Fred Berman’s massive retrospective at Inova
The cities in Fred Berman’s “Floating City” series would be invisible were it not for the hints of the paintings’ titles. In “Floating White City,” for example, distant, vaguely architectural shapes, seen through a thin veil of the lightest strokes of white, float in a white field. The field itself is more complex that you presume at first glance. It quivers with brushwork and many varieties of deftly feathered white and ivory. The delicacy of touch and image made me think of Paul Klee.
“Floating White City,” a 30×57 oil from 1958, is one of 82 works in a massive Berman retrospective spanning 60 years. The show will be up through Oct. 10 at the Inova/Arts Center Gallery on the main campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Berman was an art professor for decades. Before that, he taught at the old Layton School of Art.
Most of Berman’s paintings are delicately poised between abstraction and representation and between Zen-like calm and vibrating energy. Many are landscapes are veiled in some way. In “Rain Shadows I” (1969, 27×201/2) and “Dark Landscape” (1983, 60×50), Berman shows us reality through a glass darkly, with a horizon line as the one indisputably literal feature.
In “Winter Landscape IV” (1962, 70×52), a red bush blazes against a violently brushed and none too clean field of snow in the foreground. A broad, irregular eruption of black in the center might stand for a skyline silhouetted against a fiery sunset.
If nothing but the many landscapes were in the show, it would be easy enough to peg Berman as a late follower of Monet. The landscapes show him as a free-wheeling interpreter, distorter and disguiser of reality and an artist thrilled with the possibilities of paint.
Berman is more complex and varied than that. It’s hard to imagine the Romantic, vigorous landscape artist making wry, fastidious shadow boxes of bits of signs and pieces of printer’s type, but there they are. The boxes share at least one concern with the paintings: the editing and reinterpretation of reality. Type of various sizes, intended originally to convey information, does no such thing when rearranged like puzzle pieces strictly for design value. Berman edits signs in much the same way, reducing SERVICE to VICE and BEWARE to BEWAR. Likewise, a few large vividly colored photographs c. 2003 throw common objects — signs etched in glass, a store-window display of walking sticks, a pile of asparagus — into such hyper-real close-up that they take on a strange air of unreality.
The witty photographs, shot in London, have a lot of charm and wit. Berman turned profound in the 10 “Staple Series” photographs (14×11, 2005-2006, Milwaukee). Berman turned his camera on posts and boards around town that generations of ad-hoc advertisers have found convenient for stapling posters.
It’s hard, at first, to read the images literally. In a wonderful aha! moment, it hit me that these are in fact images of staples, riots of metal studding layer upon layer of no longer relevant or legible sheets and shreds of weathered paper.
These pictures are meditations on the passage of time. But they are also captured moments of abstraction in everyday life, as energized as Jackson Pollock’s drips.
In the landscapes, Berman veils reality behind painterly devices. In the photographs, Berman hides reality in plain sight.
This retrospective reveals an artist who has remained curious and adventurous over seven decades of wide-ranging work. All of it is true to the most important questions of visual art: What do we see? What does it mean?
What Others Have Written: Mary Louis Schumacher.