“The Barricade and the Dance Floor: Aesthetic Radicalism and the Counterculture” is republished from Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015; Andrew Blauvelt, ed.). On view at the Walker October 24, 2015 through February 28, 2015, the exhibition travels to the Cranbrook Art Museum and University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
In Hjorvardur Harvard Arnason’s sweeping survey History of Modern Art, first published in 1968, a brief entry on psychedelic art completes his six-hundred-page tome. It seems a fitting way to conclude the book’s march through modernism, focusing as it does on the au courant style of the moment. As Arnason explains, “The recent appearance of psychedelic art may be accounted for in several ways: the easy availability and enormously increased use of psychedelic drugs; the mixture and confusion of appeals to several senses simultaneously in the so-called mixed media performances; the ethos of the hippies and flower-children; and the prevalent atmosphere of rebellion against ‘the establishment,’ whether in society in general or in art specifically.”1 Arnason does not elaborate on these causalities, which, nevertheless, are instructive in their range of positions. The use of mind-altering and consciousness-expanding drugs such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin on the part of artists would seem to be an expected foundational definition of a psychedelic art.
This “art under the influence” approach applied not only to some artists whose work was produced during drug-induced sessions but also for the many more who drew upon such episodes and experiences more symbolically or referentially, giving psychedelic art currency as both a form of process and representational art. Interestingly, Arnason does not parse the difference between the artist and the audience undergoing an altered state of consciousness, rendering psychedelic art also possible in the mind’s-eye of the beholder. This inclusive reading is alluded to in his second cause, the “mixed” and “confusing” sensory experiences of mixed-media performance—choreographies that often intentionally blurred the roles of audience and performer as easily as it melded the aural, visual, and tactile realms into one experiential whole. In fact, although he introduces this final section with a focus on the psychedelic artist, the trajectory of psychedelic art clearly exceeds such conventional limits and must embrace the culture and society at large. Thus, the appearance of such an art would be the consequence of its newly created audience of “hippies and flower children”—presumably as both spectators and co-creators—in a socially antiestablishment “atmosphere of rebellion.” Arnason understood that such an art is not limited to representing conditions of social rebellion “in general,” but also posed a challenge to “art specifically.”
Arnason had neither the space nor the historical distance to expand on this provocative thought, although he closes this section, and thus the book, with the following: “There could be no more striking demonstration of the variety of recent art than the contrast between the rigors and discipline of color-field, systemic, or minimal art on the one hand, and on the other hand, the surprise images of cosmic or mythic events induced by ‘mind-liberating’ drugs.” 2 One could argue that it was precisely this contrast or difference that would dispel psychedelic art, including nearly all related forms of countercultural production, from art history proper following the waning of the movement itself.
Although Arnason concedes in his postscript to the book that the history of modern art was “primarily a revolution in perception,” albeit led by artists and followed by viewers, the drug-induced hallucinations of psychedelic art were perhaps a bridge too far. 3 The skepticism is already in the air in his closing sentence, whereby more established 1960s art movements exhibit rigor and discipline—understood as control and definition—while psychedelia is a byproduct of serendipitous and thus uncontrollable effect. The teleology of successive artistic movements established by Arnason and repeated by others—Pop, Color Field, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Conceptualism—creates a powerful canonical narrative that tends to exclude anomalous episodes that clash with its storyline. By the time the revised second edition of History of Modern Art was published in 1977, the section on psychedelic art was eliminated.
It is possible, however, to understand and situate psychedelia into a continuum or continuity of art-historical thinking, as Adrian Piper, who began her artistic career in her teenage years with psychedelic paintings and drawings, relates to her own evolution: “Realism depicts the objects of ordinary conventional reality; Impressionism depicts the perceptual qualities of those objects broken up into light and color; Pointillism depicts the perceptual and formal qualities of those objects broken up even further into color and minutely small forms; Psychedelia depicts the cracking open of all of those perceptual and formal qualities; Minimalism expresses the underlying geometric essences behind those objects and their qualities; Pop Art depicts those objects shorn of the conventional conceptual schemes that give them meaning; Conceptual Art expresses the breaking up and reconstitution of those conventional conceptual schemes and the objects (and subjects) embedded in them.”4
In this lineage, psychedelia follows Impressionism, not chronologically but philosophically, as the artist depicts an altered sense of reality and the objects and spaces within it. Rather than a formal reordering of perceived color and form (e.g., Pointillism), psychedelia promises something different—access to more deeply hidden truths of reality and alternate planes of lived experience. Such insight was to be gained through the use of psychedelic drugs, of course, but it could also have happened through so-called drugless trips, such as spiritual awakenings via meditation or through technologically induced or mediated experiences.
“Cracking open” ordinary reality is not unlike the preferred metaphor of the counterculture’s throwing open—following Aldous Huxley, then Jim Morrison—the “doors of perception.” In psychedelia, the role of the artist is to bear witness to or induce such revelations in others: its primary mode is depiction—re-creating the effect post-trip, reporting back one’s experience—and these representations were sufficiently discernible and unique enough to be categorized as its own aesthetic. Thus, Arnason provides a formal analysis of psychedelic art: “heavily figured,” “acid colors,” “undulating lines,” “amorphous space,” and so on.5 Isolating the characteristic visual language of psychedelia was tantamount to codifying its style. It is not surprising then to see psychedelia portrayed, discussed, and ultimately dismissed as a style with its resultant commodification.
Artist Jud Yalkut was already wise to the situation when he wrote in Arts magazine in 1966 that “‘Psychedelic’ symbology appears as the next reworking of our vernacular,” and warned, following the example of the rapid reabsorption of Pop art back into popular culture, “The dangerous temptation is getting ‘hung up’ by gaudy surface appearances and easy associations,”6 noting that “LSD Art” had already been canonized by Life magazine.7 While it may be possible to understand psychedelia in its historical moment as a style of the times as represented in both conventional and unconventional art forms, it was also simultaneously postulated as a timely style or fad—another marketing strategy, a “magic sales word,” as duly noted in the Wall Street Journal.8
Rather than a formal reordering of perceived color and form (e.g., Pointillism), psychedelia promises something different—access to more deeply hidden truths of reality and alternate planes of lived experience.
Despite its seemingly omnipresent character, psychedelia is and was too limiting a concept by which to judge or gauge the artistic merit of the countercultural output of the 1960s and early 1970s. To understand the diversity of practices during such an intensely experimental period, the curatorial net has to be cast much wider and much farther.
Some more recent attempts to do so include Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner’s West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977 (2011) for the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke’s The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside (2013) for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. As both titles indicate, the theoretical focus takes on a genius loci approach, placing the American West and California, in particular, as the epicenter for more expansive understandings of the social and cultural transformations being wrought as a new form of global modernity emerged in the 1960s.
West of Center seeks to expand the art-historical canon of the period by including formerly excluded practices, art forms that did not conform to the prevailing ethos of an East Coast–dominated avant-garde that remained preoccupied with categories such as the art object, artistic medium, and disciplines, even as it tried to actively undermine all three.
By contrast, the West Coast proffered hybrid experiments that eschewed and challenged disciplinary boundaries, often commingling art, craft, design, and performance with filmic and architectural practices; extending the notion of medium into a riotous range of media assaulting the senses; and tending to privilege individual experience as the basis of social transformation, while creating a personal yet political commitment that went largely ignored by the New Left political scene.
Unrecognizable as either art or politics, many forms of countercultural practice suffer from “a double whammy” of neglect, as Auther and Lerner relate: “The unfortunate fate of the counterculture is that its story doesn’t blend well with either the narrative of the New York avant-garde or the political histories of the 1960s. While its commitment to social transformation divorced it from the histories of the avant-garde, its emphasis on culture and lifestyle alienated it from political histories of the 1960s.”21
The 2013 exhibition, The Whole Earth, locates its emblematic beginnings with the first images of the planet taken from the vantage point of outer space, a cause taken up in 1966 by Stewart Brand, who created a campaign asking for the release of such pictures, which were then controlled as part of the military-security apparatus of the United States. Eventually, such images would adorn the covers of his iconic Whole Earth Catalog. Like a poster child for a new form of holism emergent in the 1960s, the picture of the whole Earth embodied metaphors of interdependence, interconnectedness, and global completeness that merged perfectly with the era’s new adages, such as those by Marshall McLuhan and his evocation of a “global village” connected by new forms of media or Fuller’s technological-cum-ecological metaphor of a “Spaceship Earth.”
Diederichsen and Franke embrace a wider cultural history of the period in which art, images, texts, music, and ephemera are orchestrated in an overarching narrative of the “planetary paradigm,” as they call it, which they suggest emerged around 1968.22 They place at the heart of their endeavor the technological and ecological imperatives that grew out of the counterculture, particularly in California, a place that birthed both back-to-the-land eco-communalism as well as a fervent technological optimism that witnessed the birth of the personal computer and the advance of cybernetics, and would later spawn a public and commercial Internet.23 Extending these well-known historical moments, their project embraces the past and the present, the historical archive as well as the contemporary image sphere. Despite the presence of art, both new and old, the project purposefully foregrounds an intellectual rather than an art history, one that extends countercultural ideas into present-day concepts of neoliberalism, networked capitalism, globalization, climate change, and Empire.
Hippie Modernism attempts to further expand and expose the range of such artistic and cultural practices—the proverbial tip of the iceberg that West of Center surfaced four years ago—with a particular emphasis on radical architecture and critical design of the period, which were not part of that project’s focus. It also offers an alternative aesthetic and theoretical framework for which to understand the countercultural output of the period as a radical break from progressive politics, art, and culture of the time.
Rather than focusing strictly on the geography and mythology of the American West, the exhibition takes a broader view of countercultural production, examining how basic tenets such as consciousness expansion, social awareness, and community formation were made manifest through the art, architecture, and design of the period. Like West of Center, Hippie Modernism partakes of a new generation of historians who are just beginning to mine the archives of these lost episodes in cultural history—moments of great interest and inspiration to a new generation of artists, architects, and designers.
An Alternate Architecture
If art history ultimately rejected the petition of psychedelic art to enter its canon, then a similar fate befell countercultural architectural experiments. In his book Architecture Today (1982), author and architectural theorist Charles Jencks offers a survey of recent work that attempts to delineate the differences between late-modernism and postmodernism in architecture. Positioned as the concluding and final section of the book, an eighty-page chapter by architectural historian William Chaitkin is titled simply “Alternatives.”
By alternative, Chaitkin refers to the experimental work of the 1960s and 1970s initiated by two different camps, one enacted by architects but critical of their field and another operating outside or beyond the field of architecture proper. On the one hand, there were those projects undertaken by mostly young architects, recent graduates of architectural programs, which embodied provocative and visionary schemes that might not ever or could never be built, or that extended the notion of architecture well beyond the realization of a building. Often existing as compelling drawings and visually powerful collages, they offered a conceptual alternative to normative architectural schemes and practices of the day—a powerful critique of both the affirming and servile nature of much professional practice while challenging the lowered expectations of architecture from society at large. Although educational products of the academy, they rejected the pedagogical agendas and routines of their elders and offered not only “paper architecture” alternatives, but also material experiments—prototypes that extended the notion of architecture toward the broader realms of environment, media, and spatial experience.
A second category of experiments took place in parallel by essentially nonprofessional architects or amateurs in the best sense of the word, whose work and practice entailed not only the design but also the fabrication of experimental structures.
Typically, their work was an extension of their lives, a personal or communal need for shelter replacing the client commissions of professional practice, while their own manual labor contributed to the task at hand and thus further collapsed the distinctions among the varied roles of designer, builder, and inhabitant. This was not, however, simply a case of indigenous, anonymous, or impoverished building. In their pursuit of alternative living, their ideas challenged conventional notions of public and private property, the use and fixity of space, and of conventional building methods, among other things, while embracing both old techniques and new materials.24 By doing so, it challenged the basic precepts of architecture from largely the outside the profession.
It is on this second camp that Chaitkin focuses his attention, preferring to discuss built works because they were “short on theory but long on practice,” paralleling Jencks’s use of realized or built commissions in the book’s other sections.25 In his important chronicle of countercultural architecture, Chaitkin covers structures such as the mathematically precise geodesic domes of Fuller, an engineer, and also the variant geometries of handcrafted hippie “zomes” of Steve Baer for the celebrated communal architecture of Drop City. He embraces the funky aesthetic of the wooden houseboats of Sausalito and the “woodbutcher’s art”26 of myriad hand-built homes nestled in the woods as well as the revival of indigenous and nomadic forms such as the tepee or the yurt. Despite a foray into inflatable architecture, its leanings in the direction of technology were more toward the appropriate and alternative type, rather than the speculative and technophilic. Chaitkin eyes renewable energies like solar and the reuse of cast-off materials from industrial society as well as the recycling of motor vehicles into forms of mobile architecture—the conversion of school buses, vans, and cars into he calls “truckitecture.”