Monday, April 20, 2009

Psychedelic Denver

This week I was hugely intrigued and entertained by The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area, 1965–71, a brilliantly selected exhibition in Daniel Liebeskind’s new Hamilton building at the Denver Art Museum. The show is drawn from the part-gift, part-purchase of the entire collection of David and Sheryl Tippit.

Visitors may be amused to find themselves rubbing shoulders with gap-toothed, walking-frame, and wheelchair-bound hippie-replacements with sparse ponytails and lots of suety overhang. The original audience for these works of art is flocking back, struggling to remember the old days, and in at least one case to enthuse a sullen teenage grandchild. She was not much impressed, but I was.

Inasmuch as rock music of the period was powerful, revolutionary, urgently appealing to the conscience-stricken generation of 1968, and of lasting significance therefore in the cultural life of the nation, and indeed the globe, I was struck by how far the creators of these mostly cheap, vertically-oriented small-scale ad hoc posters and handbills were content to borrow every conceivable form of artistic idea from other people. 

So rich and sustained was this form of mostly indiscriminate harvesting, much fueled by hallucinogenic drugs, that I scribbled down as many visual references as I could identify—and there are surely lots of others that I overlooked.

The nineteenth century seems to have held a particular grip on the Haight-Ashbury imagination. Here is much aestheticism and art nouveau, especially designs lifted directly from Alphonse Mucha and freely adapted from Aubrey Beardsley. Crepuscular steel engravings by Gustave Doré crop up quite a lot, and the work of numerous other French printmakers. There was a taste for naughty French photographs (an ample nude, for example, in black stockings with bicycle). Old four-color process topographical postcards were also a convenient source: among them a view of St. Louis, Missouri. There are photographs of funereal stock-in-trade monumental grave sculptures—mostly limp angels with oversized wings. The old nickel (reverse with bison) makes a walk-on appearance, along with U.S. Treasury bills, and various riffs upon its distinctive styles of lettering and engraving, including the heraldic elements “E. Pluribus Unum,” and that weird Masonic motif, the pinnacle with disembodied eye hovering in mid-air over the rest of the pyramid. Admittedly, this is trippy enough even without the assistance of LSD.

Liberty Enlightening the World by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (the eponymous statue in New York Harbor) and the symbolist paintings of Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon appear regularly. And there are wacky takes on the Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother by James McNeill Whistler (Paris: Musée d’Orsay), and William Morris’s “vine,” the rich marginal design for the frontispiece of the first (Kelmscott) edition of The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane (1893).

Yet these young artists also dwelt happily in the Classical world, or what they knew of it from photographic reproductions. Here we discover the fifth-century B.C. bronze Poseidon (Athens: National Archaeological Museum); the architecture of the Parthenon, and of the dome of the palimpsest Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (which was designed by William Ustick Walter); the Venus de Milo (Louvre); Michelangelo’s David (Florence: Galleria dell’Accademia) and the Adam half of his Sistine Creation of Man.

Add to this pot-pourri cinema stills from the 1953 Twentieth-Century Fox version of Titanic (directed by Jean Negulesco), and many westerns; an old Cool Ade advertisement; promotional photographs of the original Cunard liner R.M.S. Queen Mary on her Clydebank slipway; 1969 N.A.S.A. photographs by Buzz Aldrin of Neil Armstrong trotting about on the moon; many generalized references to Salvator Dalí and René Magritte; the 1957 ultra-high-speed photograph now known as Milk Drop Coronet by Howard Edgerton; Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (Louvre); Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum); O Cristo Redentor by Paul Landowski, the enormous statue at the summit of Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro; Old Glory; the graphic work of Saul Steinberg; The Scream by Edvard Munch (Oslo: National Gallery); Rorschach blots; items of photojournalism from Vietnam (actually surprisingly few of these); the Taj Mahal; the tribal art of Ashanti and French equatorial Africa; and any and all available First Nations or native American imagery—more often images of Indians than their artifacts and works of art, but both deployed with the same degree of cheerful arbitrariness and stubborn frequency.

It simply goes on and on: E. H. Sheppard’s illustration of Pooh and Piglet from page 35 of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A Milne (1926) (above) provides a wholly bizarre selling point for an evening with Joan Baez. 

Elsewhere we collide with the eponymous Planters’ “Mr. Peanut” with monocle, cane, and spats (a character originally devised in the 1950s for television advertising); a huge Second-Empire marble nude with up-blown draperies by someone like Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (but not him: maddening, I cannot place it); “Alfred E. Neuman,” the awful fictional character also known as “the jolly boy,” who was and still is the mascot of Mad Magazine; a detail of the figure on the left from The Courtyard of a House in Delft, 1658, by Pieter de Hooch (London, National Gallery); paintings that portray respectively a pre-Meiji emperor of Japan, and the Marquis de Lafayette; an exquisite Angkor period four-headed Cambodian temple gatehouse carving, tidied up and squashed out of shape for the otherwise high-minded Bay Area consumer; Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck; a photograph of Charles Atlas (in his prime); some sort of pastiche or fusion of separate paintings by Titian, Giorgione, and Giovanni Bellini, including The Woman in Front of a Mirror (1515, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum); the gold mask of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, and much other freely adapted Egyptological material; the work of R. Crumb (Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin were disciples, then collaborators); the registered trademark of Zig-Zag rolling cigarette papers; French Gothic ceramic tiles, or possibly their early Victorian reincarnation—presumably designs by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin; the Twentieth-Century Fox motion picture title graphics; art pauvre in general, Op Art in particular, and, finally, Yin and Yang—again and again and again. 

There is even one especially trippy poster that has John Bull, of the Quaker oats, as its presiding genius.

As if that lot were not an ample compost heap from which to assemble the work, steel-engraved curlycue borders, crests, and flourishes lifted from the illuminated borders of stock and bond certificates also abound and, though reveling in their dropout status, several of these artists obviously either owned stock in General Electric, or had a very accurate impression of what it looked like.


Some artists were obviously aware of the issue of copyright infringement: At the bottom of one poster there is the casual typewritten remark (in grainy capitals): “What you don’t know about copying and duplicating won’t hurt you.” Those were the days. Actually, the Haight-Ashbury poster designers were not negligent or lazy so much as defiant, at times distributing material that was so flagrantly in breach of the relevant copyright regulations that they fully expected to be closed down by the police, or to have to leave town in a hurry. The authorities wisely decided not to give them that satisfaction, although it seems more likely that they simply didn’t notice, weren’t looking, or couldn’t be bothered. That was a bit of luck.

To some degree one senses from the constant, indeed tedious references to L.S.D. (Lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD-25, now more commonly known as “acid”), as well as not particularly well-concealed mushrooms, marijuana leaves, bongs, tokes, peyote buttons—what are they?—and everything else, that the entire body of work was created not just under the superabundant influence of mind-altering drugs, but actually stands as a full-throated hymn to the sustained, whole-of-life, anxiety-obliterating, communal trip.

Even if the tone of the wall texts and labels in Denver implies that in those innocent days such determinedly committed experimentation with drugs was either relatively harmless, or part of a form of general résistance, or a whole lot of fun, again and again you find yourself feeling that these artists and their San Francisco rock-music impresario patrons were behaving like so many naughty children literally begging to get caught.

With notable exceptions, such as the remarkable works of Lee D. Conklin, evidently a brilliant draughtsman, lots of the posters add up to frankly bad art, but because so many of them do not aspire to be anything more than promotional and publicity-seeking ephemera—adverts for one, two, or three-night engagements with The Rolling Stones, Boz Scaggs, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, et al.—there is ample charm in that. Moreover, they were ebulliently hand-made, and also carry the sincerity and conviction of the bona fide counter-culture. Perhaps in these parlous times we need to retrieve more than a little of that.

There is, too, a nearly universal horror vacui in the work. An obviously reliable symptom of the “trip” was that it kept you up all night. Less was merely less; more, indeed as much as possible, was far, far better. 

Engagingly harnessed to the period also are the screen-printed portrait photographs of hairy, moustachioed, and frothily side-burned artists posing manfully à la Klondike, the “women” often draped obediently on the floor beside them. Shampoo seems to have been universally shunned in the Bay Area.

The electric color schemes are mostly acrid but dazzling and visionary, the off-set printing and primitive lithography are variously crude, rough-and-ready, treacly, hot, sour, or ingenious—one feels better able to make an accurate assessment, incidentally, because of the gloriously fresh and pristine state of each and every one of these exempla, patiently gathered and preserved by the Tippits, who are obviously discriminating connoisseurs in the finest tradition. 

There are telling shifts in the brief chronology here set out in the Hamilton galleries. Above all what commences as a flirtation with nudity (so shocking) rapidly develops into a rather less funny nod toward forthrightly misogenistic sex—a jumble of lazy breasts and big bottoms hurled at the feet of fully-clothed, fist-clenching men: chests puffed out; tummies in—and these accelerate as we turn the corner into the ill-fated second Nixon administration. J.-A-D. Ingres’s absurd Zeus and Thetis (Aix-en-Provence: Musée Granet) seems to have offered those boys an especially exciting and narcissistic model for heterosexual intercourse.

The block lettering, meanwhile, at times spidery, spiky, flamboyant (literally), attenuated, but more often fat, cuddly, or cumulus, was supposed to draw an exciting veil over the closed language of shared psychedelic experience, the better to shut out the squares, fogies, and terrified parents. None of it now seems especially secret or illegible, but in the forty years that have elapsed I suppose the rest of us have become much less gormless, and better at processing oceans of sensory bombardment.

The word psychedelic was derived from the Greek Ψυχη (psyche, soul), and δελος (delos, manifest). Psychedelic experiences were said to liberate parts of the mind ordinarily hidden, fettered, or unhealthily suppressed. Such liberation was achieved either by means of sensory deprivation (such as darkness, dope, and tranquilizers), or, creepily, by using hallucinogens. At times these resulted in altered states of awareness, the mirage of mystical extremes, and occasionally—more often than is usually acknowledged—states of genuine tooth-gnashing, wall-punching psychosis. 

It is no accident therefore that this body of work is liberally festooned with skulls; populated by zombies, snarling wolves, vipers, black cats, and gestures towards a sort of apostrophized occultism. And as often as Bill Graham brought Cream, The Doors, The Who, and The Grateful Dead to the Fillmore for their limited engagements, Dr. Death himself was apparently riding shotgun.

On the whole I am glad I wasn’t there, but the Denver Art Museum has this week taught me what it was like to take the trip. 

Peace, man.

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