The Reeler


May 24, 2007

Love is All Around

The Whitney's Summer of Love exhibit reflects on films, light shows and other '60s visions

Summer lover: One of the subjects of Albert Alotta's Peacemeal, featured in the film program at the Whitney Museum's new Summer of Love exhibition (Photo: Albert Alotta/Film-Makers Cooperative)

The Tate Liverpool's Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era exhibition pulls in today at the Whitney Museum, just in time for the solstice of that season's 40th anniversary. The two floors of hallucinatory artifacts exhaustively culled by Christoph Grunenberg from the twilight of the 1960s, while focusing mainly on rock memorabilia -- a Porsche 356C Cabriolet owned by Janis Joplin and decked out in dayglo daisies, butterflies and a chakra-spewing third eye; a projection of "liquid loops" by lightshow artist Joshua White that once entertained concertgoers at the original Fillmore East -- also give due recognition to the experimental cinema traditions of that era.

Essential works by James Whitney and Jordan Belson are installed in the exhibition, while lesser-known pieces by Chas Wyndham, Robert Cowan and Will Hindle screen as part of a repeating program in the adjacent film gallery. One such gem is John Hawkins' LSD Wall (1965), which features crudely orchestrated claymations and Chinese dragon masks that jitter as though its filmmaker took the brown acid famed for sending Woodstock hippies to the hills. Andy Warhol's contributions to the era will be recognized as well July 14-15, including screenings of The Chelsea Girls, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Salvador Dali and other Factory ephemera.

Light-show artists like Glenn McKay (who toured with Jefferson Airplane) and Englanders Mark Boyle and Joan Hills (who utilized actual bodily fluids as materials to create their organic visuals style for Soft Machine) have only recently been given sufficient canonizing, and it's a joy to see their work get the full Whitney treatment as immersive installations or as documentary films with shots of musicians and revelers in the mix. "Most of the work originated out of music and theater -- particularly the light shows -- rather than the fine arts, and then influenced visual forms," said Whitney curator Henriette Huldisch, who oversaw the show's arrival in New York -- its only American pit stop after a two-year European tour.

Multimedia installation is perhaps the most potent context in which art of the period was conceived to replicate or enhance the experience of psychedelic drugs. Gustav Metzger's Liquid Crystal Environment (1965) lures its audience with plush carpeting and pillows, while a panorama of projectors display the shift in temperature of liquid crystals, slowly adding and subtracting deep hues to their shimmering reflection. On the other side of the mood rock, the New York-based USCO's Strobe Room (1967) envelops the viewer in a frenzy of flashing light, as mylar curtains reflect tie-dyed floor panels.

The show succeeds at invoking the ecstatic and tumultuous sensibility of the time through its combination of photography, pages out of alternative publications like the East Village Other and over 100 rock posters. Lenny Lipton and Jerry Abrams' documentaries of the Haight-Ashbury scene are from the Film-Maker's Cooperative, as is Albert Alotta's cine-poem Peacemeal (1967), which captures an anti-Vietnam protest in Central Park's Sheep Meadow before a march on the U.N. A young girl gets her face painted while peace signs ("THIS WAR IS INSANE," "STOP THE KILLING") float about. A helicopter looms overhead.

In keeping with Paul Kantner's famous quote, "If you can remember the '60s, then you weren't really there," a game of "Name That Tune" involving Josh White and iconic English photo-montage artist Robert Whitaker at the exhibit's opening yielded humorous results. Neither could place the Rolling Stones' "2000 Light Years from Home," which plays at the exhibition's entrance -- especially Whitaker, who so plaintively pointed out in his English accent that he "was not that familiar with the American work of the period." Still, the Summer of Love show successfully delivers a potent flavor of nostalgia for those whose lives were touched by the vivid visual culture of the time, not to mention an unprecedented opportunity for those of a younger generation who have merely salivated over their copies of Hendrix or Santana records to get "experienced" for themselves.

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