Through the Looking-Glass, Darkly

Ken Johnson. Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art. New York: Prestel, 2011. 232 pp., 150 color ills., 10 b/w. $49.95

David S. Rubin, ed. Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s. Exh. cat. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. 138 pp., 92 color ills. $31.95

Ken Johnson. Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art
Ken Johnson. Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art

When H. H. Arnason published the first edition of his 1968 book The History of Modern Art, it ended with a one-page entry on “Psychedelic Art.” Positioning the inchoate movement as a bridge between the modern and contemporary periods, the entry was a blueprint for a future that would never come to pass, and was expunged from all further editions, helping to relegate psychedelia to the proverbial dustbin of history.

The problems with psychedelic art were foundational, as its detractors were quick to point out. From its inception, it proved difficult to define: “psychedelic” is a 1950s neologism meaning “mind-manifesting,” and in asserting that psychedelic art both derived from and induced a heightened awareness of the world, its promoters obscured the distinction between psychedelic art and art in general, as it is commonly understood. (Timothy Leary himself is supposed to have said that “All Art began as a psychedelic expression to turn others on,” evacuating the concepts of both art and psychedelic experience in the process.)1 In fact, it was unclear whether one needed to have taken a so-called psychedelic drug (such as LSD or mescaline), or to have engaged in any other kind of mind-altering experience (yoga or meditation, for example), to produce psychedelic work. Perhaps as a consequence, psychedelic art lacked any defining stylistic features: it could be figurative or abstract, realist or fantastic, geometric or biomorphic, static or kinetic, object-based or environmental. The confusion over what defined a work of art as psychedelic was only compounded by long-standing debates—dating at least to the birth of modernity—over the varieties and causes of psychedelic experience.2

Two recent books revisit the relationship of art and psychedelia, but avoid the hazards of trying to theorize a movement, as they characterize psychedelia as an amorphous influence rather than a cogent style: Ken Johnson’s Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art, and Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s, a catalogue edited by curator David S. Rubin for an exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Though psychedelic art (whatever it might have been) was literally erased from the art-historical record, these books argue that a psychedelic sensibility (whatever that might be) persists in the work of a broad range of artists, from the expected (Bridget Riley, Fred Tomaselli) to the provocative (Frank Stella, Jeff Koons). At the outset of his book, Johnson— a critic for the New York Times—even wonders whether “all contemporary art is psychedelic,” reflecting widespread cultural transformations stimulated by the popularization of psychedelic drugs in the mid-twentieth century (10). Rubin, who aims “to investigate the notion of a psychedelic sensibility within the context of contemporary art,” similarly positions psychedelia as a current, even ubiquitous, influence (16). Notably, both authors contrast their projects to a spate of recent exhibitions devoted to either a more historical or a more narrow conception of psychedelic art, like Tate Liverpool’s 2007 Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2005 Ecstasy: In and About Altered States.3

David S. Rubin, ed. Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s
David S. Rubin, ed. Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s

In a review of Robert E. L. Masters and Jean Houston’s 1968 book Psychedelic Art—the first book devoted to the topic—a critic for Art in America wrote, “To take issue with the authors . . . is much like attacking a couple of recipients of revealed truth for their beliefs.”4 The text was described as long on conviction, but short on evidence to support the claim that such a thing as psychedelic art exists, and that it is interesting. In the case of Rubin’s catalogue, the images are largely left to speak for themselves, and they almost convince us of their psychedelic sensibility: Frank Stella’s Double Scramble (1968), a Day-Glo stripe painting so patently trippy that it inspired Rubin to curate the show, dares us to account for its Technicolor vibrancy solely through the critical language of Minimalism. In other words, the book’s presentation of this and other works within the framework of psychedelia relies on their resonance with the clichés of psychedelic visual culture, including “extreme color,” “kaleidoscopic space,” “obsessive mark making,” “immersive environments,” “pictorial fragmentation,” and “invented universes.” These formal comparisons, however, are buttressed only by the flimsiest of historical circumstances (e.g., the fact that Double Scramble was made in 1968, at the height of the psychedelic counterculture) and all-too-rare personal testimonies. The catalogue’s essay by the countercultural guru Daniel Pinchbeck—in which the author at one point entertains fellow guru Terrence McKenna’s theory that psilocybin mushrooms were sent to Earth by alien lifeforms—also labors to embed these works within the discourse of psychedelia. But the more they speak to Pinchbeck and his followers, the less these objects seem to have to say to art history: if they are informed by a psychedelic sensibility, it is not readily apparent how that information might impact our existing narratives of modern and contemporary art.

While Rubin aims to expand the canon of works that have a psychedelic (that is, “optical” or “visionary”) sensibility, Johnson more ambitiously aims to expand our sense of what counts as psychedelic in visual art. He provides ample evidence for his conspiracy theory that psychedelia is everywhere, but in doing so, he also comes close to claiming that psychedelic experience includes everything. His close readings in particular can be insightful, as in his parsing of Christopher Williams’s staged photo of an overturned Renault Dauphine-Four as a meditation on the promise—and futility—of the anarchic energies of May 1968 (Johnson, 65). His suggestion, however, that psychedelic experience fosters anti-authoritarianism, and also triggers metacognition, intensifies the experience of embodiment, hastens sexual awakening, develops one’s sense of humor, and so forth, makes his argument that Williams’s work has a psychedelic sensibility almost meaningless: following Leary, one wonders if every work of art—not simply every work of contemporary art—might be psychedelic. Consequently, when he separates a work from its familiar art-historical context in order to review it with his new “heuristic,” Johnson sometimes offers a reading that seems to obscure rather than illuminate its object.

Even if a work compels us to reevaluate it through the kaleidoscopic lens of psychedelia (and many here do), what do we ultimately gain by recognizing its true (psychedelic) colors, so to speak? The field of art history would perhaps benefit more from deploying the rhetoric of psychedelia to rub these objects against the grain, allowing that rhetoric to disturb, for example, our received notions of Minimalism. At their cores, both of these books attempt to turn psychedelia into a mainstream art phenomenon: according to these authors, the psychedelic sensibility is pervasive, even if its influence on art often goes undetected. Like the hidden patterns “revealed” by tripping, it is an invisible force that structures the world—including the paintings of Frank Stella, or the steel sculptures of Richard Serra, as Johnson claims. Yet instead of moving psychedelia from margin to center, it might be more valuable to preserve some of psychedelia’s outsider, or more specifically oppositional, status; following Lars Bang Larsen (who follows T. J. Clark), perhaps psychedelia is even a “limit term” of modernism.5 In their anthology West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977, Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner remind us that the term “counterculture” was coined in the 1960s to designate “an oppositional movement with distinct norms and values generated out of its conflictual interaction with the dominant society,” in contradistinction to a subculture, which is “a mere subset of dominant society” that is “neutral with respect to dominant society’s values.”6 Auther and Lerner argue the importance of reevaluating 1960s and 1970s countercultural art (including but not limited to psychedelic art) despite or even because of its oblique relation to the mainstream East Coast art of the period; this approach seems more productive than insisting that the former meaningfully informed the latter.

The discussion of the role of psychedelia in contemporary art might also be enriched by mobilizing a more current model of psychedelia itself. Both of these books revive the idea that psychedelic experience produced sociocultural transformations through the expansion of individual consciousness; but in the decades since the 1968 publication of Leary’s The Politics of Ecstasy, scholars have reconsidered the meaning of psychedelic experience and the legacy of the psychedelic revolution. For example, historians of technology and of art alike have addressed the imbrication of the 1960s counterculture with the emergence of postindustrial information technologies—an idea encapsulated by Steve Jobs’s use of LSD, and by Leary’s rebranding as a “cyberpunk” in the 1980s. For some scholars, the use of technology to produce psychedelic experiences of spatial and temporal dislocation or psychic fragmentation (in places ranging from world’s fairs to hippie communes) results in the maintenance of hegemonic power relations, while for others, it produces new subjectivities that can evade technocratic forms of control.7

Though neither addresses any of this scholarship, both Rubin and Johnson do include artists working with video and other new media. Jennifer Steinkamp, Jeremy Blake, and Leo Villareal appear alongside painters and sculptors in Rubin’s book, while Johnson devotes a chapter, “From Expanded Cinema to Cyber-Psychedelia,” to artists ranging from Stan Brakhage to the net art team of Eva and Franco Mattes. Both authors argue that digital technology and mind expansion are intimately related: Johnson rhetorically asks, “If today’s art is about altering consciousness and doing so broadly, what better medium to achieve that than the computers and the Internet, which can reach millions?” (101), while Rubin posits that “a psychedelic sensibility . . . seems appropriately suited to our current digital age” (28). Yet neither convincingly explains why computers and hallucinogens share an elective affinity, which would require both a consideration of the material specificity of digital technologies and a more focused view of the term “psychedelic.”

Using more nuance to characterize the relation of technology and psychedelia would not only connect these books to ongoing art-historical debates, but also prompt a new discussion of the politics of psychedelic art. The idea that the historical counterculture was apolitical, and therefore indifferent to the radical activism of the New Left and other movements, has long been dismantled; as Julie Stephens has argued, a major aim of the counterculture was to redefine the notion of politics, and groups like the Diggers and the Yippies are best understood on their own terms.8 Consequently, it is disingenuous to claim that psychedelic art typically responds to “the raging world of globalization, transcultural collisions, economic decline, envi-ronmental disaster, and military confrontations at all levels” with a “desire to go inward,” as claimed by the third contributor to Rubin’s catalogue, Robert C. Morgan (47). The same tired association of psychedelia with self-absorption informs Johnson’s fantasy of simple life on a rural commune (which, to his credit, he freely admits is problematic). The only author in these books to connect psychedelic consciousness to contemporary politics is Pinchbeck, who compares our “current economic and environmental meltdown” to “the dismemberment and detaching that shamans undergo in dreams and visions”: as we painfully become aware of the dangers of debt-based global capitalism, we are analogues of those psychedelic voyagers who seek the true reality behind false illusion (Rubin, 53). On its face, this is not a productive observation, but on further inspection, it echoes Diedrich Diederichsen’s compelling comparison of hallucinogenic drugs, which “alienate” us from our everyday reality, to Marxist strategies of pulling back the veil of reification.9 Diederichsen articulated his politics of hallucination—inspired by the drug-induced ruminations of Walter Benjamin himself—in the catalogues for Ecstasy and Summer of Love, the very exhibitions from which Rubin and Johnson are so eager to distance their own projects. This is unfortunate, as his theorization offers us another avenue to what these two books are missing, from an art-historical perspective: a sense of the larger critical stakes of a psychedelic sensibility in art.


Tina Rivers is a PhD candidate in the department of art history and archaeology at Columbia University. Her dissertation is the first major study of the Howard Wise Gallery, examining its role in the rise of media art in the 1960s. Her writings have appeared in publications such as Art in America and Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, as well as in several books, and her criticism appears on Artforum.com.


The review originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Art Journal.

  1. Timothy Leary quoted in Jud Yalkut, “The Psychedelic Revolution: Turning On the Art Trip,” Arts 41, no. 1 (November 1966): 23.
  2. In his study of “artificial paradises,” Charles Baudelaire distinguished between “pure” hallucinations that invent phenomena out of thin air, and hashish-derived hallucinations “rooted in the ambient surroundings and present circumstances.” Baudelaire, Artificial Paradises, trans. Stacy Diamond (New York: Citadel Press, 1996), 52.
  3. See Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, ed. Christoph Grunenberg, exh. cat. (London: Tate, 2005); and Ecstasy: In and About Altered States, ed. Paul Schimmel and Lisa Gabrielle Mark, exh. cat. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 20050.
  4. Jay Jacobs, “Once Over Lightly” (book review), Art in America 56, no. 5 (September–October 1968): 117.
  5. Lars Bang Larsen, “Infernal Rodeo,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry 7 (2003): 96. See also Larsen, “When the Light Falls: Notes on Ecstasy and Corruption,” in Ecstasy, 177–85; “A History of Irritated Material: Psychedelic Concepts in Neo-Avant-Garde Art” (PhD diss., University of Copenhagen, 2011); and his edited volume on psychedelia, forthcoming from Afterall Books.
  6. Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner, “Introduction: The Counterculture Experiment: Consciousness and Encounters at the Edge of Art,” in West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977, ed. Auther and Lerner, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xix. For a review, see Jennifer Doyle, “City of Angels,” Art Journal 71, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 151–55.
  7. See, for example, Jennifer L. Roberts, “Lucubrations on a Lava Lamp: Technocracy, Counterculture, and Containment in the Sixties,” in American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture, ed. Jules David Prown and Kenneth Haltman (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000), 167–89; Branden W. Joseph, “‘My Mind Split Open’: Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” Grey Room 8 (Summer 2002): 80–107; Gloria Sutton, “Stan Vanderbeek’s Movie-Drome: Networking the Subject,” in Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, ed. Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 136–43; Felicity D. Scott, “Acid Visions,” Grey Room 23 (Spring 2006): 22–39; and David Joselit, Feedback: Television against Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
  8. Julie Stephens, Anti-disciplinary Protest: Sixties Radicalism and Postmodernism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  9. See Diedrich Diederichsen, “Veiling and Unveiling: The Culture of the Psychedelic,” in Summer of Love, 85–91, and “Divided Ecstasy: The Politics of Hallucinogenics,” in Ecstasy, 187–95.