A series of hands each hold a transistor radio. Each radio frames an image -- an owl, a child, a white horse, a rose, a Buddha -- as though each radio has caught a tiny living thing inside it.

They belong to Wallace Berman, an artist working from the 1950s to 1970s in southern California.

Along the wall, a wide, dusky purple sky and furrowed land swirl with points of light, as though the milky way touched the horizon, in Barbara Takenaga's "Nebraska painting (rising)."

They suggest the apogee and the perigee in Elizabeth Rooklidge's fall show, "Cosmologies," at the Williams College Museum of Art.

Cosmology means thinking about the way the world works, Rooklidge said. It may mean a scientific analysis of the creation of the universe -- the big-bang theory, particle physics. And it may mean a cultural, mythic or religious understanding of the order of creation.

Rooklidge, a second-year graduate student in art history at Williams College, conceived the show around a work at WCMA, Kiki Smith's "Nuit," meant to invoke the Egyptian Sky Goddess.

Delving into WCMA's collection, she has assembled work from a time when the human view of the universe shook and changed -- from the space age and the moon landing.

After NASA invited Robert Rauschenberg to observe the launch of Apollo 11, which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969, Rauschenberg created a series of prints.


Here, in graphite grey, he has combined images drawn from photographs, maps and diagrams, with vigorous lines of movement.

He admired the scientific specificity needed to make this marvel happen, she said. But he was also disillusioned with many uses of contemporary technology.

Nearby, a photographic composition by Thomas Ruff grapples with infinite space and finite humanity. A photographer who had loved astronomy since his childhood, Ruff wanted to take photographs of the stars, Rooklidge said, and he knew his equipment could not get the images he wanted, so he bought negatives from an astronomical observatory in Chile and created compositions from them.

He is playing with the idea that manmade machinery could tap into the workings of the universe, she said, though a telescope seems fragile against the expanse of space and the light traveling billions of miles to reach the lens.

The show moves from creative scientific discovery to creative subjective discovery, from deep space to dreams.

Berman's hands hold radios rich in symbols.

He was a key figure in the underground art movement in his lifetime, Rooklidge said. He is known now for collages made with a Verifax machine, an early cousin to the photocopier.

"We see in these (prints) religious imagery of various traditions, natural imagery, sexual imagery," she said.

The images are not explicit -- a rose or the curve of a shoulder may suggest desire. But they are potent. Luminous against the shadow inside the radio, they float like ghosts or smoke.

They seem to fascinate visitors, Rooklidge said.

"It's interesting to see people in the show," she said. "This is one of the works people often come back to, after they have looked around -- for a second or a third look."

Berman has arranged the prints in groups of four, and each print has a Hebrew letter in an upper corner.

How did he choose each image? Why did he group together a skeletal torso, a mitred Bishop with a crozier, hands reaching up to a cross, and a human figure stooping a bowed head into tense arms? Naked ribs -- living people straining toward a symbol of life -- a religious leader hidden in formal clothing -- a man or woman in extreme pain -- how did they speak to each other in his mind?

Rooklidge is trying to find out. She is writing her thesis on Berman, and she is fnding him an enigmatic figure. The limited research on him, she said, has glossed over his choice of images, and he is not well known. He supported other artists, she said. He was charismatic, nurturing, a force people were drawn to. But he rarely talked about his own work and did not write about it, and his work has not been visible until recently.

She can trace a source for the Hebrew lettering.

"He was passionately interested in the Kabbalah," she said.

He studied the tradition of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah finds power in words and in letters -- and in the idea of reception, of understanding cosmic messages. Berman focused on a human attempt to build something that would help people to receive.

The Hebrew letters do not add up to words, she said, but in the Kabbalah, each letter is "a potent entity."

God created the universe, in this tradition, by combining letters to form words.

'Cosmologies' show charts the skies at WCMA

What: 'Cosmologies' group show at Williams College Museum of Art

Where: 15 Lawrence Hall drive, Williamstown

When: Through Sunday

Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.

Admission: Free

Information: wcma.williams.edu