When the Revolution Was Not Yet Televised
I can’t decide whether it’s fitting or ironic that West of Center: Art and the Countercultural Experiment in America, 1965 -1977, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver opened so soon after the death of Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs. On the one hand, the fingerprints of the left-coast countercultural moment were all over the late computer guru and his creations; on the other hand, nothing seems more antithetical to our current culture of relentlessly glossy production values, of highbrow design and high tech capability at the fingertips of all, than the low-tech, handmade sensibility — it hardly seems deliberate enough to be called an aesthetic — so visible in this exhibition. Earnest rather than ironic, unashamedly idealistic, unafraid of appearing amateurish and haphazard, many of the contents of this exhibition have the air of artifacts from a lost world.
These contents are, in fact, something of an odd mix, more often documents of a time and place than self-conscious “works of art”—handbills, flyers, scrapbooks and snapshots, even cancelled checks. The interconnections between the exhibition’s parts seem more often hinted at than spelled out. This sense of fragmentation, of a puzzle that is not quite complete, makes West of Center a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, yet oddly poignant experience.
The exhibition seeks to recreate the moment in the late sixties when “a diverse range of artists and creative individuals based in the American West—from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest—broke the barriers between art and lifestyle and embraced the new, hybrid sensibilities of the countercultural movement”. And even the most consciously “artistic” elements of the exhibition break, or at least test, those barriers. On the first floor of the museum, in “Expanded Cinema I”, the Single Wing Turquoise Bird, which staged psychedelic light shows in Los Angeles at the end of the 60s, has created a new work, “Invisible Writing” for the exhibition, luring patrons to chill out on beanbags as the music pulses and images flicker past.
In “Expanded Cinema II”, artist Clark Richert has recreated his “The Ultimate Painting”, a lost work first conceived in the Drop City commune in southern Colorado in 1966. An extraordinarily intricate and colorful work, based on the same geodesic framework that inspired Drop City’s dome homes, the painting offers up different images and patterns under the shifting frequencies of a strobe light. Richert, now head of the Painting Program at Denver’s Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, has spent a career exploring the fusion of mathematics and painting, without altering his commitment to the artist’s touch, to the interplay of hand, brush, and canvas.
On the second floor, aesthetic deliberation also informs the posters of Black Panther artist Emory Douglas. While Douglas’s work may sometimes incorporate elements of photocollage, it stands squarely in the tradition of the political poster, and the clarity of message and of function of posters such as “Our Fight is Not in Vietnam” (1969) set them apart from the eagerly transgressed boundaries and sometimes chaotic inclusiveness manifested in the sections of the floor devoted to Drop City and dome architecture, to the Womyn’s Lands of southern Oregon, and to the Cockettes and Angels of Light of San Francisco. This sense of difference may be enhanced by the fact that Douglas’s posters are displayed without a supporting range of ephemera to provide context, while the latter three consist primarily of ephemera.
These latter installations impress themselves on the viewer less as a series of objects, and more as a buzz of energy generated by the books, flyers, photographs, and other odds and ends collected here. “The Cunt Coloring Book” (intended to familiarize women with their own bodies) shares space with flyers for camps in which workshops on class consciousness and female spirituality were offered alongside guidance in negotiating the purchase of land and gaining practical agricultural skills, for those who wanted to create an alternative to patriarchy in the open spaces of the West (and elsewhere).
Copies of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Dome Cookbook instruct readers eager to build their own geodesic dome-homes – what is a “cookbook” for, if not to lead readers through their own process of creation? Drop City, a community of domes near Trinidad, famously maintained an open-door policy and quickly became a tourist attraction as well as a model, as a snapshot of a hand-painted road sign attests: “After you visit Drop City, stop at the Dairy Joy for your ice cream and favorite fountain drinks, pizza and chicken to go.” The Ant Farm, an experimental collective based in San Francisco who are the focus of an installation on a lower floor, travelled the country demonstrating their inflatable architecture, and produced their own Inflatocookbook in 1971.
The Cockettes of San Francisco embraced cross-dressing and burlesque as performance art, performing in lavish costumes that did not bother to hide the fact the majority of performers were men. Yet, as Julia Bryan-Wilson notes in an essay in the book that accompanies West of Center, this was “a form of excess marked not by wealth but by thrift: outfits such as these were made from scavenged materials and trash-picked treasures and relied on the ingenuity of scarcity to achieve their distinctive glamour.” She notes that many of the performers lived by pooling their welfare checks; yet performances were always free, and a second group, the Angels of Light, split away when they felt this spirit had been violated.
For contemporary viewers, the surprise is not the transgression of gender boundaries, but the unabashed naturalness of the bodies on display – flabby here, scrawny there, never shaven. Allen Ginsberg had a brief affair with Hibiscus, a leading figure in the scene, but was put off by the peculiarly gritty texture all the shed sequins and glitter gave to Hibiscus’s bed. Hibiscus died in 1982; the later toll of the AIDS epidemic on the Cockettes and the Angels gives this exhibit an undertone of tragedy and loss.
In the end, it’s a little hard to know what to make of this whirlwind of images and impressions. Some things get a bit lost: Bay Area choreographer Anna Halprin’s experiments in breaking down the boundaries between dance and life certainly fit the spirit of the exhibition, yet dance, by its nature, does not lend itself as well to documentation in black and white as do ideas about how to live and build. I also found myself agreeing with Lucy Lippard, who notes in the introduction to the accompanying book that “I sometimes miss a sense of context, of landscape and place, of western identity and its responses to the counterculture, in these accounts”. I think a broader temporal context might have helped establish the geographic context; much of what made the counterculture was already simmering away in the Bay Area and other far western locales by the early 50s. I would urge anyone curious about how widely and deeply the roots of the countercultural moment extend to find a copy of The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape, in which text by Erik Davis and photographs by Michael Rauner bring to life places as disparate as Esalen and poet Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House, on the Big Sur, the Scientology Celebrity Center, and the rundown apartment complex once occupied by Philip K. Dick.
Still, in an age when technology gives such a uniform corporate gloss to words and images alike, it’s refreshing and touching to encounter the hand-painted and the hand-lettered, to absorb ideas spread via typewriter and mimeograph, corrections and alterations and second thoughts all readily apparent, to see the junkshop treasures of the Cockettes and the repurposed scraps of Drop City’s architecture (the MCA’s own gleaming spaces provide an odd counterpoint to the handmade nature of so much on display here). Leaving West of Center, it’s hard not to wonder if the homogenization of surfaces that characterizes our era might not hide a certain homogenization of ideas.
West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977, on view through February 19, 2012, MCA Denver.