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Much contemporary political art, however strong in conviction, feels resigned to an inability to affect the conditions it addresses: Ai Weiwei on the migrant crisis, Laura Poitras on surveillance, and Olafur Eliasson on global warming are proximate in 2016. Conversely, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia at the Walker Art Center remembers a moment when people believed that art could radically alter society. Hippie Modernism is filled with over two hundred and fifty objects—posters, paintings, a geodesic dome, ephemera, inflatables, film, a pink PVC bodysuit. A great strength of the exhibition is that it makes palpable a sense of urgency in the counterculture’s aspirations, projects, and products, which were often one and the same thing. Even if not all utopic all the time, Hippie Modernism evinces a momentum, unbridled energy, intrepid experimentation, and earnestness rarely felt in artistic production today.
Curated by Andrew Blauvelt, the former Senior Curator of Design, Research, and Publishing at the Walker and newly appointed Director of Cranbrook Art Museum, Hippie Modernism examines work produced between 1964 and 1974. This is a decade bookended on the one hand by the Merry Pranksters’ epic cross-country journey and on the other by the gasoline rationing caused by the OPEC oil embargo, which Blauvelt takes to signal the close of an era.
True to title, Hippie Modernism eschews the centrality of the art object as such, preferring instead the notion of countercultural experiment as artistic practice. In this, its organizers benefit from the lessons of recent scholarly and institutional attention paid to countercultural design and aesthetic activity. The reception history of psychedelic art began in 1968, with a curt section closing art historian H. H. Arnason’s book History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography (New York: Abrams), later effaced in the 1977 edition. Also in 1968, Robert E.L. Masters and Jean Houston published their slim tome Psychedelic Art (New York: Grove), the first book-length study on the topic. Neither publication claims outright a cogent style for psychedelic artwork, but certain characteristics emerge: mandalas, intricate patterning, neon colors, and arabesques.
Within the last decade, two important shows sought to recuperate such works within art history: Christoph Grunenberg’s Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era (2005) and Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner’s West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977 (2011). Summer of Love juxtaposed countercultural work with figures more squarely located within the art establishment—John McCracken, Robert Indiana, Lynda Benglis, and Andy Warhol among them. Arguably, it did not investigate underlying impulses common to works of the two groups so much as it reinforced a notion of psychedelic style. West of Center provided a corrective to the tendency toward both appellations, “style” and “psychedelic,” in favor of the less circumscribed “counterculture,” understood to encompass not only aesthetic praxis, but also political action and collaborative life activities. Most salutary to date for its inclusiveness and thorough attentiveness to terminology, West of Center set a benchmark for scholarship in the field. The upshot: countercultural production, which historically has gotten short shrift, deserves a measured, precise lexicon that enables analysis at the level of sophistication of the work itself.
Hippie Modernism, too, digs deeper than stylistic comparison. Organized loosely around the directives “turn on,” “tune in,” and “drop out” popularized by Timothy Leary, the first section, “Turn On,” explores the expansion of individual consciousness through altered states. In it, one finds a requisite Isaac Abrams canvas, painted after the artist’s first LSD session in 1965, in which candy-colored dots constellate into flattened floral patterns and image the kinds of visions experienced during hallucination. Ephemera attests to the Trips Festival; a young, alabaster body twirls in Bruce Conner’s Breakaway (1966); vortexes gyrate in Jordan Belson’s cosmic film Allures (1961); and François Dallegret’s Kiik (1969), a sleek stainless steel barbell, erstwhile sold at the Museum of Modern Art design store, promises to “cure bodily discomforts and mental obsessions.” The “Turn On” wall text proposes that the “works on view offer depictions and representations of . . . altered states or present the tools necessary to transcend everyday reality for different ends.” In this section, exhibition organizers might have benefited from the distinction, established in recent scholarship, between art that simulates the subjective sensations of hallucination and art that stimulates such sensations.
Nearby, one of Hippie Modernism’s most instructive galleries seizes upon plastic as consummate material for a countercultural sensibility attuned to symbiosis, translucency, and spontaneity. Ant Farm’s DIY manual, the Inflatocookbook (1970–71), dispenses counsel on constructing one’s own polyethylene abode, while a maquette demonstrates Haus-Rucker-Co’s idea for an architecture in harmony with existing landscapes that would resist ecological changes owing to human activity. One has a real sense that, in the 1960s, plastics prophesied a one-way ticket to harmonious, bucolic coexistence. As a new material made available after World War II, plastic emerges as a privileged site for the uniquely hippie intersection of aspiration and elbow grease, wonderment and functionality.
“Tune In” examines the mobilization of greater social awareness, primarily through print culture. Blauvelt’s expertise (he is a practicing graphic designer himself) shines in this section. Elias Romero’s Stepping Stones (1968–69) is stationed, to favorable effect, amid an impressive wall of psychedelic posters, and Phyllis Johnson’s Aspen (ten issues were published between 1965 and 1971), the first three-dimensional magazine, exemplifies the hippie rejection of convention and even an inclination toward the ludic. Among the most revelatory works in the exhibition is Maurice Stein, Larry Miller, and Marshall Henrichs’s extraordinary 1970 Blueprint for Counter Education, a veritable roadmap of the counterculture’s philosophical heavy-hitters. The central of three lithographs anchors the composition with a blood-red horseshoe magnet; McLuhan’s name hangs from one pole, Marcuse’s from the other. Blueprint for Counter Education serves as a mid-exhibition reminder that, by definition, a counterculture operates in contradiction of dominant culture (as distinct from a subculture, which has a neutral relationship to mainstream society). Frustration with institutional pedagogy and bureaucratic systems bubbles over, too, in the anti-war posters printed on Berkeley’s campus. Here, one wishes for stronger representation from disenfranchised voices—from feminist, Black Panther (represented here only by Emory Douglas), or Chicana/o communities, for example. Others nonchalantly circumvent the system altogether, as in the Dutch group Provo’s anarchist bike-share program.
Finally, the works in “Drop Out” demonstrate a refusal of the mainstream in favor of alternate lifestyles. Framed as an aesthetics of refusal or deliberate nonparticipation, this section works against the nettlesome assumption that hippies were no more than slackers. (It is worth underscoring that, in this context, dropping out has nothing to do with dropping acid.) Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network portfolio (1971) chronicles a service matrix that supplied off-the-grid communities with daily provisions and access to communication systems free from the clutches of corporate America. Its color-markered pages at once evince the sensibility of underground comix and of a clear-eyed agenda. This grass-roots ingenuity is reprised in Victor Papanek’s and George Seegers’s dung-fueled Tin Can Radio (ca.1962), as well as pioneer fiber artist Evelyn Roth’s drooping Family Sweater (1974), a four-person frock crocheted with thrift-store yarn.
One last, but pertinent, question remains: what is hippie modernism, anyway? It is a provocative title, to be sure, and one that signifies imprecisely. Blauvelt recognizes this, and is at pains throughout the preface and his chapter contribution to qualify his terms. Via brief exegesis (by way of the Diggers), “hippie,” we learn, is “just another convenient ‘bag,’” and not one meant to ascribe self-identification to the individual creators whose work fills the Walker’s galleries (catalogue, 12). Blauvelt is eager, one suspects, to distance the exhibition from historically inaccurate, even disparaging, valences the word has accrued in the contemporary cultural imagination.
However, no such treatment follows for “modernism.” Whose, or what, modernism is at stake here? Modernism, modernity, and modern are all invoked on the first page of the preface. We are told that hippie modernism “maps the transformation of modernism through its contact with the counterculture” (wall text); elsewhere, it is “a momentary reconciliation of . . . seemingly opposed values as a way of resolving the impasse that faced postwar cultural modernity”; and also that it is “not about reconciling opposites but rather connecting disparate notions” (catalogue, 11, then 25). Is it, then, a Hegelian dialectic, a proto-postmodernism, a radical hybridity, or, in the face of this show’s bad object—high modernism—an isolated but parallel phenomenon?
What emerges is a purpose-forged (hippie) modernism, one that takes what it wants and leaves what it does not. Repeated throughout is the equating of hippie optimism with the modernist aspiration to merge art and life, a philosophy vociferously enacted by the counterculture, but—and this is the crux of it—never by modernism, because to arrive at such a point would necessarily expunge the category of art. Instead, modernist resistance in art did not mean total opposition (which is, remember, the definition of counterculture) but rather rejection and cohabitation of new elements, always still within the parameters of artistic production. Lacking, then, a fortified armature justifying its logic, the nebulousness of hippie modernism, which tries to be everything, risks meaning nothing, leading one to wonder about the advisability of enlisting the moniker at all.
Walking through Hippie Modernism’s galleries, at least one so-called modernist trope, the grid, appeared persistently. Could a constellation of works like those by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Superstudio, and Alan Shields suggest a way to square countercultural production with modernism not through recourse to any demonstration of causality but by suggesting that the grid lived parallel lives—sometimes signifying surface flatness (the modernist reading), and other times implying a radical equalization of resources, space, and speech?
There is much to admire in Hippie Modernism. The catalogue, notably, is a tour de force of both design and scholarship. Commissioned essays by a number of scholars contribute significantly to advancing the field; those by Esther Choi, Simon Sadler, and Lorraine Wild are exemplary. Traditional catalogue entries provide much-needed data alongside photography of individual artworks. Expertly designed, the publication as a whole is a thoughtful response to both the lo-fi and corporate aesthetics of the 1960s. Punctuated by pearlescent papers and reimagined ads (some simply reproduced, others restaged and altered), the catalogue performs elements of the hippie ethic—DIY, play, collaboration, subversion—also in evidence throughout the exhibition, making it indispensible both as scholarly tool and printed artifact. Insofar as it foregrounds design, especially, Hippie Modernism, as both exhibition and catalogue, is to be lauded for taking seriously the imperative to contextualize historically the hippie aesthetic and ambitions, and for making available a vast body of work for a new generation of interpreters.
PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University