Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 16, 2019
Stephen F. Eisenman William Blake and the Age of Aquarius Exh. cat. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. 248 pp.; 137 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780691175256)
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, September 23, 2017–March 11, 2018

William Blake and the Age of Aquarius at Northwestern University’s Block Museum, curated by Stephen F. Eisenman, is a both learned and highly accessible look at the surprisingly broad influence that William Blake exerted on American artists in the 1960s. By focusing on Blake’s impact, Eisenman manages to present the sixties in a critical light, largely free of the tired nostalgia that usually accompanies the turbulent era. As Eisenman notes in the accompanying catalogue, the term “Age of Aquarius” was made popular by the sixties musical Hair, which played an important role in giving visibility to the style of the hippie subculture while also divorcing it from the political and social radicalism that gave it substance (6). At its most exciting William Blake and the Age of Aquarius—and Eisenman’s essay in the catalogue—recover the politically potent elements of the 1960s subculture by revealing the Blakean ideas that inspired them while also identifying the politically empty aspects of the era. The timing of the exhibition urges us to consider the relevance of Blake and the sixties to today. The show and catalogue demonstrate, I believe, that we must move beyond Blake and give up on mining the sixties for political inspiration.

In Blake twentieth-century artists found a kindred spirit who had also rebelled against repressive political and social institutions. And Blake had a lot to offer: his work championed personal freedom, moral permissiveness, and artistic imagination and emotion. As Eisenman explains in his inaugural essay in the exhibition catalogue, Allen Ginsberg, one of the chief popularizers of Blake just prior to the 1960s, took up a distinctly political reading. Ginsberg’s interest in Blake stemmed from the latter’s championship of “desire against repression, political liberty against slavery, and imagination against reason and law” (33). For Ginsberg, Blake was fighting the repressive institutions of his day just as Ginsberg was doing with respect to social and legal prejudices against his own sexuality, the obscenity trial precipitated by the publication of Howl, and the Vietnam War. Ginsberg’s interest in Blake, together with that of Kenneth Rexroth, who read Blake as a political “anarchist who rejected rationalism for feeling, and corporatism for individualism,” influenced major Bay Area artists including Jess, George Herms, Wallace Berman, Wally Hedrick, and Jay DeFeo (33).

Wallace Berman’s and Bruce Conner’s documentation of Jay DeFeo’s The Rose are particularly instructive examples of this inspiration, elaborated by Elizabeth Ferrell in her contribution to the catalogue, titled “William Blake and the West Coast” (101–40). Berman’s photographs picture a naked DeFeo standing with arms and legs rigidly splayed out in front of her massive one-ton-plus starburst panel, made of paint and bits of mica over a period of seven years. The photographs recall numerous Blake works, including The Dance of Albion, which depicts a man standing legs apart but relaxed with his arms splayed in front of a sunburst, celebrating humankind’s strength and freedom, and another work, Ancient of Days, which depicts the figure of God in front of the sun, squatting and reaching down while holding a drafting compass. The etching is a metaphor for the natural and moral laws that order our world and the rational faculty that explicates those laws. In light of these similarities, Berman’s photographs of DeFeo standing stiffly in front of her massive starburst symbolize a struggle between freedom and lawful determination, between imagination and reason (123).

In Bruce Conner’s film The White Rose, which documents the removal of The Rose from DeFeo’s San Francisco apartment, this symbolism is made literal. Occasioned by DeFeo’s eviction, the film celebrates the struggle of a particular artist to follow her own imaginative spirit over a laborious seven-year period despite punishing economic hardships and the realities of an unforgiving housing market. In his New Yorker review of DeFeo’s 2013 retrospective at the Whitney, art critic Peter Schjeldahl called The Rose’s starburst motif “generic and banal.” It may be common, but in light of DeFeo’s life it is not banal. It serves to connect The Rose to Blake and his ideas of the struggle between individual and law, imagination and reason, and in turn to how those struggles were playing out in the social and political realities of the day.

Blake’s championing of imagination over reason also inspired a distinct kind of psychedelic spiritualism. This comes from a single line in Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite” (from A Marriage of Heaven and Hell, quoted in Eisenman, 49). Here Blake articulates a second kind of perception that goes beyond the ordinary sense: perception that structures our mundane everyday experience. As Eisenman explains, thinkers like Aldous Huxley in his The Doors of Perception and musicians such as the Doors thought this second sort of perception could be achieved through psychedelics, leading to a whole generation’s interest in drugs for personal enlightenment. Blake also inspired visual artist Richard Anuszkiewicz, who made visually electric prints using complementary colors placed side by side. Artist Victor Moscoso used the same technique to make concert posters for the Doors and other musical acts, establishing the druggy, psychedelic graphic style that has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the 1960s.

Eisenman’s somewhat confusing final discussion is about Blake and innocence, and how this theme relates to the increasingly vacuous art and message of the sixties countercultural movement. Works such as Robert Smithson’s Vile Flower—a simply painted, demonic-looking flower with black petals and an eye-like pistil—and Diane Arbus’s Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park represent childlike innocence as animalistic, monstrous, and dark. These images are influenced by Blake, who depicts innocence as “a period of untamed desire, turmoil, and loss” (69). During the 1960s, the concept of innocence—and the related concept of experience—were washed of their dark undertones, leading to empty celebrations of “free love” and “flower power” that retained only faint traces of their intellectual origins. The overall cause of this transformation is difficult to understand from Eisenman’s argument. What is clear is that this transformation ultimately led to a self-centered, apolitical, and “naive faith that style and individual behavior—long hair, use of drugs . . . the consumption of rock music, and attendance at Be-Ins . . . were enough to transform society and politics” (75). This emphasis on the individual, based on corruptions of the more complex original ideas in Blake, caused a whole generation to disengage with politics, ignoring the economic, political, and ecological realities that fundamentally shape everyday life.

Despite confusions in Eisenman’s attempt to trace the relationship between Blake and the changing sixties political environment, the show itself succeeded in connecting Blake to that era through a well-considered exhibition design, which avoided overreliance on extensive wall text and a definite narrative. Visitors were greeted first by a room devoted to Blake and then were able to move to three adjacent rooms containing twentieth-century art. This layout gave visitors the time and space to first absorb the images and words of Blake, thus orienting them to approach the twentieth-century art through him, while also allowing them the freedom to make their own connections between the artworks. This orientation also effectively avoided the sentimentality often associated with the 1960s. By directing visitors toward the intellectual and artistic forebears of the latter period, the exhibition compelled viewers to think more deeply about the foundations that birthed these symbols and acts and gave them substance.

Ultimately, this exhibition of Blake is timely. Much like the 1960s, we are living in an era of political, social, and economic tumult. And so, Eisenman suggests, there is reason to think that Blake might serve as a source of inspiration for us today (77). But it is not clear that we should look to him. Eisenman condemns the self-centered, individualistic ideas that dominated the late 1960s and turned the counterculture into an inert apolitical movement. However, these same ideas are present throughout Blake, and their seed can be found in those early sixties artists that Eisenman celebrates. Blake’s ideas, even when politically oriented, heavily focus on the individual: the individual’s freedom against political laws, against moral norms, against rationality. Similarly, the artists who faithfully took inspiration from Blake tended to largely celebrate the individual. For instance, Bruce Conner’s focus is DeFeo’s heroic artistic spirit struggling against larger social and political machinations seizing her studio and housing; Berman’s photos present DeFeo in the place of God. In both cases, the emphasis is on the triumph of the individual and his or her experience. Given this similarity, the failures of the 1960s do not represent a radical departure from Blake’s ideas, as Eisenman suggests. Rather, they represent a narrower focus on what was there all along, and so should serve as a warning against turning to Blake for inspiration. What is more, the emphasis on the individual seems particularly ill-suited to politics today. The image of the individual set against and battling society and government ignores the collective action and concrete policy change that are needed to confront some of our most pressing political problems, including global warming, the housing crisis, and massive wealth inequality.

To be fair, there may be resources to be found in Blake’s works besides what the sixties artists found inspiring, but these are not obviously forthcoming. Perhaps, then, the takeaway is that we should give up on mining the 1960s and their connection with Blake as a source of political insight. Rather, we need to formulate a fundamentally different set of ideas that reimagine our relationship with others and the institutions that govern our lives.

In the end, despite the shortcomings I have noted, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius is an important and thought-provoking catalogue and exhibition. They help to articulate what will not be of service to us today, thus doing some work to shepherd us in the direction of those ideas that will be politically useful, but which we are still frustratingly unable to fully articulate.

Daniel Tovar
Lecturer, Liberal Arts, Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), Los Angeles