Archive for June, 2011

Zap Chancery

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Zap: Masters of Psychedelic Art 1965-74 is up until this weekend at Andrew Edlin Gallery in Chelsea.  Curated by Gary Panter and Chris Byrne, the show selectively presents work by the magnificent seven original Zap artists: Robert Crumb, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, and S. Clay Wilson.  The original drawings feature hand lettering, Ben-Day transfers, collage, and meticulous white-out: signs of insistent, obsessive, and precise craftsmanship that remain unrivaled in the gallery world.  They are relentlessly critical of the surrounding culture, defying the censorious, repressive status quo that made them necessary.

To learn more about Zap and its legacy, I talked with Gary Panter, the legendary artist behind Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the Jimbo comics, who also teaches at the School of Visual Arts.

MB: When I think of Zap, I think, “Masters of Counterculture,” “of Underground Art,” “of Comix” (vs. comics), and “of Drug Culture.” Of all these ideas, how did you settle on Masters of Psychedelic Art?

GP: The art of ZAP could be thought of many ways. To me the music, the light shows, the posters and hippie comics were the best psychedelic art. Most psychedelic painting was not so wonderful as these aforementioned means of expression. All those guys dropped acid and probably whatever else fell into their hands.

A second consideration was that Victor Moscoso, who was the spokesman of the group, was very insistent that we not call the show ZAP COMICS, because they are working on an anthology, which will have that name. A title is somewhat arbitrary and needs to do the job it is trying to do. The shittiest name for a comic show is ZAP BAM POW.

Robert Crumb

MB: In your opinion, what is psychedelic about this art? How is it psychedelic?

GP: “Psychedelic” means “mind-expanding,” so challenging the commonplace of the day and having an experimental aspect formally would make it mind-expanding to me. Crumb has written at length about his style evolving quickly even mysteriously under the influence of acid.  Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso’s stylistic experiments in comics and posters suggested a mind altered state.  Shelton, more than any of the others, made stories on the topic of licentious drug experiementation. To have a glimpse at Williams paintings or comics of that period, and not get the mind-altered aspect, would be pretty hard to miss. Spain was the most traditional graphically, as he was influenced by Wally Wood and Kirby, but he was also the most politically radical of the group.  -This is a rhetorical question, right? If you are young, it might be hard to gauge the effect these comics had on the psyche of the 50s, to which they were responding.

Rick Griffin

MB: I guess it was a rhetorical question, but now that you mention it…  When, where, and how did you first get turned on to Zap?  How would you articulate the psychic effect of Zap comics on readers from (or around) your generation?  I can only imagine the “mind-blowing” culture shock as well as formal/experimental upheaval of the otherwise familiar comic medium.  In retrospect, can you compare it to anything else?  Like hearing rock bands for the first time?

GP: Anyone in my generation will bore you with the excitement that ran through the 60s, but it was exciting.  So many ways forward or new things to explore popped up every month or so that one was looking for the next Zappa, GTOs, Crumb, Oldenburg, Brian Wilson, T Rex,
Beefheart, Martin Sharp, Donovan, Frank Stella, Ed Kienholz, Eduardo Paolozzi…whatever would come out of the void.  I was into modern art which at that time was about breaking new idea and style ground with the idea that design and ideas could make life better somehow. At
first it started with a few weird sound effects on a few pop records like the Hollies “STOP STOP STOP,” then totally went off the normal rails and in those days would somehow go straight to JCPenney.  My mother and sister wore OP ART dresses and I was able to find the
paisley shirts I coveted.  If I had had money I could’ve bought a VOX Phantom guitar.  Records were about $4. Comics were 12 cents.  Sold american. Even sold, the excitement wasn’t totally damped.

I first saw ZAP in miniature on the calendar poster that came in EYE magazine. Even at one square inch, my hair stood up and at the same moment a much younger Matt Groening was experiencing a similar effect upon seeing the same tiny image. Remember: back then, you could get arrested for saying “pregnant” on TV. There was a real battle to be fought for free expression or freer expression.

MB: What happens to women in this show?  I don’t mean the absence of women artists in this show, because that seems circumstantial.  But in the work exhibited here, they are either menacing drug fiends or they are dispensable casualties.  Is that a fair assessment of the show – and of the Zap series in general?  Were 1960s and 70s feminists responsive to Zap?  Or were drug-addled comic visionaries off of their radar?

GP: I think that the behavior of hippie guys helped kickstart Feminism, because though they talked about revolution and formed communes, they still wanted women to cook and do the dishes. The ZAP guys were trying to break rules, mainly inspired by the insane intensity of SC Wilson, who seemed to have a lot of support form his family regardless of what he drew.

Some women cartoonists, for example, Trina were very offended by ZAP and hippie guy art. Other women like Aline Kominsky and Diane Noomin were at one with the guy’s rule-breaking and taboo-smashing and did equally “inappropriate” work. Personally, I am not pro-insensitivity, but don’t mind barriers taken down or challenged. I grew up with too many rules and so did a lot of my generation.

MB: And for part of the time Zap was underway, you were abroad, right?  I’ve read that you lived in Belfast for a while.  Did you get a sense, at the time or later on, why Zap happened in the U.S.?  And not in the U.K. or France or whatever?

GP: I was in Texas in the 50s and 60s. I was a missionary to Belfast for a few weeks in the summer of 69. There were posters in Belfast for Pink Floyd and Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Incredible String Band. In Texas, I saw the Rolling Stones, Soft Machine, Jimi Hendrix in concert. Texas turns out misfits who move away usually, in that time to San Francisco. It just happened to be happening in SF.  A million kids ran away from home and traveled to California, including the ZAP artists. Moscoso was from NY.  Crumb from Cleveland.  Shelton from Austin.  Rick Griffin from southern California.  Williams from New Mexico, then LA. Wilson from Kansas. Spain maybe from Oakland.

Psychedelia spread rapidly worldwide (England, France, Japan, Holland, Texas, etc) in a couple of years, then fizzled. Nixon was elected, Mary Tyler Moore came on TV: kind of a future shock combined with hard drugs. The initial vision is still interesting to me. Not free love or heroin or back-to-the-land or panhandling. There is a book called SPACED OUT about hippie environments and architectural ideas which captures some of the excitement of the era that most books miss.

I work on light shows with Joshua White of the Joshua Light show and it is still a powerful improvisational medium.

Robert Williams

MB: Why was it important to exhibit the original pages?

GP: I have always had as much or more interest in fine art as popular arts. Reading a comic in bed is a very different experience than standing in a quiet room with a drawing hung on a wall with space around it. I was interested in hanging a show of ZAP cartoon art that was purposely a small show, so that the drawing would be emphasized over the stories, because I think that this group of artists and their confluence was miraculous. They were extremely talented drawers and their drawings worked well together and can easily stand to be hung
next to masterful drawings from any period. And their vision is as strong and valid as any that came before. It would hang better with some work than others because of the intensity. I wouldn’t hang these drawings with delicate light works, but they would work well with
Blake or Picasso or Dali or Leger or Klee or Grosz, etc.

More Williams

MB: Yes, they were extraordinarily skilled.  Though Crumb has talked about how LSD drove out his technical skill – which he identifies as a good thing – making his work more iconographic.  I can’t imagine that being true of Robert Williams, whose drawings in this show look supernaturally precise and insistent.  Was draftsmanship really important to the Zap revolution?  I mean, could Zap still have been Zap, even if the artists weren’t so good at drawing?  Maybe the subject matter would have been sufficient?

GP: Williams’ work is totally perverse and deranged — DRUGS. Well, there were a lot of neat underground comics. There were shitloads of underground comics – hundreds of titles. Some were well drawn and some were drawn lousy and some of the crap ones were still cool. The ZAP guys were extra good and early and somehow their work looked good together. Most comics look like shit anthologized. Most comic shows today look like shit and are confusing and overwhelming. Zap was overwhelming and still looked neat.

I would love to see more shows featuring aspects of hippie comics; the second group of artists that emerged apart from ZAP; or shows that are focused on one title, such as BIJOU, INSECT FEAR, Gothic Blimp Works, YOUNG LUST, AIR PIRATES etc. There is a lot to explore and I would prefer it in small doses as opposed to giant crowded shows.

Back to psychedelic drugs for a minute. Doing a lot of powerful psychedelic drugs definitely has diminishing returns. One trip that undoes the filters is plenty and not for everyone. Psychedelic drugs were shattering and not so recreational. More drugs and more hippies
making comics didn’t make for a wonderful ever-evolving unstoppable comic history, but the first and serious visionaries, did have something to offer, if art has anything to offer humans.

MB: So hippie comics shows are best in selective, small doses; just like LSD trips.  But for the pioneers – and their readers – the psychedelic, countercultural revolution in comics came out of nowhere, and then it was everywhere.  Worked its magic and then it was done.  And that coincided with poster design, music, and then fine art. But fine art gets a revolution with almost every generation, right?  Has that been true of comics, too?  Where do you see it happening now?  And if you don’t, then what would it need to do?  “Going digital” isn’t enough, right?

Spain Rodriguez

GP: Art is interesting to me, but idea-wise, it dead-ended a bit in the 70s, after which postmodernism came about, which was a movement more of combining the isolated ideas into mutant forms (that’s my own take on it); which is interesting still, but a kind of recapitulation. These days, Duchamp is king, which is fine, but people aren’t innovating as intensely as Duchamp — staying too close to home.  Going digital in comics is another thing and not a lovely delivery method to me.

I don’t know where it will go. The French have been drawing like insane people, partly influenced by me and my experimental drawer friends for 20 years now and hardly anyone has noticed, maybe because the dose is too big.

If you aren’t familiar, google ESDS (elles sont de sortie) and Le Dernier Cri.

This year has been something like the 60s as so much has happened this year. A cultural revolution might not be noticable anymore, only continually transformative, but I am still expecting some visible cultural breakthrough.  There are scattered triggers from the past
laying around like benign landmines.  Examples: Keiichi Tanaami, Bazooka (France), Shigeru Siguira, Donald Barthelme, Gilbert Sorrentino, etc.

All the cultural modes hang around. Punk is still about beginning.  Hippie is still about looking for a new track. Who knows. Make it happen.

Sugarcube Sketch Magik

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Let this summer be a summer of love.  Spoon on the beach.  A sexy sea salt solstice.  A tanline matching the contours of his or her arms around you.  And after an outdoor shower to rinse the sand from forgotten regions, or a sleepy ride back on the LIRR, leaf through Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art by Ken Johnson, published by Prestel.  Just as Central Park can’t match Fire Island for summer UV bliss, joints and beer can’t match LSD for creative expansion.  Dig?  This book casually advances the possibility that art history has overlooked an important factor.

First, this book is not about which artists did which drugs while making which artworks.  Only three artists are explicitly identified with studio DUI: Adrian Piper, Alex Grey, R. Crumb and Charles Ray.  Others, such as Deborah Kass (incompletely), R. Crumb (mellifluously), and Chris Martin (shamanistically), mention their own psychedelic drug experiences outside the studio, but otherwise, we are denied this giddy gossip.

Second, this book doesn’t prove any causation between pharmacology and art. It doesn’t identify LSD with certain discernable features in a painting, for example. And it doesn’t attribute any genre, subgenre, or work of studio art directly to one drug or another. We find no specific scrutiny of individual artworks for psychedelic inspiration: no painting undergoes a piss test. In fact, two of the first expository pages are about art that looks like it could be LSD-inspired, but actually is not.

Third, it doesn’t explicitly catalog art made during drug experiences. So if you want to know what happens when great artists get high, you’ll have to spike their Kool-Aid yourself. In one exception, however, we learn, “In the 1970s, Sigmar Polke hung out in Afghanistan, the go-too place for the world’s best cannabis and opium-based products. In some paintings and drawings Polke made his pharmaceutical interests explicit…”

Rob Pruitt, Orb Spider on Sleeping Pills (Gold), from an experiment by Dr. Peter Witt, N.A.S.A., 2006

So what does this book do? Are You Experienced tours us through the popularization of psychedelics in the 1960s. Johnson visits the subcultural conditions and consequences of this, especially from Beats (Kerouac) to hippies (Kesey) and its tastes in and effects on visual art in all media. According to Johnson, the psychedelic revolution expanded the visual territory of art, but it also corralled the postmodern dialogue, including topics of race, institutional power, and sexuality. Johnson admittedly bypasses etiological proof of any of this, instead harnessing his artist-journalist skills toward revising contemporary art through a post-psychedelic glass. Even if drugs weren’t a direct motivation, how is it that some art looks trippy? And would it have been possible without the surrounding psychedelic revolution? Where else do we find related content? Johnson quotes the writer Nick Bromell, “You may never have taken LSD, but America has.”

Ryan Johnson, "Pedestrian," 2007

Frank Haines, "Untitled," 2010

Many passages are outstanding. Johnson observes patterns among the institutions that filter insider artists from outsiders, and how the politics of the contemporary art world coincide with those of the revolutionary 60s. Still, he points out, the art world restricts its counterculture activity to the safe confines of the museums and galleries. “Artists have, for the most part, realized their revolutionary fantasies symbolically in the safety of the art world and its various institutions,” he writes, yet without the acerbic sting of Tom Wolfe’s criticism of the 1960s New Left in his The Painted Word. Johnson reserves his ammo for other purposes, such as a detailed analysis of a Christopher Williams photograph, from which he masterfully extracts countercultural content and a fascinating historical footnote. And in the chapter O Pioneers, Johnson compares Crumb and Guston, canon names that here preface a discussion about the true self, and then via Rosenquist, how the self relates to society:

Peter Doig, "Blotter," 1993

“Style would be the fingerprint of the soul, and since each person has only one soul, the genuine artist would have only one style. It could evolve organically, but if it changed radically, the artist’s authenticity would come into question. He might be a fake. This was neatly summed up in the famous headline above a vituperative review by Hilton Kramer, then chief art critic of the New York Times: ‘A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum.’ The key word is pretending; to pretend to be anything other than what you are would be despicable.

In Crumb’s work, there’s little sense of such an obdurate self. The self is as mutable and multiple as reality seems to be under psychedelic influence. The Crumb who appears in his autobiographical tales is a character, not a portrayal of his true self, whatever that might be. He spills his guts and admits to all kinds of unspeakable fantasies, but it’s a part of his schtick. Everything he creates is recognizably from his hand, but who he really is in the depths of his psyche we don’t know.”

Other sections are less surefooted. The examples of Andy Warhol don’t fit in the chapter From Expanded Cinema to Cyber-Psychedelia. The videos selected, Sleep (1963) and Empire (1964), were made before the psychedelic revolution and anyway, Johnson’s folk psychology feels too soft. Transversely, Warhol would have been a better fit than David Salle in the section Last Exit Painting, where Salle embodies “visually enervating, soul-chilling misanthropy,” “harshly sardonic humor,” “suburban sublime,” “an abysmal spiritual vacuum.”

Johnson’s vernacular writing style and candid, anecdotal presentation remind us that Johnson is writing based on his suburban, hearsay experience of the 60s. “What I knew came from T.V.” he shares: far outside the circle of the Merry Pranksters, but much closer than most readers. Still, his abundant sources and supporting footnotes prove the rigor of his research, and he exercises a generous economy of paraphrasing postmodern theories, a skill he might have developed from writing frequent, concise reviews in the New York Times.

That is why the trip sours when he veers into digressions, distracting autobiography, and imbalanced documentary detail. A spread on Roger Brown feels relatively unjustified, compared to the dimensionally-deprived details in a William T. Wiley image. Johnson writes about his discussion group in grad school, which doesn’t seem newsworthy enough to appear outside of a preface. And for a book this invested in subcultural activity, it’s not enough to say, “Following my graduation five years later, campus political climates took a conservative, preprofessional turn. Punk happened, but so did neoliberalism and Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech.” A lot happened when “punk happened,” demanding more treatment than this cursory loogie.

The Flaming Lips, "Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid" album cover

Okay, but more importantly, Johnson casts a wide net that reaches art in all media, as well as Hollywood, history, music, fiction, and youth culture. He welcomes intuitive associations across audiences, say Meg Webster and Steven Spielberg. Like a factoid-enriched fanboy, he pauses for noteworthy trivia, such as the fact that John Lennon and Yoko Ono financed Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. We are invited to explore underexposed, yet powerhouse artists such as Paul Laffoley. And like the precision-minded professional he is, Johnson selects terrific images, all printed lavishly and brilliantly. Having large, bright paintings reduced in scale from big canvases to the domain of your lap gives new light to some artists in particular, such as Phillip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli.

Phillip Taaffe, "Choriosa Speciosia I," 2007

Christian Holstad, "Blue Boys Don't Need Drugs with Voulkos," 2003

Ultimately, readers are privileged to access Johnson’s transparent, unassuming first-hand accounts of initial encounters with new art. Rather than write from within “the paradigm,” Johnson responds in unapologetically subjective terms, ingenuously bringing his volumes of experience to the art and ideas in question. His apocryphal My Utopia, in which he dances naked in public, is both touching and challenging, offering critics a defense against cynicism and dreamers a cue to engage the art establishment. As an individual – not an ideological enlistee – Johnson writes about material close to his heart and valuable to his imagination. Your history is not my history.

Lane Twitchell, "The Blood and Sins of this Generation," 2003