Autumn 2005

Psychedelia breaches the portals of fine art

Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era

Edited by Christoph Grunenberg
Tate, £19.99
Design: A2-Graphics / SW / HK [Henrick Kubel and Scott Williams]

By chance, I read this book immediately after finishing Simon Reynolds’s Energy Flash. Reynolds’s book is an engaging survey of ‘rave music and dance culture’, and one of the few serious attempts to describe the hedonistic, ‘second summer of love’ of 1988. The current exhibition of psychedelic art at the Tate Liverpool (27 May-25 September 2005), for which the book under review is the show’s catalogue, is an examination of the ‘first summer of love’ of 1967.

Reading both books in quick succession prompted the speculation that now that the art world, or at least Tate Liverpool, has deigned to recognise 1960s psychedelic art, we might soon see some publicly funded art institution staging an exhibition of the art of ‘rave music and dance culture’. The notion of a show devoted to smiley-face nightclub flyers, drug education literature and Sven Vath album covers, seems less implausible than it might have done a year or two ago.

The art world’s traditional resistance to 1960s psychedelic art is met head-on by Christoph Grunenberg, director of Tate Liverpool, and the catalogue’s editor. He quotes art critic Dave Hickey’s blunt assertion that psychedelic art is ‘anti-academic’ (Hickey contributes an essay to the catalogue, as does Reynolds). In a scholarly introduction, Grunenberg expands on this line of thought: ‘We are dealing with an aesthetic which has generally been relegated to the realm of applied art, bad taste and stylistic aberration, obscured by an art-historically and institutionally sanctioned view of the period which has positioned the aesthetically and conceptually purified statements of Pop, minimal and conceptual art at the centre. There seems to be deep-seated suspicion towards psychedelic art’s formal exuberance and its suspicious proximity to popular culture, suggesting the continued domination of high-modernist and formalist principles.’

If the Tate show is the first step towards dispelling the ‘deep-seated suspicion’, and allowing psychedelic art, with its grubby pop culture associations, to enter the sacred palace of art (a palace guarded zealously by curators, art historians and academics), then the art world should be aware that it is admitting another even less desirable alien: graphic design. Faced with the dizzying array of work in this exhibition – much of it beautifully reproduced in the catalogue – it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the best psychedelic art is, in fact, graphic design.

Grunenberg makes a strong case for the existence of ‘pure’ psychedelic art – paintings, films, sculptures and light-based installations. He writes: ‘psychedelic art takes many stylistic forms, though most works share a bias towards a maximalist representation of cosmological visions through formally complex, obsessively detailed, self-involved abstract designs.’ He offers work by artists Isaac Abrams, Lynda Benglis and Abdul Mati Klarwein, the latter famous for his album covers for Miles Davis and Santana, and cites the influence of psychedelic culture on Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton and Robert Indiana.

Yet much of the psychedelic ‘art’ Grunenberg champions is barely recognisable as ‘psychedelic’. When placed alongside the posters, the album covers, the clothes and the light shows (what another contributor to the catalogue calls ‘the psychedelic vernacular’), it is abundantly clear that psychedelic art has its most pure and recognisable expression in graphic design – a fact that may delay the moment when psychedelic visual expression can claim full ‘institutionally sanctioned’ art-world acceptance.

The sober and lucid design of this catalogue, by London-based designers A2, raises the interesting question perennially faced by designers when designing art and design books: does the designer design the book in the style of the book’s subject, or in a neutral style that allows the subject matter to stand in stylistic isolation? A2/SW/AK wisely avoids designing in the psychedelic style. Instead, they lay the book out with rigour and poise. As is customary in their work, A2 have designed a typeface especially for the project. The font they’ve created is a conventional typewriter-like font with just enough flourishes and quirkiness to hint at psychedelic derangement.

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