Make Your Own System: Tosh Berman On His Father, Artist Wallace Berman
As a nine year old elementary school student, meeting his dad’s colleague Marcel Duchamp was an eye opener for author Tosh Berman. “When I told the teacher,” Berman explains, “she asked ‘what did you do over the weekend?’ and I said I went to this art show at a big museum in Pasadena, and I met this French man, and she knew what I was talking about. I don’t think she was an art fan, but I think she read about it in a newspaper and stuff.”
Tosh says that to this day, he remembers that his teacher was very impressed, “at me being there, at meeting someone famous.” In his memoir, Tosh: Growing Up In Wallace Berman’s World (City Lights, 2019), Berman recounts anecdote after anecdote about how he met the famous friends of his father, and how his father’s bohemian lifestyle shaped him.
Of his meeting with Duchamp, Tosh Berman writes in his memoir: “The artist reached out for my little hand, and I remember when he shook it, he gave a wisp of a smile across his closed lips. This stayed in my mind because I realized that his person was very important, and also I got the feeling of just how the room interacted with him being there. The exhibition was memorable not only for the art itself but also for the presence of Duchamp.”
Meeting Duchamp was only one of many examples of Tosh’s encounters with his father’s famous friends. But it was an important one, impressing young Tosh not only with the power of fame, but also with the importance of an artist’s connection to the viewer. “I was very impressed with the bicycle wheel,” he told me in an interview last week in his Los Angeles home. “It’s something that any child can relate to. When I saw the bicycle wheel at that show, ‘Wow, I get this.’” As absurd as it seems, Duchamp was known for presenting everyday objects as art, placing them out of context to make a statement.
Another colleague of Tosh Berman’s father Wallace was Andy Warhol, who would visit the Bermans in Los Angeles from time to time. In one instance, Warhol cast Tosh as a character in his avant-garde film, Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort Of (1964). “I brag about that, I brag about my movie career,” Berman says ironically, as it was his only movie role. Berman was also offered a role in Easy Rider, which was produced by Peter Fonda, and starred his dad’s friend Dennis Hopper. “I turned it down.” Your agent turned it down, I suggested. “Me. No agent,” said Berman, explaining that it wasn’t something he was interested in. Still, Hopper had an impact on the life of the younger Berman and his father.
“Someone like Hopper,” Berman explains, “he was a very interesting guy, for numerous reasons. Dennis was somebody who collected art, contemporary art, so he went out of his way to meet the artists as well as the art dealers. When the Hollywood studios were falling apart, but still sort of the mainstream Hollywood era, but then you weren’t totally counterculture — but then he went and met Warhol, he met Rauschenberg, he met Jasper Johns. Dennis is the guy — they’re all friends of Dennis.”
Some of his father’s other friends and acquaintances included Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Toni Basil, and much to young Tosh’s delight at the time, Keith Richards and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. But perhaps encounters with fame are part of Berman’s destiny, as life is “written in the stars,” as he says. His maternal grandmother, Martha Morand, was a cabaret singer in her native Hamburg, Germany at the age of 15, and when she came to the U.S., she toured with the famous cowboy showman, Tom Mix, in the states and in Cuba. Her husband Roudolph did security detail for Howard Hughes in the 60s and 70s, including keeping an eye on The Spruce Goose, an enormous airplane made of wood.
Tosh Berman spent countless hours watching his father create his artwork, which ranged from assemblage art to conceptual sculptures to photographs — and always there was music on the record player. “He knew what was interesting, “Berman says, “always even before the media hit, he picked up on stuff like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. At the time I thought ‘this is like noise dad,’ or Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, when he went electric, and he played that really loud, and I said, ‘dad, that’s noise.’” It wasn’t until later in life that Berman came to hear the artistry in the work of his dad’s musical heroes, though they did share much in common and went to concerts together in the 60s and 70s. And when Wallace’s face was featured on the cover of The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Tosh found it very exciting while his father took it all in stride. By the younger Berman’s account, his father was more interested in the creation of art, unimpressed by fame per se, only interested in acts of creation and their products.
Wallace Berman, though self -taught, was an avid student of the various innovations in the art world. “He was very aware of all the ‘isms’ of the art world at the time,” Berman said. “Dadaism, Surrealism, Expressionistic painting, Pop Art…and his work was done at the height of Pop Art….California Assemblage, sculptures, making art of junk.” In a text exchange after our interview, Tosh further explained his father’s use of the Hebrew language in his works. “He knew the pronounciation of the Hebrew lettering, and he liked the sound of them. In a similar fashion as The Letterists in the 1940s and 1950s as well as someone like Kurt Schwitters who did sound poetry.” Berman went on to explain that his father Wallace had no interest in the occult characteristics of the Kabbalah “ His interest in the Kabbalah,” he continued, “is really from the French 19th century poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarame, to Artaud to Marcel Duchamp — they all had the interest in that language.”
Berman’s iconoclastic approach to assemblage art, which relied on mimeographs and diverse elements from a variety of media — photos, found objects, acrylic paint, — as well as his conceptual pieces have made an impression on the do it yourself approach that was popular in the jazz world of the 50s, to the punk movement and beyond. “The people I know who are younger who respect my Dad’s work, and not necessarily as a visual artist, but people who have a strong graphic sense, do come from the punk world, or the music world. And I think because they realize you don’t have to go through a system to do something, you can make your own system, do it yourself.”
Berman is currently working on a sequel to his memoir, which will continue where Tosh left off — with the story of his father’s death in a car accident and the grief that ensued. “One thing I noticed, is that when somebody dies in your world, like a father or a best friend, or anyone in a tight social group, things change. When that person disappears, or leaves, everyone shifts their position. And a lot of what happened, all of my male friends of my father, I didn’t become friends with them any longer, because their identity shifted all of a sudden, and they didn’t feel comfortable in that world anymore.”
In addition to the second memoir, Berman is working on a collection of personal essays that incorporate fictional elements. I asked him what genre that is? “Fictional non-fiction,” replies Berman, whimsically.