When I meet George Herms on a dull December afternoon, he talks first about a sculpture he has been working on called Event Horizon Rose. It is a large shelving unit on wheels that he rolls about so I can see all sides. The shelves are crammed with too many objects to list—including a tarnished fork, an old tin, a horn, a cracked mirror, and a yellowed book with its cover removed and spine exposed. It looks half-calculated, half like the aftermath of a tornado. I ask about his choice of objects. "It's a listening process," he says. "I listen with my eyes. The experience of playing music comes to mind. The objects talk to me—it's the damnedest thing. Some objects just won't let me get any closer. . . . This is, in a way, totally abstract art."
Herms is a major figure of the assemblage movement, which emerged here in the late 1950s among such artists as Herms, Ed Kienholz, Robert Rauschenberg and Bruce Conner. His apartment in the Brewery arts complex of Los Angeles is about what you'd expect:a sprawling badlands of discarded relics—iron scraps and ornaments, broken-down wooden furniture, and other object carcasses.
He points to another thicket of his studio, in the direction of a cluttered old piano. "Other pieces I make are an homage, made after certain artists die—jazz artists in particular," he says, directing me to an homage-in-progress to Thelonious Monk. "I almost need to invent a new word: homagery."
Herms' voice is languid, like an old philosophy professor's (he's 68), but I sense he is holding something back. He begins to talk about the past—about a time when everyone in the arts knew everyone else; when a select coterie consumed poetry readings, dance events, gallery shows and any such happening; when his circle of friends included Kenneth Patchen, Allen Ginsberg, David Meltzer, Philip Lamantia, Lew Welch, Bruce Conner, Dennis Hopper and Wallace Berman. During this litany, Herms does not look at me but at a middle space about 10 yards in front of him. I notice his skin is sallow, his movements are deliberate, and his longish yellow-gray hair is pulled starkly back over his ears—giving him a squinty look, as if he's gazing through smoke.
"I am dead center in the middle of the pyramid," Herms says. "Friends with those at the top, and peers with a large group of artists. A triangle of art, poetry and music."
Herms doesn't need to mention that his era's pyramid is shrinking. Patchen died in 1972, Ginsberg in 1997, Welch in 1971, and Berman in 1976. The past is actually a big part of what Herms does these days, as he is often asked to be spokesperson for the Beat Generation by institutions such as the Whitney and the Getty. "I keep getting picked because I went to all those things—poetry readings and jazz shows. The reason I went is because I care about films, poetry, jazz and art. To me, this is just what I was called to do."
The fact that Herms found his calling does not mean he found his means of living. In fact, he is, for all his experience and status, quite broke—by his own account, eight months' late on the rent for his studio and storage spaces, with little chance to raise the money any time soon. It turns out Herms has long had money problems. With his past three landlords, he explains, he figured what rent was owed at year's end, and payment was made in art—a solution that he says spoiled him. "I'm going through the cold, hard facts of having moved in here. I thought I was partnering up, going to make some outdoor sculpture, but I fell behind on the rent . . . [and] he [his current landlord] turned out more interested in my money than in my art."
A bitter bout this fall with eviction lawyers put Herms further in debt. The resulting stress was so great that at the end of a public speaking appearance this past November at the Getty, Herms uncharacteristically lost control. "At the end of the night, a woman asked me, 'How does it feel to be so successful?' And I exploded. I totally lost it. I told her everything, about the lawyers and my debt. I told her about the landlord who wanted to clear [Herms' art from] a storage space, saying, 'If it sells, then it's art. If it doesn't sell, it's junk.'"
Herms pauses while the music of Clifford Brown plays on the radio and one of three gallery cats scratches at the leg of a table. "I'm just an idiot," he says after a time. "I get up and work every day. I'm more into what I've started making and taking what's fresh than in turning it into the coin of the realm. I'm in therapy now—for three or four years—to find out why I have the feeling I don't need to pay bills like everyone else."
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Still, there is hope. Word is the gallery slowdown of the current recession may be easing. Herms has a show opening Saturday at Square Blue Gallery in Costa Mesa, and gallery owner Jamie Wilson hopes to sell some work. "I curated it," she says, "so there's some really strong pieces that I'm excited about—and that usually helps with sales."
Event Horizon Rose will be one of the works in the show.
"It's almost as if there's a lip service to arts," says Herms as the daylight fades outside his studio. "It's financially peripheral. First comes groceries, rent, the car. People are just not buying art. I put it this way: financial security is the last medium. I've learned all the other media, and I have to master this last one."
"George Herms" at Square Blue Gallery, 3400 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-7447. Opening reception, Sat., 6-9 p.m. Gallery open Thurs.-Sun., noon-6 p.m. Through April 4.