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A Real Bummer

The Whitney’s “Summer of Love” show needs to come down from its psychedelic high. The stuff just wasn’t that good.

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Vernon Panton's Phantasy Landscape Version II (1970/2000) at the Whitney.  

‘Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era,” the Whitney Museum’s 40th-anniversary trip down counterculture memory lane, provides moments of buzzy fun, but it’ll leave you only comfortably numb. For starters, it may be the whitest, straightest, most conservative show seen in a New York museum since psychedelia was new. Forget “different strokes for different folks”; there are few dashikis or Asian faces, many of the women pictured are semi-naked ornaments, and the culture displayed is scarily homogenous, all shiny happy white kids in America and England. On hand are record jackets from Country Joe & the Fish, but none from Aretha or Sly and the Family Stone. The show is so vapidly vanilla—visitors drift through it as if in a mall—that with any luck the legions of contemporary artists who romanticize and glorify the period will finally move on.

What was the Whitney thinking when it took this exhibit and gave it two whole floors? Setting aside the museum’s hopes for big summer box office, maybe the reason a show like this exists—and why so many younger artists revisit the era—is so that anyone who came of age after the seventies might muse about the last generation on earth that had the luxury to think about sex without at least a passing thought of death.

Beyond that, “Summer” is a walk-in Celestial Seasonings package, a 3-D eBay hosting scores of photos of flower children, highly colored posters, artifacts, and hippie bric-a-brac, including spinning paintings, black-light environments, and Janis Joplin’s painted Porsche. All this stuff is meant to blow your mind, but it only makes you think about how dated and cheesy everything looks. There are excellent paintings on hand, notably Peter Saul’s heaving depiction of a Vietnamese woman being raped by American soldiers, Lynda Benglis’s latex floor splat, and Jimi Hendrix’s Sigmar Polke–like abstraction. But there’s so little actual fine art in “Summer of Love” that the show qualifies as the Whitney’s version of the “The Art of the Motorcycle”: the Guggenheim’s 1998 exhibition that pulled in crowds but was lambasted for its art-free content. I liked that “Motorcycle” traced the formal development of a single sexy industrial type. “Summer” is basically a souvenir shop.

Of course, being neither stoned nor beautiful isn’t any reason to get medieval on “Summer of Love’s” ass. It’s a summer show, after all, and it does look into a picturesque aesthetic that exerts an influence on the current moment. The problem is that the guest curator, Christoph Grunenberg, from Tate Liverpool (where the exhibition originated in 2005) makes a number of sweeping, bogus claims. Yes, the sixties gave us the Pill, sexual liberation, and Vietnam, but Grunenberg’s essay is so overstated and self-serving that it can make you wonder if baby-boomers are ever going to get over themselves. In the very first sentence of the catalogue, Grunenberg ignores events like two world wars, the Holocaust, the partitioning of India, and Africa’s independence movements, and declares the sixties “the last century’s most tumultuous decade.” Even if it were so, the claim is still a boomer cliché.

Things get more hyperbolic from there. Although most of the work he’s referring to is fruity or formulaic, Grunenberg asserts that psychedelic art “is visionary art in the best tradition of Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake.” Next, he says, psychedelic art opened “the doors to new universes.” Not content with this phony-baloney blowhard stuff, he tries to guilt-trip us into accepting his faulty premise, blatantly playing the art-historical victim card. He solemnly informs us that psychedelic art is a “repressed aesthetic” that has been “purged from the official history book.”

That’s a crock, and a dishonest one. We can all conjure the contrasting colors, busy patterning, hard-to-read balloon lettering, and ersatz mysticism of the style. As seen in this hippie theme park, psychedelic art is a set of tendencies that includes artists and isms like Beardsley, Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, Louis Sullivan, rococo, Pre-Raphaelitism, Art Nouveau, Dada, Surrealism, Pop, and Op. As Dave Hickey observes in “Freaks,” his brilliant 1997 essay on psychedelic drugs (reprinted in the catalogue), art that has a psychedelic bent prioritizes “complexity over simplicity, pattern over form, repetition over composition, feminine over masculine, curvilinear over rectilinear, and the fractal … over Euclidean order.”

Importantly, however, Hickey never claims there’s such a thing as psychedelic fine art. No Blue Meanies “purged” this idiom from the art-history books because no self-respecting fine artist would claim to be a “psychedelic artist.” All artists instinctively understand that if a work of art is irrevocably of its own time and expresses only one thing very narrowly, it won’t be able to express anything else to any other time. Art like this, like a lot of the stuff in “Summer of Love,” is dead on arrival. Yet Grunenberg misrepresents people like Lucas Samaras and Andy Warhol as “psychedelic artists.” Warhol may have invented the psychedelic palette and produced his own light show, but he and his crowd were notoriously anti-flower-child. Their sex and drugs were harder, too. As Hickey recently quoted Lou Reed, “I’d rather be found dead in some bathroom stall with a spike in my arm than share spit [on a joint] with some hippie.”

The highs of this show are probably the pulsating films of James Whitney and the great Jordan Belson, and the light shows of Thomas Wilfred and Joshua White. The installation by designer Verner Panton is cool, too. Beyond that, “Summer” is a poster show. The late sixties were supposedly out of control, but the psychedelic style is maniacally controlling—every area of every poster is hypermanaged. Hippies touted other worlds and open spaces, but their graphic mode of choice was closed-in and claustrophobic. Still, there’s something very moving about wanting to be part of a movement, about trying so hard to be instantaneously and inexorably labeled. These posters look “authorless,” but they waved their freak flags high. Once upon a time in the sixties, they could make just walking down the street feel thrilling, like you were a part of something. Not bad for posters.

Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era
Whitney Museum of American Art. Through September 16.

E-mail: jerry_saltz@newyorkmag.com.


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