Sugarcube Sketch Magik

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

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