While a student at Hollywood High, Shirley Morand was prevented from accepting a scholarship to the San Francisco School of Fine Arts by her father, who felt she didn’t need further education. Sometime later, she would receive a tap on the shoulder while in line for Cocteau’s 1930 film, The Blood of a Poet, at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles. The year was 1951 and she was instantly smitten with Wallace Berman, her pursuer and future spouse, a young well-read regular on the Central Avenue Jazz circuit who, by 1957, would arrive as a compelling assemblage artist and media synthesizer at his first and only solo exhibition at Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz’s burgeoning Ferus Gallery (he was immediately seized by authorities and booked on obscenity charges related to the work presented). In 1976, Berman was killed by a drunk driver in Topanga Canyon—yet his legend and artistic genius live on.
The Bermans were an inimitable, stylish couple with a natural porosity for the marginal and esoteric who personified Californian postwar bohemianism. Their tranquil home acted as a salon for outliers looking to gather and connect over art intellectually, and creatively fueled to drive modernism to implosion. Though Shirley, a clear proto-feminist, was a beloved magnet within her beat circles, she was still a wife and mother, and often consigned to making coffee and pouring wine for the “male genius” flourishing around her.
This group exhibition is prompted by Shirley’s passing in early 2022, at the age of eighty-seven. Photographs by Wallace Berman, Charles Brittin, and Edmund Teske fill the first gallery. Each of their works casts Shirley, a reluctant participant, in disparate roles: domestic nucleus, candid or playful model, ethereal simulacrum for immaculate femininity. Complexities surface when the images are reread with their subject at the forefront. Take Wallace Berman’s Untitled (Shirley Berman with Wallace’s Reflection), ca. 1950s, which shows her inside their home, but largely obscured by his reflection as he shoots her from outside a window; or Brittin’s Untitled (Shirley Berman at Ocean Park Pier, Santa Monica, CA), ca. 1955, a brilliant picture that depicts an unidentified man rushing into the frame to confuse Shirley’s dominance and reach for a candied apple. In the second space are works from Shirley’s vibrant private collection that were personally significant to her, such as Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture Cake Slice, 1965, which is displayed before pieces by Bruce Conner, George Herms, Jess, Manuel Ocampo, and Lun*na Menoh. All are hung to re-create the orientation in which they were found in her home. Shirley Berman’s legend might not live on in art history, but her striking image and the works she no doubt created space for will.