Isaac Abrams, Cosmic Orchid, 1967
You should see, if you can, “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era,” now at the Whitney Museum, N.Y.C., to September 16. This first-time survey of the art so many would like to forget comes full-blown, paradoxes and all, from the Tate Liverpool, curated by its director Christoph Grunenberg.
Certainly one strand of the art-history braid belongs to the spiritual in art. The two types of spiritual art are the propagandistic and the instrumental, the latter concerned with creating spiritual states, not just reporting, supporting or imposing previous ones. Historically, the two types are confused and/or intertwined.
It may be true that the making of, as well as the more obvious viewing of, stained glass windows caused ecstatic states, although I know of no records of such. We sort of know what happened when Jakob Boehme saw a glint of sunlight on a pewter bowl. The download began: “Though flesh and blood cannot conceive or apprehend the being of God, but the spirit only when enlightened and kindled from God….” (The Aurora, 1612). But we do not know what might have happened when any less extraordinary shoemaker saw his first Rose Window.
Clerics and laity may have been forced into joy, but were the designers and tradesmen who made the windows transported during their labors? I’d guess monks responsible for illuminated manuscripts, like the Book of Kells, might have had a hard time keeping their feet on the ground. And if a few Irish calligraphers were transported, why not glassworkers and even stone masons? An important and little-noted function of art is how it transforms its maker, not how it teaches or pleases or changes viewers. From this point of view, the knitting is more important than the sweater; the weaving is more important than the cloth.
Abdul Mati Klarwein, View of Aleph Sanctuary, 1963-1971
The Rewrite Marches On
Although a great deal of psychedelia may have been drug induced or drug inspired, as in a certain literary tradition (think de Quincey and Coleridge), Grunenberg makes the point that Psychedelic Art has been written out of the official art history now subsumed by the Minimal/Pop/Conceptual axis. This MPC alliance is not as strange as once might have been supposed, since each banished the hand.
Given the ’60s art-world consumption of mind-altering substances and the inviolable tradition of alcohol abuse, the exclusion of Psychedelic Art is not about anti-drug puritanism but about power and dividing up slices of the economic pie. Surely the prohibition is not about taste, considering the bad taste endemic in academia and the world of galleries and museums.
What was or is so dangerous about swirling colors? Big Brother and the Holding Company? Be-In posters? Groovy nudies and spiritual symbols, about astrology and mythology? Like Grunenberg, I too think we should take another look at this despised and repressed art. The “Summer of Love” makes that possible.
Politics is pushed aside. There is no clear articulation of the Free Speech vs. Hippie (or Berkeley vs. Haight-Ashbury) divide. No real presence of the antiwar and black, women’s and gay liberation movements, all of which had a lasting impact. Nevertheless, the formalist curatorial strategy does provide a certain clarity. Psychedelic Art, I should say, has not been repressed because it was anti-political (as both the Left and the New Left accused) or because it seemed to promote drugs. We all know what happened to Janis. She OD’d and it wasn’t on Southern Comfort. By 1967, the dubious use of drugs as a spiritual tool became the use of drugs as recreation, opening the door to heroin and speed. The Summer of Love became the Bummer of Love.
No, Psychedelic Art got the kibosh because there was no room for it in the single-strand art history that dominates art discourse. The single-strand approach is a great sales pitch because it makes today’s newest commodity seem inevitable, like the Dictatorship of the Proletariat or the Old Testament leading to the New.
In Grunenberg’s catalog essay, he suggests that Psychedelic Art was too populist, too popular, too commercial, too decorative, too kitschy. I would add that Psychedelic Art was too “spiritual” and there was no academically sanctioned precedent for positioning spiritual art in the art market. Formally, Art Brut was the closest category, but what later became Outsider Art (with its own lively market now collapsing into Folk Art) was then owned by wine merchant Jean Dubuffet.
If some of the most characteristic psychedelic works were posters, album covers, and light shows, how could Leo Castelli make a living out of that? The graphic art is now highly collectible and Joplin’s psychedelic Porsche is priceless. The light shows have come back to haunt us, re-jiggered as projected or time-based art.
Verner Panton, Phantasy Landscape Visiona, 1970-2000
All You Need Is a Little Bit of LSD
“Summer” embraces everything from walk-in meditation rooms, graphic art, light shows, films, sculpture, paintings (yes, even paintings). Also, as if to emphasize the curatorial formalism, we are jolted by a spectacular Lynda Benglis poured-latex floor piece, California Minimalist John McCracken’s psychedelic forays, a triptych by political-Conceptualist Adrian Piper, design luminary Verner Panton’s Phantasy Landscape Visiona II, and a Paul Jenkins stain-painting exercise. I never would have thought of Benglis, Jenkins, and Panton as psychedelic. Nor had I any inkling that McCracken and Piper, like the rest of the art world, had experimented with mind-altering substances.
More significant are paintings by nearly forgotten artists such as the under-appreciated painter Isaac Abrams and Abdul Mati Klarwein, whose walk-in trip-room (Aleph Sanctuary, 1963-71) is a high point of the exhibition — no pun intended. And if you go to the Klarwein website you will see that the curator did pick the high point of this artist’s checkered career. Also, on the Klarwein website I found this to share with you:
Anybody can classify me as they wish. In the fifties I was classified as an illustrator, even though my work consisted of paintings. And in the sixties my work was classified as psychedelic. So I took psychedelics to find out what it was all about. I found out I couldn’t paint on them. I’ll tell you about a funny episode. Jean Houston and Robert Masters put together a book called Psychedelic Art in the sixties, and they came to me… And they asked me, “What kind of psychedelics do you take when you’re painting?” And I said, “I don’t take anything when I’m painting. When I take psychedelics I get very horny, and I start going out to nightclubs and cruising.” (laughter)
So they said, “Well, we can’t put you in the book.” I freaked out, because I wasn’t in any book yet (laughter), and I said, “But I get my ideas when I’m high.” And they said, “Alright, we’ll put you in the book.” Next they asked me for the names of other psychedelic painters, and I gave them a whole list, including Fuchs. I called them all up right away, and I told them, “Tell them that you’re taking psychedelics!” And they all got in the book. (laughter)
And I certainly have to mention that the sound and light walk-in created by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s, Music and Light Box (1967-8) should have been given the entire third floor. Young is the founder of music Minimalism, and after he worked through his Zen koan music events, his Minimalism was extreme, as is audible here. With the group called Inside the Dream Syndicate (Tony Conrad, John Cale, and others) he went on to put a patent on the loud, really loud. Entering the concert hall, as I once wrote, was like walking into a solid pool of heavy water. You either woke up or went deaf.
Will we ever have a cross-media Minimalism exhibition that would include not only the sculpture we already know, but Young, Tony Conrad films, the architecture of Luis Barragan, cuisine minceur, Aram Saroyan’s one-word poems, and Scott Burton’s furniture? Will we ever mine the friendship between Young and Walter de Maria, Phil Glass and Sol LeWitt?
Of course, we may also read Psychedelic Art, like it or not, as anti-Minimalism with a vengeance, besting a thousand times over what was to be packaged as post-Minimalism — hence the oddity of the inclusion of Benglis, who has usually been deemed a more orthodox post-Minimalist, i.e., Minimalism with soft materials. Grunenberg’s most radical remark is that his exhibition will “challenge the myth of coherent movements and individual styles.” Well, that’s certainly loosening the bit, increasing the bite. He has a point. We tend to lop off art and art careers that do not fit marketing categories. Art careers get rewritten too, but usually not for the better. Each artist, each style has to be the equivalent of a sound bite.
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Finally, now I can announce that I am not alone in my push for re-imagining or re-conceptualizing art history as a braid rather than a single, evolutionary strand. Artist and critic Mark Staff Brandl, obviously an Artopian, sent me a link from Switzerland to his review of David Carrier’s book The Aesthetics of Comics. I suggest reading the whole thing, but here’s a pertinent excerpt:
The future of both fine and comic art, to follow Carrier’s suggestions, might not be posthistorical, but rather polyhistorical. This is an portentous expansion of art and art history. If I may be so bold, I would offer the author a useful metaphor for his philosophy. Media theorist Christian Doelker has supplied an alternative reading of the word text. While most literary theorists use the term to prejudicially favour reading over seeing, Doelker traces the term back to its root in weaving or a cable. This is a highly evocative image. I picture, in a very Wittgensteinian manner, an interwoven mass of filaments, some longer, some shorter, each a “history,” each independent to an extent, yet touching on various others, some ending only to begin again farther on, all travelling nonetheless in certain concert…… Suggestively, Carrier…. offers us a philosophy which sees history as a cable of integrated stories; we have simply focused far too long on only one strand. Again to use Doelker’s terminology, we could have an art history which is plurogenic (multistrand), as opposed to…monogenic (single strand) conceptions. This is a promising description of history, a welcome alternative to the end-tales now so predominant.
Obviously great minds think alike. I will leave aside for the moment the need to re-imagine history in general, and time itself.
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JOHN PERREAULT INTERVIEWED, PODCAST ON WPS1.