“Summer of Love”

With “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era,” curator Christoph Grunenberg (director of Tate Liverpool, which organized this show) sets out to rescue ’60s psychedelic art from art-historical neglect. Visually striking, hard to institutionalize, and burdened by the failure of the era’s ambition to merge pleasure and politics, psychedelia is indeed fascinating—and full of paradox. Psychedelic art (and culture) respected no media boundaries, spanning architecture, design, film, fashion, music, and more. It challenged hierarchical distributions of authorship, was policed by no academy, and may have been more responsible than Pop art for undermining high/low barriers. It was also a harbinger of postmodern market populism, and as psychedelic styles spread over Madison Avenue like any other capitalist rash, the underground learned a thing or two about the Global Village’s spheres of exchange. This double-edged ubiquity of psychedelic art makes it even more of a challenge to identify works and artists that can, after the fact, go toe-to-toe with those canonized through Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism.

The exhibition revisits underexposed and undertheorized artists from various Anglo-American scenes, among them James Whitney, Jordan Belson, and Ant Farm, as well as established names who also produced psychedelia: Yayoi Kusama, Lynda Benglis, Gustav Metzger, Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, Adrian Piper. I doubt, though, that there is really a place in the canon for Janis Joplin’s flower-power Porsche; and it is the inclusion of such items in this show that makes it difficult to ascertain whether “Summer of Love” is an art exhibition or a historical display of period artifacts. The inclusion of quantities of ephemera reduces the art to a small part of something bigger. In this sense psychedelic art was not “art with no history,” as Grunenberg writes, but with too much history—the counterculture, Swinging London, naked people, and so on. If one wants to give full credit to psychedelic art, one should trust it to hold its own without the support of photos from Woodstock.

Grunenberg claims that psychedelic art is coextensive with the psychedelic experience. Drugs surely played a constitutive part in its genesis, but if LSD is posited as the essence of an art form, the latter is reduced to a kind of religious art—exactly the reason why the art system overruled psychedelic art as being a form of escapism in the first place. Rather, for underground artists LSD was one medium of resistance among others, a cutting-edge technology on a par with the new offset printing presses and the incipient digital technology, all waiting to be used to upset societal norms and usher in a New Human Being. In fact, ambivalence toward the use of drugs often motivated the production of psychedelic art: Light shows and roto-reliefs were investigations into the clean, kinetically induced trip.

However difficult it is to give a lean definition of psychedelic art’s cultural location, we can sever it cleanly from one important genre—again, Pop. Pop was about surface, psychedelia about depth; Pop about pleasure, psychedelia about intensity; Pop about the spirituality of consumption, psychedelia about reaching out to the other. With this in mind Robert Indiana’s LOVE, 1966, is beside the point, and to include Verner Panton’s environment Phantasy Landscape Visiona II, 1970, is to confuse psychedelic style with psychedelic politics; Panton’s environment is groovy, but completely sanitized, and was never part of any collective project. The catalogue has been produced in three different editions with context-specific essays on the psychedelic scenes in the exhibition venues, Liverpool, Frankfurt, and Vienna. However, this gesture does not redeem the fact that “Summer of Love” disarticulates its own art-historical project by giving in to anecdote and to the spectacular.

Lars Bang Larsen