.m.