As the son of beatnik-era artist Wallace Berman (1926–1976), Tosh Berman was born into a set of circumstances unique to the time, the likes of which we might never see again. Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World (City Lights, Jan. 2019), his memoir about his father, vividly captures the sensation of 1960s Los Angeles and its writers, painters, and social revolutionaries who fostered freedom of expression in a myriad of forms.
Tosh was born in 1954. His mother, Shirley Berman, was an illustrator and shopgirl whose bohemian nature was perfectly in sync with her husband’s. “My parents loved me very much,” Tosh says.
Word about Wallace’s art and charisma attracted famous people to him, and, as a child, Tosh enjoyed the company of Dennis Hopper, Michael McClure, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, and many others. Brian Jones, the late Rolling Stones guitarist, also heard about Wallace and would visit whenever he was in L.A., eventually becoming one of his closest friends.
“A lot of people from that era have written about it,” Tosh says in his L.A. home. “What makes my book unique is that I’m the son of a legendary artist who was very much in the center of that beatnik world. For many people, it was an exotic time and place. I didn’t see it in that manner, but through other eyes, I gather I was placed in a world that was special.”
Wallace’s work is best described as photo collage/assemblage. “I was aware of the textural aspect of my dad’s work,” says Tosh, who, as a child, spent most of his time with his father in his studio while his mother was at work. Tosh notes that he paid attention to the art and engaged with it naturally. “Sometimes he put paint on the canvas. Sometimes he wrote on it. As he worked, he added layers of technique.”
One high point of Wallace’s career was the exhibition of his work at the Ferus Gallery in L.A., a center of avant-garde art from 1957 to 1966. He also appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s; his face can be found next to Tony Curtis’s. “For me, as a young teenager who loved the Fab Four, it was a total shock,” Tosh says. “But my dad didn’t think too much of it.”
In fact, Beatles manager Brian Epstein had to send Wallace three frantic telegrams before he finally responded and gave permission to use his face on the album cover. “My father knew a lot of people in the music world, and everyone standing behind the Beatles on the cover are prominent or cult figures,” Tosh says. “He loved the Beatles, but this wasn’t an Earth-changing experience for him. His art took precedent.”
Wallace’s way of teaching Tosh as a child was to take him to a party and pay attention to his behavior. “He took me everywhere,” Tosh says, including to a gallery where he met Marcel Duchamp. “I was taught not to bring attention to myself, though, and my dad would sit next to me. If I said something stupid at a party, he would kick me under the table. It wasn’t painful, but I learned quickly. I was taught to be respectful and quiet in public places, and to be aware of what’s going on. I still have that to this day.”
Even as a child, Tosh knew his family was different from their neighbors. “The father worked, the mother was the housewife, and there were two kids,” he says. “When I visited them, I saw different practices—they would pray before a meal. That was a strange concept to me, and I didn’t understand the purpose of it. I mean, the mom made the sandwiches, but they were praying to something else.”
Tosh respected the custom, though, because he knew it was important in that household. “I was not raised with any judgmental limitations or boundaries whatsoever,” he says. “I never heard my parents say a bad thing about anyone; they accepted people for who they were.”
During the volatile beatnik and hippie eras, Tosh says his parents were “uninvolved” politically. Wallace was against the Vietnam War, though, and donated artwork to raise funds for draft-dodging organizations. “My dad was a social libertarian and most comfortable in the counterculture world,” Tosh says.
Money was scarce. “My dad never worked,” Tosh remembers. “Basically, his economy was based totally on his artwork, which he would barter with the owner of the grocery store in Topanga for food for us. He saw the world quite differently from other artists; he never had the grand, opulent vision for himself. He’d bring a painting to a gallery and tell the owner he wanted $100 for it. Even if the owner turned around and sold it for $10,000, Dad wouldn’t care. He just wanted the $100.”
Tosh says he tried painting when he was a boy, but he knew instinctively not to compete with his father. Instead, he began writing poetry. “My dad encouraged me to do my own art,” he adds. “He’d say, ‘You don’t have to make sense in your poetry. Just do what you want, and don’t worry about what anyone else says or thinks.’ ” Tosh’s first book of poetry, The Plum in Mr. Blum’s Pudding, was published in Japan and recently republished in the U.S. through Penny-Ante Editions.
Wallace was killed in an accident with a drunk driver on his 50th birthday in 1976, when Tosh was 21. “I was shattered,” Tosh says. “I basically had a nervous breakdown. The psychological repercussions will last me my whole life, because everything changed. I was in a dark place through my 20s and early 30s. I never felt self-pity about my dad’s death. I just felt, that’s the way it is. I accepted my sadness.”
The late ’80s marked a turning point for Tosh: he got married and took a job at Book Soup, the bookstore in West Hollywood where he worked for more than 20 years. He was also creative director for Beyond Baroque Literary Center, and he established TamTam Books, which now has 12 titles in print.
Not long before Wallace died, the Berman family lost all their possessions when a mudslide destroyed their Beverly Glen home. “Life is never fair,” Tosh says. “We didn’t die in that mudslide because my mother felt something odd when she heard a sound behind the house, so we walked out. And kaboom, the house was destroyed. My father’s death wasn’t exactly fair, either. My existence in that sense is very noirlike, but without the romance of noir. It’s just noirlike misery.”
Tosh is a personal memoir, but Tosh also hopes it sheds light on the environment he grew up in and the influence his father had in the beat/hippie scenes in L.A. and San Francisco. “I’m aware that Wallace is seen as an obscure figure in the contemporary arts now, but I feel that he’s just as important—if not more important—as his contemporaries, such as Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and Edward Kienholz,” Tosh says. “Those were iconic times that still resonate. Generations that followed can feel the romance and glamour that went with that era.”
Wendy Werris is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles.