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George Herms, 'Flag,' 1962

In 1962, after a somewhat itinerant early adulthood, including a brief stint as an engineering student at UC Berkeley and almost two years hitchhiking through Mexico, George Herms was living in what he referred to as “groove grove cabin isolated in 100 acres Malibu Hills.” Herms had recently returned to Southern California following a brief yet formative period spent in San Francisco. While there he cemented relationships with other Beat artists also working in assemblage such as Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman and Robert Alexander, a group who John Coplans later described as “social critics of extreme candor who compulsively mirror their reaction to contemporary society.”

A growing recognition of assemblage as “the first home-grown California modern art,” as Peter Plagens suggests, had resulted in a number of recent exhibitions that showcased this distinct genre, most importantly at the Museum of Modern Art (The Art of Assemblage, 1961), Pasadena Museum of Art (California Collage Show, 1962) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (Fifty California Artists, 1962). In addition, Herms had his first major one-person show at the Batman Gallery in San Francisco in 1961, where he showed “The Meat Market,” an installation-assemblage emulating the titular butcher shop and comprised of materials he had scavenged from the local dump. The following year, while living in “Groove Grove,” the catalyst for a new body of work Herms later showed at Aura Gallery - a cooperative space in Pasadena - was the untimely death of his Packard automobile, which he ascribed to “so many dirt road hills.” The Packard, and its contents, then became the source material for a series of assemblages, among them this work, ‘Flag.’

The use of the American flag in artworks post-war has been examined at length - particularly as a subject of controversy and legal disputes. Herms himself was no stranger to this; in 1961, shortly before making ‘Flag,’ another assemblage of his was shown as part of a survey of California collage, curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Museum of Art. According to Herms, the American Legion took offense to the piece, which included an old American flag, and pushed for the museum to remove it from the exhibition. However, the board of trustees declined. Before the exhibition opened to the public, someone broke into the museum and vandalized the work, removing the flag. Rather than remove the damaged piece, Herms placed a note where the flag had been: "This piece has been raped by a madman and despite this degradation the forces of creation will go on. Love, G.H." 
 
Sidra Stich notes in the catalogue for the 1987 exhibition “Made in the USA” that for many artists in the ‘60s, “the appearance of the flag was consonant with an intensified focus on America, a focus that embraced concern as much as jubilance, ambivalence not blind allegiance.” Stich goes on to note that Herms, and specifically his assemblage ‘Flag,’ represents “a confrontational stance toward American culture, an anarchistic attitude to materials and a freewheeling, poetic approach to iconography.” That an old Packard would be the source for a work so conflicted in its Americanism is apropos - Packard being, in its heyday, one of the luxury American marques. During World War II, the company was focused on producing engines for the war effort, but largely failed to gain back market share following their resume in production after 1945. Production of Packard cars ultimately ended in 1959 and the name was retired in 1962. While Herms may not have considered the parallel, the death of his own car coincided with the death of what had been for a time an emblem of American ideals.

If for Plagens “assemblage is the first home-grown California modern art” and Herms “the first ‘real’ hippie artist,” while David S. Rubin ascribes to Herms’s work “a quiet religiosity [that] emerges from the conversion of simple waste materials into ambiguously metaphoric objects,” how to reconcile the apparent political nature of an ostensibly apolitical artist? It is often noted the comparatively light-hearted or “informal” (as Thomas Albright puts it) nature of Herms’s approach to assemblage in the context of his closest contemporaries, yet astutely, Albright notes, the “metaphoric objects” in Herms’s assemblages don’t suffer “any diminution of their original identities and associations.” The process of “explod[ing] (explor[ing] in a collage manner actually)” as the artist put it - the Packard, was also one of concealment: dying, dismantling, painting the various parts. A piece of upholstery for the stripes, batting daubed in white for stars, with a second, smaller facsimile (perhaps) consisting of an ice cube tray and head lamp fragment. While the graphic sensibility of the Flag is a simple metaphor to translate (stripe=stripe, dot=star), the weighty significance of the object itself is impossible to divorce from any patriotic undertones. This is no snappy, bright, high-flying symbol of the nation; by Herms’s own admission, “it is a relief and meant to curl forward from the plane of the wall… over the years deteriorating and succumbing to gravity.”

George Herms, Flag, 1962. Mixed media assemblage, 48 x 40 x 7 inches.

George Herms, Flag, 1962. Mixed media assemblage, 48 x 40 x 7 inches.

In 1962, after a somewhat itinerant early adulthood, including a brief stint as an engineering student at UC Berkeley and almost two years hitchhiking through Mexico, George Herms was living in what he referred to as “groove grove cabin isolated in 100 acres Malibu Hills.” Herms had recently returned to Southern California following a brief yet formative period spent in San Francisco. While there he cemented relationships with other Beat artists also working in assemblage such as Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman and Robert Alexander, a group who John Coplans later described as “social critics of extreme candor who compulsively mirror their reaction to contemporary society.”

A growing recognition of assemblage as “the first home-grown California modern art,” as Peter Plagens suggests, had resulted in a number of recent exhibitions that showcased this distinct genre, most importantly at the Museum of Modern Art (The Art of Assemblage, 1961), Pasadena Museum of Art (California Collage Show, 1962) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (Fifty California Artists, 1962). In addition, Herms had his first major one-person show at the Batman Gallery in San Francisco in 1961, where he showed The Meat Market, an installation-assemblage emulating the titular butcher shop and comprised of materials he had scavenged from the local dump. The following year, while living in “Groove Grove,” the untimely death of his Packard automobile, which he ascribed to “so many dirt road hills," was the catalyst for a new body of work Herms later showed at Aura Gallery - a cooperative space in Pasadena. The Packard, and its contents, then became the source material for a series of assemblages, among them this work, Flag.

The use of the American flag in artworks post-war has been examined at length - particularly as a subject of controversy and legal disputes. Herms himself was no stranger to this; in 1961, shortly before making Flag, another assemblage of his was shown as part of a survey of California collage, curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Museum of Art. According to Herms, the American Legion took offense to the piece, which included an old American flag, and pushed for the museum to remove it from the exhibition. However, the board of trustees declined. Before the exhibition opened to the public, someone broke into the museum and vandalized the work, removing the flag. Rather than remove the damaged piece, Herms placed a note where the flag had been: "This piece has been raped by a madman and despite this degradation the forces of creation will go on. Love, G.H." 
 
Sidra Stich notes in the catalogue for the 1987 exhibition Made in the USA that for many artists in the ‘60s, “the appearance of the flag was consonant with an intensified focus on America, a focus that embraced concern as much as jubilance, ambivalence not blind allegiance.” Stich goes on to note that Herms, and specifically his assemblage Flag, represents “a confrontational stance toward American culture, an anarchistic attitude to materials and a freewheeling, poetic approach to iconography.” That an old Packard would be the source for a work so conflicted in its Americanism is apropos - Packard being, in its heyday, one of the luxury American marques. During World War II, the company was focused on producing engines for the war effort, but largely failed to gain back market share following their resume in production after 1945. Production of Packard cars ultimately ended in 1959 and the name was retired in 1962. While Herms may not have considered the parallel, the death of his own car coincided with the death of what had been for a time an emblem of American ideals.

If for Plagens “assemblage is the first home-grown California modern art” and Herms “the first ‘real’ hippie artist,” while David S. Rubin ascribes to Herms’s work “a quiet religiosity [that] emerges from the conversion of simple waste materials into ambiguously metaphoric objects,” how to reconcile the apparent political nature of an ostensibly apolitical artist? It is often noted the comparatively light-hearted or “informal” (as Thomas Albright puts it) nature of Herms’s approach to assemblage in the context of his closest contemporaries, yet astutely, Albright notes, the “metaphoric objects” in Herms’s assemblages don’t suffer “any diminution of their original identities and associations.” The process of “explod[ing] (explor[ing] in a collage manner actually)” as the artist put it - the Packard, was also one of concealment: dying, dismantling, painting the various parts. A piece of upholstery for the stripes, batting daubed in white for stars, with a second, smaller facsimile (perhaps) consisting of an ice cube tray and head lamp fragment. While the graphic sensibility of the Flag is a simple metaphor to translate (stripe=stripe, dot=star), the weighty significance of the object itself is impossible to divorce from any patriotic undertones. This is no snappy, bright, high-flying symbol of the nation; by Herms’s own admission, “it is a relief and meant to curl forward from the plane of the wall… over the years deteriorating and succumbing to gravity.”