THE ESTEEM ENGINE OF MR. HERMS: george herms at city lights

THE ESTEEM ENGINE OF MR. HERMS: george herms at city lights

In 2005 I was in a theater in Davis watching a man waving a huge silver-metallic banner back and forth. There was a fork-lift involved, and enigmatic machinations without a word. It was part of the Beat Generation and Beyond conference put on by the John Natsoulis Gallery. The man onstage was 70 years old, determined, energetic, and eccentric, having been making objects of art for half a century.

He was born in 1935 and grew up in a small farming community near Sacramento. He wasn’t sure what to do with himself when he got older, enrolling in the College of Engineering in Berkeley and dropping out after a month or two. In the mid-1950s he found himself with some real bohemians and they showed him the path: the art gallery as a temple of aesthetic detachment, often floated by pot smoke. Objects drifted off the moorings of their purpose and he would rearrange them like a junkyard savant with a delirious finesse.


There was a subtle man in 1960
with a habit of succumbing to
spontaneous assemblage. He would pick up
scraps of wood and other odds and ends
and hammer them together, so it was
transcending the utilitarian.
It demonstrated how a transformation
of the ordinary can occur
in human consciousness and he included
bits of torn and faded advertising.
This is how the propaganda is
disintegrating in our minds. He wanted
to recycle or recycling is
a fact of life he stumbled on by intuition
and he liked to put things into
holding patterns, he would rearrange
the relics like a bunch of flowers, here is
a bouquet of junk, a fine delay
in scrap wood with a personal significance.
There was a laying on of hands,
a rule of thumb, and just a mild delirium,
the fragments being rescued by
a gentle man and given a home between
the found and the profound.

He made aesthetic objects with a do-it-yourself
mentality when he was broke
a half a century ago and you can
buy one now for $20,000. Living
in a quiet beach town it is not
surprising if he had a sense of driftwood,
there are objects being washed up in the
present. He is very dry, a humor
being who is humanous and haunted
by Los Angeles. He’s picking through an
ebb and tide of the debris and trying
to make sense of it.

(from “Altar”, for George Herms)

Herms - Altar (1957)

Herms – Altar (1957)

His approach reminds me of a few lines from William Carlos Williams (who died in 1963): “… no ideas but in things,”1 and “… so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow…”2. All the better if you find one in a dump while thinking about Marcel Duchamp, or maybe Lautreamont, who envisioned “… the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella…”3.

I used to pick up scrap metal off the street and bring it home. I had a Coleman lantern which was flattened by a truck. I hung it on the wall. I think George would have done more with it. I found a fog lamp from the 1950s which I stuck in a potted plant like a rising sun, but I wonder What Would George Do.

He combines the solid and conceptual, the worn-out and recycled. He has a piece called “Beauty” (1978) which I could look at for a long time with its quiet earth tones. A round table with no legs is covered with an old piece of velvet cloth, somewhat carelessly, and hung on the wall. It is a perfect circle in disguise, a hooded hint of the eternal return, and what is the eternal return without a dustpan? It is attached to the cloth, along with a torn fragment with the word BEAUTY on it. The gravity of the folds reminds me of Greek statues with their robes. They are not subjected to the dust-to-dust like we are.

George was living in the vicinity of Michael McClure, Bruce Conners, and Wallace Berman—and that would inspire anyone. He gravitated to Los Angeles, living in Topanga Canyon and having kids. He learned a lot from Berman, who was one of the original Beats, making collages and assemblages. Berman later made a short film called Aleph, which I watched at the Focus Gallery a few days ago—John Perino was looking at experimental films when I dropped by. It is a rapid and disjointed stream of consciousness, an 8-minute improv (what’s it all about, Aleph?). The version we were watching had a manic soundtrack by John Zorn.

Wallace Berman- George Herms, Topanga Canyon, 1965

Wallace Berman: George Herms, Topanga Canyon, 1965; gelatin silver print; 8 1/2 x 6 in.; copyright Edmund Teske Archives, Laurence Bump, Nils Vidstrand; courtesy Stephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.

I was shown a book of poems by Jack Hirschman entitled Black Aleph, from the 1960’s, and talked about it later with Jack. He is old friends with George Herms (having taught at UCLA in the late 1960s), and knew Wally Berman—who was hit by a car and died in 1976 (on his 50th birthday). There are collages by Berman in Jack’s book. I mentioned Edward Kienholz, who was living in Los Angeles at the time and making entire installations out of found materials. He said George was less ambitious when it came to showing in the big museums and taking on political themes.

It seemed like a smaller world back then4 (and it was, population-wise), where bohemians of various precarious persuasions managed to find each other. Maybe they stood out more in those days, and some were larger than life. Jack talks about staying in Leonard Cohen’s house on a Greek island. One of his students at UCLA was Jim Morrison. Charles Bukowski and a friend knocked on Jack’s door one night, but he was arguing with his wife and they went away. He and George were friends with the actors Dean Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn 5 (whose daughter Amber read a humorous poem at City Lights when he turned 80 last year). Dennis Hopper was collecting George’s work and hired him to work on Easy Rider.

There was a young man with a raspy voice around this time who had a goatee and a retro manner and a drunken piano. Here is a question: is “Back Seat Dodge ’38” a song by Tom Waits or an installation by Kienholz?

Thelonius Sphere Monk. Shoe Tree. Song for Hope. Meat Market. Swordfishtrombones. Hoist That Rag. Just the Right Bullets. Which of these are songs by Tom Waits and which are assemblages by George Herms?

This is some of the background of Mr. Herms, who was occupying the foreground at City Lights bookstore the other night (October 2, 2014). In the audience were Diane di Prima, Michael McClure, and David Meltzer—all of them in their late 70s or early 80s. Jack Hirschman showed up when it was over and George ribbed him about wanting to make an entrance. These are people who formed alliances a long time ago and remained true to their words.

Herms - The River BookGeorge stood behind the lectern, showing off a new book on his life and work: George Herms: The River Book ($95). He is a bit frail, compared to the last time I saw him (recent surgery), but feisty and spontaneous as ever. For 45 minutes he talked and joked and even sang a little. “Sing or be telepathic.” He told us about walking up and down Market Street and blowing on the mouthpiece of a clarinet at the end of World War II.

He had a theater piece called The Asphalt Fountain Pen (1957), and made the sets for Billy the Kid, a play by McClure in New York City. He loved jazz clubs6, and saw Thelonius Monk perform. He made a “free jazz opera”, and said “Everything I write is an unsent letter to David Meltzer” (who was sitting in the front row, with his rosy cheeks and crutches). He also said that everything written was by Meltzer under different names. I’m not sure how McClure felt about that. George said he was not a poet, but he knows poets. There was some mention of using a spritzer on himself while singing, “I Cover the Waterfront.”

Here is an excerpt from The Art / The Veil (1981) by David Meltzer:

wired for sound
Men who belong nowhere
seem to be everywhere
working for somebody else
and all bitter about one thing
or another which nobody ever learns
because nobody ever talks.
You learn to stalk as well as wait
and in between
a relief of paperback thrillers
read in jetplanes
scratching the sky with code
someone below deciphers
twenty different ways. 7

Other quotes: “I never made a mistake I couldn’t make”, “My sculptures fall over and my thoughts fly away.”

He said it is sometimes hard to tell if an artwork is a knock-off or an homage, and who cares. He started singing, “You don’t know what love is… ‘til you’ve had the River Book…”. He quoted Cocteau, something to the effect that artists can’t speak about their work any more than plants can talk about horticulture.

He said that poets and artists were put on a pedestal or in the funny farm when he was coming up. He didn’t like either one, he wanted to be in the community. In 1972 he became a PTA president with long hair. He was impressed with how progressive the parents and teachers were.

George-Herms-Table-Number-Forty-TwoHe mentioned having been a visiting Getty scholar, which he referred to as “visiting squalor”. He made hand-printed books with the LOVE Press. His goal is to turn every irritation into a pearl, so living in LA must keep him busy.

When his talk was over, he sat down and signed books. There were a few empty seats in the room, which surprised me. I gave him a poem I wrote years ago (see above), and said I saw him at a Beat conference, gesticulating wildly with a silver fabric. He smiled and said the piece was called “Esteem Engine”8, and physically he can’t do it anymore. But he can get up in the morning and look at Venus.


  1. “Paterson”
  2. “The Red Wheelbarrow”
  3. Les Chants de Maldoror
  4. I arrived in Los Angeles in 1967. Underground FM radio had just begun, and my father would be reading the paper while I listened to “Brown Shoes Don’t Make it” by Frank Zappa on the hi-fi in the living room. I had a friend in high school who wore dirty sweatshirts and did metal sculpture with a welding torch. One day he asked me to help him move the studio of his brother-in-law and I saw where he got his Beat persona: the man wore sweatshirts and made metal sculptures with a blowtorch, welding together old wind-up toys, silverware, etc. A few years later I saw Captain Beefheart in a small theater in Long Beach, with his growling vocals. There was a light show with pulsing amoeba shapes and he asked them to turn it off.
  5. Among other things, Russ did the choreography for Elvis in the film Jailhouse Rock (1957).
  6. George lived in Hermosa Beach for a while, where there was a club called The Lighthouse.  In the 1970’s I saw musicians like Mose Allison and Sonny Rollins there.
  7. Also:  “The deception of a new typewriter ribbon / gets him going another few years.”
  8. I have also seen it referred to as “Wonder Groove.”

Steven Gray

Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011)