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A tale of two enigmatic artists

December 16, 2011|By Kirk Silsbee
  • Wallace Berman, Untitled #126, 1964-76, Single negative photographic image, 6 1/2 x 7 inches. (Courtesy Estate of Wallace Berman and Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles)
Wallace Berman, Untitled #126, 1964-76, Single negative…

The Wallace Berman renaissance has been inching along in fits and starts, ever since art historian Merril Greene published the first serious consideration of his work in Artforum in 1978. That essay came two years after his untimely death in 1976, on the eve of Berman’s 50th birthday. For an artist whose influence has been seemingly more pervasive than his actual work, it couldn’t have come too soon. Christine McKenna curated the watershed Semina Culture show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2005, tracing Berman’s far-reaching aesthetic by placing his work at the center of a constellation of pieces by his contemporaries.

The current exhibition at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts is more Pacific Standard Time bounty. It further illuminates Berman’s often-enigmatic photo collages, postcards and constructions by joining them with Robert Heinecken’s photo and print manipulations. It’s a clever bit of juxtaposition by curators Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon that illuminates two phantoms of Los Angeles art.

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If Berman’s artistic image took nearly 30 years to attain sharp focus, Heinecken’s is still in the developing tray. Heinecken had a long tenure as a UCLA teacher, but his work largely flew under the radar. Berman seldom spoke of his work and, though creative types flocked to him, he was largely secretive about what he worked on. Berman sold less and less into the 1960s, and Heinecken’s offer to him of a UCLA teaching position was declined, further isolating him. Death came at an intersection near Berman’s Beverly Glen home. A fleeing driver, wanted on drug-related charges, killed him. Heinecken passed in 2006 from Alzheimer’s complications.

Their association, running through the years covered in the show, has little documentation. But the Armory installation serves to point out the similarities and common interests in both men. Each used found images: For Berman, it was the picture of a hand holding a transistor radio in a Life magazine ad for Heinecken, the smiling South Vietnamese soldier proudly holding severed Viet Cong heads from Newsweek. Where Berman used the picture plane of the radio surface to stuff with multiple images, Heinecken incorporated the soldier with product visuals from magazine pages.

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