I went to see the new show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, "Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic." It might have blown my mind, had that not been accomplished long ago, and with the aid of some of the very same materials on view here. It's a really entertaining show, with lots of art and artifacts from the heights of the sixties (puns intended). There is an excellent selection of concert posters from the Fillmore and other venues, a concise but thoughtful selection of photographs, books, magazines and newspapers, and even some framed blotter acid. There's a snippet of a light show from the famed Joshua Lights. There are underground films from Stan VanDerBeek, La Monte Young, and Jordan Belson, and paintings from Richard Hamilton, Richard Lindner, and Robert Indiana. There's a watercolor by Jimi Hendrix himself.
It's very cool and casual and sometimes intense, just like it was back in the day, although I found that the graphics didn't function quite the same way on my experienced mind as they did on the more virginal system I was operating on back then. The pictures didn't quite pop (pun intended) and strobe and vibrate as they did when I was under the influence, or in the aftermath of. I think there are several reasons for this. Partly it's because there is absolutely no LSD-25 in my system; partly, I think, it's because I became inured to the visual tricks of the vocabulary; but also, I believe, it's that no one with a 2007 nervous system can see in exactly the same way that we saw back in the day of 3 TV channels and analog stereo. Our minds work way too fast to feel the full punch of the style, for the dayglo to seep past our corneas into the cortex without mediation.
Still, it's fantastic. I only saw half of the show at the preview because I had to press on to the Guggenheim Museum for a showing of the new film Chicago 10. More on that later. But I did have my own personal trippy moment, thanks to a full-size facsimile of Mati Klarwein's Aleph Sanctuary.
You may be familiar with the artist Mati Klarwein from a series of fantastic album covers he created in the sixties and seventies for Miles Davis, Santana, Yusef Lateef, and others. Mati was a sort of one-man movement. He was surrealist, pop, and classical all rolled into one, and in many ways he invented psychedelic visual style, but he never indulged in its clichés. He always transcended styles and movements. He was a true master whose perfectionist paintings took months or years to make and were executed in the Renaissance manner in casein tempera. His first mentor was Fernand Léger.
I saw the Aleph Sanctuary in New York City in 1970. I was taken there by Mati's wife at the time, Caterine Milinaire, who happened to be one of the most beautiful women on the planet. I probably would have followed her into purgatory, but instead I followed her into heaven, hell, and purgatory in the form of the Aleph Sanctuary, a truly monumental work, a three-by-three-by-three-meter cubic room consisting of 68 paintings. It was a place one could happily contemplate for hours, with or without chemical mediation.
Mati was a tremendous spirit but not so much a druggy. He liked to take a drink. I remember him drinking snifters of Fernet Branca—a tonic not for the faint of heart. I became friends with him over the years, through hanging out with our mutual pal Jon Hassell, the master musician (who also used numerous Klarwein paintings as album art).
Mati liked to quote Salvador Dali: "I don't take drugs. I am drugs."
I walked into the facsimile Aleph Sanctuary and was beamed right back there to the seventies, and who should I run into in this little room but Caterine Milinaire herself. She has some gray hair now, but her aura is the same. It was the sort of cosmic coincidence that fit right in with the spirit of this extraordinarily vibrant cube of art.
I'll be back to visit the sanctuary again soon, and see the rest of the "Summer of Love" show, which traveled to the Whitney from the Tate Liverpool, where it originated. Actually, I wrote one of the essays that appear in the excellent book published on the occasion of the Tate show, Summer of Love: Psychedelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s. I highly recommend it.
Anyway, I didn't see the entire show at the preview because I had to run further uptown to the Guggenheim for a preview of the new film Chicago 10. It was a real evening of flashbacks. This film, part documentary footage and part animation from the transcripts of the conspiracy trial following the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, really took me back to the emotions I felt that summer, the summer after the Summer of Love. I guess you could call it the Summer of Hate, because of the social crisis that was coming to a head. That was the summer that the black neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., were in flames. That was the summer the Chicago Police rioted, beating peaceful antiwar protestors who assembled to make their feelings known to the Democratic Party. This film really had an emotional impact for me, as someone who lived through it. It restoked anger that's almost forty years old, and that's quite a feat, but perhaps more importantly the film provides a good education for people who don't know about what happened during the Vietnam War, and how it was stopped. Maybe studying that could help us stop the war we have now.
Chicago 10 was directed by Brett Morgen, director of The Kid Stays in the Picture. Morgen got his BA degree in 1993, so I would imagine he's in his mid-thirties. In other words, he wasn't born when this stuff happened. The art world audience that attended the preview I saw was mixed in reaction to the film, but I was impressed by Morgen's strategy of using animation to bring the transcripts of the trial of the "co-conspirators" to life with the voices of Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, and others. Live actors would have been corny. But the cartoon Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were entirely believable, as much as the history itself seems unbelievable.
I won't spoil the plot, but I suggest that everyone see this film, which gives you a great feeling for the events of Chicago, during the convention and the trial. Usually we think of this as the Chicago Seven or Chicago Eight Trial. The original defendents were Yippees Hoffman and Rubin, peace activists David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner, and Black Panther Bobby Seale. Seale attempted to defend himself separately, and wound up bound and gagged for much of the trial on orders of the presiding judge, Julius Hoffman, who seems made to be turned into a cartoon character. But then the two defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, were also jailed, Kunstler serving the longest jail term of all, over four years, for contempt of court, while five of the defendants were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent of inciting a riot and were sentenced to five years in prison, of which they served various terms.
This is not the most elegant film ever made, since the animation has a certain video game quality to it, but that very quality may be what makes it accessible and appealing to the young audience that needs to see just how wrong things can go when authority turns arrogant.
Got a question for the Style Guy? Click here to ask it.