The River Book

IN A 1999 EPISODE of The Simpsons, Homer attempts to build a backyard barbecue but instead ends up with a hodgepodge mess, a jumble soon hailed as great art. This genial parody (Jasper Johns has a speaking role) of found art depicted “creations” that are, in fact, hardly far from the mark. Found art and assemblage can sometimes appear to be work easily (or in Homer’s case, accidentally) accomplished, in part because the materials are so familiar and the presiding aesthetic prizes spontaneity. These two volumes, offering a generous sampling from the West Coast painter, collagist, poet, and sculptor George Herms’s decades-long career, amply disprove such a notion. Herms came of age in the 1950s alongside another California artist, Wallace Berman, and they both imbibed the spirit of that time and place—bebop, Beat poetry, peyote—along with lessons from more distant quarters, drawing inspiration from Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters, and Marcel Duchamp. One of Herms’s earliest assemblages, The Librarian, 1960, presents a wooden cruciform structure, the crossbeam layered thickly with torn, water-damaged books that reveal images and text that relate provocatively (a photo of an African American woman tacked with a card whose handwritten word, love, counterpoints the book page below, which reads “Thinking White”). There is nothing haphazard about this composition, though Herms suggestively flirts with that potential perception: from one side of the shelf an upended ornamental cup enigmatically dangles. Like Charlie Parker (one of the artist’s avowed influences), Herms manipulates a sense of unpredictability with assured control. In the box collage Zodiac behind Glass—Sagittarius Box, 1965 , this seeming raggedness distinguishes the piece from Cornell’s more elegant efforts. If the Janus-faced centaur and kitschy horse figurine clearly echo each other, with variations in material texture and mythic resonance, the industrial glove in the upper corner gropes improbably into the scene. The intrusion nonetheless chimes (quite comically) with aspire, and thus suggests a kind of deus ex machina arriving to solve the puzzle. In this way, Herms feigns accident to remind us that the maker’s hand is always present, and this legerdemain is the essence of his art.

George Herms, Zodiac behind Glass—Sagittarius Box, 1965, assemblage, 25 × 24 × 8".