by Marcia Tanner
“If you remember the ‘60s,” goes the much-quoted quip (variously attributed, but most likely originating with the Southern California comedian Charles Fleischer in 1982) “you really weren’t there.”
If you did live through the ‘60s, the vast array of artifacts and objects in Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, at Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive through May 21, may refresh your memory. Whether you were there or not, the exhibition will definitely raise your consciousness about the wealth of cultural production engendered by that era’s counterculture and heighten your appreciation of its lasting impact on progressive social thought as well as art, architecture and design. The show was brilliantly organized by Andrew Blauvelt, former senior curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and guest curated in its Berkeley presentation by Greg Castillo, associate professor of architecture at U.C. Berkeley.
Hippie Modernism's provocative, seemingly oxymoronic title announces the culture clash this show explores. In his introduction to the superb exhibition catalog, Blauvelt says he chose the dismissive term “hippie” as a shorthand container for the ethos of the counterculture: eclectic, rule-defying, non-conforming, populist, playful, free-ranging, wildly experimenting with new technologies, yet often deliberately anachronistic. “Modernism” alludes to mainstream aesthetics: the formalist, elitist and eminently commodifiable standards that “psychedelic artists, radical architects, anti-designers, eco-communards, acid drag performers and other freaks’” flagrantly violated, overturned or ignored. Collectively, though, the works in Hippie Modernism make a case for kinship between the two in their shared pursuit of avant-garde techniques and utopian ideals. It’s a rebranding exercise.
Object-packed and information-dense, Hippie Modernism examines the international counterculture’s impact on art, architecture and design from 1964 — the year of Ken Kesey’s cross-country, LSD-infused trip with his Merry Pranksters in a psychedelic-painted bus called “Furthur”— to 1974, when the OPEC oil embargo quashed counterculture idealism with a heavy hit of global realpolitik and economics. There are hundreds of objects on view: paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, multi-media presentations, films, slide projections, experimental furniture and dwellings, and masses of printed matter including posters, prints, flyers, books, magazines and other ephemera.
This superabundance of stuff — often iconic, surprising and illuminating — is accompanied by quantities of wall text and object labels, which help make sense of what you’re looking at, but are also time-consuming to read and absorb.
According to Blauvelt’s catalog introduction, the show — as configured at the Walker Art Center, where it originated — was loosely organized around Timothy Leary’s famous three-step program: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” Unfortunately, that narrative structure is garbled in the disjointed Berkeley installation. This is partly due to the open layout of BAMPFA’s ground floor galleries, which resists a linear approach. Also, the most visually spectacular works are clustered in the basement galleries. The result makes for an inchoate pilgrimage rather than a coherent journey through the exhibition’s complex story line.
Its “Turn On” opening segment, for instance, explores the call to expand individual consciousness through altered states of perception induced by, among other things, colored lights, moving images, music, spiritual practices and psychotropic drugs. Two engagingly brain-spinning psychedelic paintings by Isaac Abrams — Hello Dali (1965) and DMT: In Search of
the Golden City (1967) — pay homage to that impulse. Beyond Image and Son of Beyond Image (1969) — a trippy, immersive three-channel video light show of fluid, colorful abstract moving images by the British Boyle Family (Mark Boyle and Joan Hills) with music by Soft Machine —belongs here too. But it isn’t here. Instead, it’s in a basement gallery, adjacent to another major misplaced work: CCV Hendrixwar /Cosmocoa Programs-in-Progress (1973) by Hélio Oiticica and Neville Almeida. The latter, a dramatic “quasi-cinematic” environment that pays tribute to Jimi Hendrix, is inadequately installed, with too much ambient light in too small a space to see the projected images clearly, or hear the muted sound track. This powerful, sensual piece deserves better.
Anticipating contemporary social media, “Tune In” meant expanding social awareness, raising collective consciousness and inspiring action by widely circulating information via graphically adventurous, inexpensive printed matter and other innovative visual means. Ken Isaacs’ Knowledge Box (1962/2009) encloses viewers in a wooden container and bombards them with light, sound, text and photographic images from multiple slide projectors: a nightmarish onslaught that prefigures our contemporary willingness to accept information overload as aquotidian condition. Again, this category of objects is scattered around various places in the museum. Some of the most arresting political posters are in the basement gallery, while a grid of psychedelic concert posters in the lobby is the show’s sole acknowledgement of the most powerful force driving the counterculture: rock music. (Apart from the Oiticica/ Almeida tribute to
Hendrix, documentation or references to Woodstock, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Fillmore Auditorium, “underground” FM radio go unseen and unmentioned except in the exhibition catalog. BAMPFA’s film series rectifies this omission somewhat with screenings of Monterey Pop, Festival Express, Sympathy for the Devil, Gimmie Shelter and Space is the Place.)
“Drop Out” was the imperative to reject and resist the ideologies and lifestyles of the dominant culture by creating alternative models for living compatibly with nature, technology and fellow humans. The show’s most revelatory passages are in this category, but are again randomly scattered. There’s rich documentation of Drop City in Colorado, the earliest of the 1960s artists’ communes whose handcrafted buildings were inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. Also well-represented are communal living experiments by The Ant Farm and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Access followers, as well as images of delightful hand-built houses
reflecting DIY counterculture values. Family Sweater (1974), Evelyn Roth’s marvelous tent-like garment for a family of four, knitted from recycled wool, is a showstopper, as is a 1974 documentary (see photo below) in which she's seen weaving discarded videotape into "garments" for herself, her TV set and her car.
Some of the most important works in the original exhibition are missing from the Berkeley show, alas. Notable among these are Helen and Newton Harrison’s Portable Orchard; Survival Piece Number 5 (1972/2015), and any work by Bruce Conner, save his mesmerizing black-and-white film BREAKAWAY (1966), which was included in the artist’s landmark retrospective survey It’s All True organized by SFMOMA; it screens everyday (except Sunday) in Theater 2, along with other short films running in conjunction with the exhibition.
BAMPFA made up for these omissions by adding works by Bay Area artists, many of them women, including Bonnie Sherk, Lenore Tawney, Sonya Rappaport and Frances Butler. Costumes and color photos of The Cockettes, the Bay Area’s flamboyant psychedelic drag theater group, and its equally flamboyant offshoot the Angels of Light, enliven the proceedings.
What’s glaringly missing from this exhibition is historical context. Hippie Modernism covers a period of extreme social and political upheaval in the USA and elsewhere. The Vietnam War was raging in the face of widespread, vocal and sometimes violent opposition. Visionary political and civil rights leaders — President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy —were assassinated. Egalitarian initiatives like the Free Speech Movement, the Black Panthers, and the Women’s Movement were gaining visibility and influence. Young people everywhere rebelled against authoritarian social structures and the conformity, injustice, hypocrisy, sexual repression, consumerism, materialism, environmental destructiveness and militarism of the dominant culture. Many of the engines for radical social change were born in the Bay Area.
What characterized the counterculture, in its diverse manifestations, was a boundless and, in retrospect, naive optimism that’s notably absent from today’s resistance movements. People genuinely believed they could reinvent society from the ground up, could build and model a more open, loving, communal, spiritually attuned, planet-friendly, equitable way of being and living: one that would benignly welcome and nurture every variety of individual expression.
Hippie Modernism traces this tidal wave of creative dissent. Its advent here coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love (the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the de Young) and the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park – two events that could not have been more naively and heroically utopian. As such they could not be more unlike the historical moment we now inhabit. That these events resonate so strongly with (and in such sharp contrast to) the bleakly dystopian work seen in Bruce Conner’s SFMOMA exhibition comes as no surprise. Utopian visions have a history of devolving into their opposites. By reminding us of that fact— and of the stark differences between then and now —Hippie Modernism offers perspective on how we got from there to here.
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“Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia” @ Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive through May 21, 2017.
About the Author
Marcia Tanner lived in England from 1964-75, but made it back to San Francisco in 1967 in time for the Summer of Love and the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. She heard Janis Joplin sing from five feet away, and feared for Janis’s vocal cords.