Psychedelia is a state of mind. It is a particular mode of perception that upends our assumptions about the way that the world works. It is about heightened color, glimmering patterns, and swirling constellations of form that challenge gravity and the very boundaries between discrete objects.
The exhibition Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art Since the 1960’s at the San Antonio Museum of Art takes these ideas as a net to gather a wide range of artists. The 1960’s, as the well-worn story of post war America goes, was a moment of civil unrest driven by a youth culture that was suspect of authority and newly intoxicated by sex, drugs and rock and roll. It also was a time when artists were riffing on the newly invented methods of image making that Surrealism and hard edged abstraction introduced. As a result, artists such as Richard Anuszkiewicz and other Op Art innovators explored pattern and abstraction to create hallucinatory visual paintings.
Philip Taaffe’s Trinity (1985) extends these ideas from Op Art, creating an image with silkscreen and collage that makes one’s eyes buzz. The image makes us feel like we are falling into it and at the same time repelled by its churning space. Taaffe uses a color spectrum and concentric arrows of modulating scale to create a sense of movement that picks us up off our feet and drives us through the picture plane.
Jack Goldstein - an artist who emerged in the 1980’s, disappeared from the art world in the 1990’s and then surfaced again to public acclaim in 2000 until his suicide in 2003– made images that used filmic and photographic sources for his paintings. Included in the exhibition is Untitled (1987), which uses a photograph of a spectacular moment in natural phenomena. Taken in space, the source image for this painting could be abstract but either way, the radiating degrees of hot pink that emanate from an electric blue ground construct a visual field that is arresting.
Another part of psychedelia that the exhibition’s curator David S Rubin seeks to distance himself from is drugs. But the exhibition does include Fred Tomaselli’s Ripple Trees (1994) combining pills and hemp leaves with paint and resin to construct an image of a landscape at dusk. This magical time of day – when trees and mountains are reduced to mere shadows against the soft glowing light on the horizon – is heightened by a web of luminous orbs that radiate pixilated color.
Shifting away from two dimensions, Jeremy Blake’s Reading Ossie Clark (2003) uses montage to combine short, barely legible clips of shot footage with highly saturated digital color. Each clip morphs into the next creating a dreamlike state of ecstasy. Using sculptural installation and an actual light show, Richie Budd’s Bon Voyage Somnabulating De Pileon (2010) builds on the psychedelic impulse to overwhelm the senses with a fog machine and an array of household items and gadgets. It also includes a sound piece that incorporates Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a communication model applied in psychotherapy that studies the structure of subjective experience.
Taken together, an exhibition about psychedelic experience in art is in many ways the most extreme exploration of radical forms of perception – something which is at the core of what Marcel Duchamp called “retinal art.” The best work in this show transcends the quaint utopianism of 1960’s psychedelics, choosing to change the way we see instead of changing the whole world.