George Herms is a sculptor whose artistic sensibility was formed during the late 1950s, a time when artists on both coasts responded to the excesses of American consumer culture by subsuming its products in their work. Many of them scavenged for mundane materials that reeked of real life, real stories, and real bodies. Using them was a way for artists to bring a measure of the visceral into the sublime ethereality that informed Abstract Expressionism, the dominant style of the day. In New York, Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines” married gorgeous painterly surfaces with three-dimensional objects, allowing his work to exist in what he called “the gap between art and life.” San Francisco–based Bruce Conner made powerful, often brutal sculptures that began as urban flotsam, which he nailed, wrapped, glued, stapled, melted, and tied. Such works were later called assemblages, a name that describes the additive process used to make them. Herms’ assemblages might be better described as accumulations, since he never removes an object once he has placed it on a sculpture.
The Berman Peace (1986) is one in a series of homages Herms has made to artists who have profoundly affected his thinking. Wallace Berman (1927–1977), a charismatic figure who was as celebrated for his serene, ur-hippie lifestyle as for his art, was one of Herms’ most important mentors. “Ten years after the tragic loss of Wallace Berman,” he has written, “I came to grips with that loss by making this celebratory homage… . The work commenced when I found the desk being thrown out of the building where my studio was in 1986. By turning the desk on its ear, I began to salute my friend.”1 The desk’s drawers and compartments offer a carefully composed aggregation of overt and covert allusions to the subject, some of them in theatrical semidarkness. There is a photograph of Berman’s wife, Shirley, and a red plate that hung in his window in Topanga, California; a playing card, because he was celebrated for his skill at card games; and a cascade of dusty blue fabric meant to suggest a waterfall. Objects that arrived in Herms’ studio while he was working on the tribute were added to it—a letter from a mutual friend, a tongue cleaner contributed by Herms’ daughter.2 The title is a wryly affectionate tribute to Berman’s pacifism and a corrective of the designation “post–World War II” for our modern era. If Herms had his way, we would call it, instead, “the Berman peace.”