“Aleph (1958-1976) (silent)
“Aleph is an artist’s meditation on life, death, mysticism, politics, and pop culture. In an eight-minute loop of film, Wallace Berman uses Hebrew letters to frame a hypnotic, rapid-fire montage that captures the go-go energy of the 1960s. Aleph includes stills of collages created using a Verifax machine, Eastman Kodak’s precursor to the photocopier. These collages depict a hand-held radio that seems to broadcast or receive popular and esoteric icons. Signs, symbols, and diverse mass-media images (e.g., Flash Gordon, John F. Kennedy, Mick Jagger) flow like a deck of tarot cards, infinitely shuffled in order that the viewer may construct his or her own set of personal interpretations. The transistor radio, the most ubiquitous portable form of mass communication in the 1960s, exemplifies the democratic potential of electronic culture and serves as a metaphor for Jewish mysticism. The Hebrew term kabbalah translates as “reception” for knowledge, enlightenment, and divinity.
According to the artist’s son Tosh Berman, Wallace Berman treated Aleph “…as a creative notebook, and like a true diary, it has no beginning and no end.” The hand-painted 8mm film was shot over a ten-year period with some images photographed on 16mm. After Berman’s death, the late experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage preserved the damaged print and transferred the reel to 16mm. The Jewish Museum recently acquired this version of the film as a limited edition DVD.
Wallace Berman (1926-1976) is gaining wider recognition today for a visionary body of work that encompassed assemblage, photography, collage, drawing, sculpture, poetry, and mail art. [His Verifax collage Silent, 1967-69 is currently on view in the second floor exhibition Collective Perspectives: New Acquisitions Celebrate the Centennial.] Berman’s engagement with kabbalah reflected the Beat Generation’s wider exploration of esoteric spiritual practices such as Zen, palm reading, astrology…and psychedelic drugs. Born on Staten Island, Berman moved with his family to Los Angeles during the 1930’s. In the Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights and the Fairfax district, the decorative shapes of Hebrew letters on storefront windows and in Yiddish-language newspapers fascinated Berman. According to historian Richard Candida Smith, “Berman’s interest in the Hebrew alphabet and its functions in Jewish mysticism was part of an effort to reclaim his ethnic identity.”