Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era
Collection of Wolfgang’s Vault
Collection of Wolfgang’s Vault
Through Rose-Colored Granny Glasses
Tear gas, pot and patchouli were the scents of the 1960s. You can almost detect the last two, spicy and pungent, wafting through “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
But tear gas, with its weird-sweet burn, is missing in a show that remembers a lot, but forgets much more, about what was happening 40 years ago, when America was losing its mind to save, some would say, its soul.
The so-called Summer of Love was a local event with national repercussions. Word spread that a “Human Be-In” would convene at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in January 1967. Young people from across the country poured into the city, and by the summer they had filled the hippie neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury and were crashing in parks and streets.
The party went off as planned, and you can revisit it at the Whitney in Jerry Abrams’s “Be-In, 1967,” a funny, hopped-up film with a jamming soundtrack by Blue Cheer. The news media were all over the photogenic counterculture, with its jangly music, exotic drugs and outlandish mores. This was the Flower Power instant, and it was over in a flash. But for many people it is what the ’60s were all about. The Whitney show, which is great fun and half-baked history, will not persuade them otherwise.
The decade was the furthest thing from laid back. It was wired, confused and confusing, with constant clashes around race, class, gender and politics, idealism and ideology. That’s why, for anyone who wasn’t around then, the period is all but impossible to know. And for anyone who was around, it’s hard to describe without sounding either nostalgic or bitter.
Music still gives the best sense of it all. Say you were a middle-class American white kid in 1964. What were you listening to? Jan and Dean, the Shangri-Las. Surfers and bikers. Then you and some friends see the Beatles on their first American tour. They’re so new: four skinny, pale, dandyish guys with femme haircuts singing “Love me do.” The girls in the audience scream. The boys cheer. Ringo shakes his mop and the boys scream too. Hysteria. It’s a high.
Four years later the Beatles are in India, and you’re in college, at a concert, smoking grass and this truly unusual woman named Janis is swinging her hair across the stage. She’s commanding you to take a little piece of her heart. She’s white but sounds black, and she’s reckless, eyes closed, right at the edge of the stage. She’ll fall! Does she care? Outside there’s a war, and the world feels weird, but not in here, tonight.
Then you’re tripping, and Jimi Hendrix is up there on some other stage with this tremendous light show cued to the pulse of the cosmos exploding behind him. No flowers now. No mellow. He strangles the national anthem, then ignites his guitar. Someone behind or beside you whispers: Detroit is on fire. A Buddhist monk torched himself in Saigon. People are making draft-card bonfires. Flames are spilling out of the music, spreading off the stage and into life. You don’t know where acid stops and reality starts.
The Whitney show has a fair amount of music, most of it emanating from recreated light shows. One flashes out at you when you step off the third-floor elevator, a projection of seething, bubbling color, like primordial ooze on the boil or a brain being fried. The original design was by the Joshua Light Show, one of many light teams hired by concert halls or clubs, even by individual bands; Jefferson Airplane had a team of its own.
Light shows were an intriguing medium, organic but programmed, like Abstract Expressionism done by machine. They had a passive-aggressive energy of so much 1960s art and music. Like the wrong drug at the wrong time, they could make you crazy. But basically they were for pleasure, for entertainment. Timothy Leary, among others, pontificated about how we should change the world by changing our heads. But as drugs became widely available, the activist dimension of getting high faded. Tripping was something you did on Saturday night.
Most of the art in the show — mass-produced posters, broadsides, book covers, magazine graphics, record album jackets — also comes under the entertainment category. It wasn’t made to be framed and revered. It was stuff people bought cheap, and lived with for a while, and that museums rarely show.
It makes sense that the predominating ’60s pop aesthetic was distilled from art and artists distained by High Modernism: decorative styles like Jugendstil and Art Nouveau; decadent artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha; riffs from Victorian fairy-tale illustration or Saturday morning TV. Kitsch, in other words, but hallucinated kitsch.
The result was a crisp but sensuous look, intricate and curvy, easy to see but hard to read and adaptable to any context or use, from the covers of potboiler novels (“Sin Street Hippie”) to architecture (the visionary drawings of the Archigram collective) to home design (Verner Panton’s rainbow-colored sit-in foam-rubber environment of undulating curves).
“Summer of Love” is stuck on the style, or rather stuck on the effort to make one style the whole ’60s story. It pushes hard, covering wall after Whitney wall with posters for concerts at rock emporiums like the Fillmore West and East, or British clubs like UFO and the Fifth Dimension. (The show has a substantial British section; it was organized by Christoph Grunenberg, director of the exhibition’s originating museum, the Tate Liverpool.)
But the net effect is less to reveal a depth and variety of creativity than to demonstrate that the main function of alternative art was advertising, that the counterculture started as a commercial venture, which soon became a new mainstream and ended up an Austin Powers joke.
Possibly this view represents the show’s critical edge, but if so, it is sharpened at the expense of accuracy. To many people who came of age between 1963 to 1972 political intensity was the defining feature of the period and its most interesting art. It never let up.
In 1965 antiwar protests started — 25,000 students marched on Washington that year — and they grew larger and more frequent. By 1967, more than 400,000 troops have been sent to Vietnam. Che Guevara was killed that year; the Black Panthers had formed the year before. In 1968 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Racial uprisings spread across the country. The Democratic convention brought the war home to the Chicago streets. In 1969: university takeovers, Altamont. In 1970: Jimi dead. Janis dead. Cambodia. Kent State.
You will learn almost nothing about any of this from the show. Or about the gay liberation movement. Or about the gathering women’s movement, although militant feminism makes total sense given the relentless sexism of psychedelic art, in which all women are young, nude, available “chicks,” and very rarely artists.
Nor would you have any inkling that, for Americans at least, pop culture during these years meant black culture. Apart from Hendrix’s presence, the show is overwhelmingly white. Aretha Franklin’s first big hits — “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “Natural Woman” — were all 1967. You won’t find her here. Nor will you find Marvin, or Smokey, or Otis, or Fontella or Ray. Again, take one style for the whole picture, you leave most of the picture out.
Hints of what’s missing come through in a handful of works, most of them added by Henriette Huldisch, an assistant curator at the Whitney in charge of the New York installation. They include one of Robert Rauschenberg’s news-collages that compresses images of racism, war and the conquest of space into an everything-is-connected time capsule.
Ronald L. Haeberle’s much-reproduced print of the My Lai massacre is here, with its two-phrase overlay of text: “Q: And babies? A: And babies.” The outstanding addition, though, is from the Whitney’s permanent collection, a blistering 1967 painting by Peter Saul. Titled “Saigon,” it’s a flame-red, half-abstract, bad-trip vision of mass sexual violation.
So, we discover in 40-year retrospect, love was never all you needed; in the 1960s, in fact, it was barely there. “Summer of Love” doesn’t feel like a particularly loving show, and the ’60s, as seen through its lens, isn’t a loving time, unless by love you mean sex, which was plentiful, as it tends to be in youth movements.
But altruism, selflessness? Young people are by definition narcissistic, all clammy ego. They want what they want. There is no past that matters; the future isn’t yet real. Some might say — I would say — that American culture in general is like this, though not all of it. And if the kids in “Summer of Love” are stoned on self-adoration, there were also an extraordinary number of young people during the Vietnam era who engaged in sustained acts of social generosity. And they made art.
I mention this in light of the Flower Power revivalism of the past few years, in contemporary art and elsewhere. Psychedelia and collectivity are back (and already on their way out again). But the revival is highly edited; a surface scraping; artificial, like a bottled fragrance. No one these days is thinking, “Turn on, drop out.” Everyone is thinking, “How can I get into the game?”
The Whitney show, maybe without intending to, suggests that this was always true, and makes such an attitude seem inevitable and comprehensible. So, let’s have another ’60s show, an incomprehensible one, messier, stylistically hybrid, filled with different countercultures, and with many kinds of music and art, a show that makes the “Summer of Love” what it really was: a brief interlude in a decade-long winter of creative discontent.
“Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era” remains at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, through Sept. 16.