Seismographic Psychedelia: Reflections on the Direct Influence of Psychedelics on Art
”Generally, one might argue, writers and musicians are more associated with psychedelics than are visual artists.” – Robert C. Morgan (Rubin 2010, 44)
Psychedelics often trigger a rich flood of visual content. One may for instance experience highly intricate patterns, otherworldly landscapes and mysterious beings – some angelic; others demonic. Colours are frequently perceived as being extremely intense and objects may transform into bizarre and unthinkable shapes. Surely visions like these must be of great interest to visual artists. Still, most psychedelic culture researchers will find it hard to come up with a satisfying list of visual artists who acknowledge the importance of psychedelics in their work. Why is this the case? When it comes to writers and musicians, examples are plenty. Shouldn’t there be as many, if not more, visual artists associated with psychedelics?
Admittedly, there is a lot of psychedelic art out there. Usually though the term is used to describe a particular aesthetic rather than art directly influenced by psychedelic drugs. Surprisingly little has been written about art that is psychedelic in the true sense of the word. The typical take on the subject is exemplified by art critic Ken Johnson who is the author of Are You Experienced?: How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art: “While I think it would be a worthy project for a sociologist or historian to find out who did what, when, and where, to provide some empirical grounding for speculations about the influence of drugs on art, I am neither equipped for nor inclined to do that job. What interested me was not necessarily the influence of drugs on particular individuals but the influence of psychedelic culture in general on artists” (Johnson 2011, 8).
A similar approach is found in David S. Rubin’s Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art Since the 1960s, which explores the visual impact that psychedelic culture has had on artists working over the past five decades.
Although Johnson and Rubin have done a great and much welcome job with their respective books, they raise an important question: How many of the artists described as “psychedelic” actually feel comfortable with being categorised in such a way? In today’s highly professionalised art world it’s likely that at least some artists find the association problematic. Reasons for this may vary of course, but the connection to drug culture is probably one of them. Perhaps this is why Johnson points out that readers of his book are advised “not to assume that any artist discussed… has even used drugs at all or would agree that drug-induced experience has affected their art” (Johnson 2011, 8).
Obviously, to be certain that a psychedelic has influenced an artwork one needs some sort of testimony from the artist that confirms the association. This fact dramatically narrows the number of artworks that are clearly induced by a psychedelic. That said, many artists have openly ascribed psychedelic experiences as a major influence on one or several of their artworks.
Discussions about psychedelic art are often reduced to speculations, where critics sometimes see “trippy” influences in artworks that in reality have little to do with the psychedelic experience, mistaking it for themes such as dreams states, New Age spirituality or the occult. This essay is a modest attempt at approaching the subject differently; rather than looking at art influenced by psychedelic culture as a whole, I will present some of the art that has been directly influenced by psychedelics.
A key figure when it comes to western art directly influenced by psychedelics is the Belgian-born French visual artist and writer Henri Michaux. Already in the 1960s he was looked upon as “a pioneer in psychedelic art” (Masters & Houston 1968, 118). His perhaps most notable work is Miserable Miracle, containing both his writings and drawings, published for the first time in French in 1956. The book was the result of the author’s experiments with mescaline. In his dissertation A History of Irritated Material: Psychedelic Concepts in Neo-Avant-Garde Art, Danish art historian Lars Bang Larsen calls Michaux’s drawings “seismographic”, describing them as “pulsating, brut landscapes” (Larsen 2011, 115).
Michaux wasn’t the only westerner experimenting with psychedelics at the time. Two years before Miserable Miracle came out, Aldous Huxley described his experiences on mescaline in his essay The Doors of Perception. Still, Miserable Miracle is an important work. Not least because of the inclusion of Michaux’s psychedelic artworks. Incidentally, the same year as Miserable Miracle was first published, psychiatrist Humphry Osmond coined the word “psychedelic” in a correspondence with Huxley. However, since Michaux was making his drug experiments long before “psychedelic” became a catch phrase in the sixties counterculture, Larsen aptly describes Michaux as a “proto-psychedelic artist” (Larsen 2011, 33).
Henri Michaux continued his explorations with mescaline, resulting in additional books on the subject. In 1963, he also made an educational film called Images du monde visionnaire for Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz (recognised by psychedelicists as the company where Albert Hofmann worked when he synthesised LSD in 1938). Michaux’s film was made in collaboration with French filmmaker Eric Duvivier for the purpose of demonstrating the hallucinogenic effects of mescaline and hashish. Given the limitations of the technology at the time, the film’s psychedelic effects looks a bit bleak and feel rather unconvincing today, and according to an article on book publisher Strange Attractor’s webpage Michaux himself was said to have been quite disappointed by the result. One may wonder if this is a common reaction among artists trying to depict psychedelic experiences. If that is the case, it’s possible that many artists avoid such attempts.
Although Michaux’s drawings were induced by a psychedelic drug, it wasn’t until the mid to late sixties that psychedelic art became recognised as a distinct artistic expression of its own. An early proponent of the style during this era was American painter Isaac Abrams. In 1965, he had his first LSD session with psychologist Stanley Krippner. According to the blog Transpersonalspirit, the experience gave him a vision of what he felt psychedelic art would look like. Abrams’ artworks display oceanic, cosmic and microscopic motifs, exemplified by his 1968 painting Cosmoerotica. Still actively pursuing his art, he has stayed true to the artistic style he envisioned on his first acid trip.
As a result of the popularisation of LSD in the sixties, many visual artists experimented with the drug. It’s easy to assume that those artists were automatically incorporating their experiences in their art. However, that was not always the case. German-born painter Mati Klarwein, known for painting the cover of Miles Davis’ classic jazz album Bitches Brew, said his experiences with psychedelics never inspired his art in any major way. Instead, according to his biography on Matiklarwein.com, his inspiration came from extensive travelling and the artist’s interest in non-western deities and symbolism.
One who ascribed great importance to psychedelics though, was Swedish poster artist Sture Johannesson. In his piece Psychedelic Manifesto published in the Swedish magazine Ord & Bild, phrased in his typically humorous and anarchistic style, the artist immodestly promotes psychedelics saying, “The cultural worker’s most important task in the future is to spread information about these matters. Psychedelic drugs mean freedom, equality and brotherhood” (Larsen 2002, 8).
Between 1967 and 1969, Johannesson made a series of posters called The Danish Collection. They have stood the test of time surprisingly well and, apart from becoming collector’s items, they are regularly exhibited at museums around the world. Included in the series is Andrée Will Take A Trip! (1969). The poster, arguably one of his most complex and captivating works, shows a series of small photographs taken during Swedish engineer S.A. Andrée’s balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897, a misadventure that ended in the death of Andrée and his group. The photos are arranged against a pink background and at the top of these is a quote associated with William S. Burroughs saying, “Anything which can be done chemically can be done by other means!” Lastly, much like a hallucination, three huge but delicately designed yellow letters placed in the centre of the image spells out the word “LSD”.
An artistic genre that is often associated with the use of psychedelics is visionary art. Artists working in this style often depict visions experienced while in altered states. Although far from being the only source of inspiration, many visionary artists acknowledge the importance of psychedelics in their artistic process. The genre’s association with mind-expanding drugs is evident in First Draft of Manifesto of Visionary Art written by visionary artist Laurence Caruana, where he discusses psychedelics at length. Interestingly, this type of art may have a particular function for those who view it. “It is no secret that many Visionary works of art are designed to be viewed ‘with the aid of mind-altering substances’,” says Caruana in the manifesto (First Draft of Manifesto of Visionary Art 2001).
One of the foremost artists working in the visionary style is Alex Grey. A prolific painter, his artworks have appeared on several album covers and his 1990 art book Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey has been translated into several languages and is still in print. In the mid seventies, while on LSD with his future wife, the artist Allyson Grey, Alex experienced what would prove to be a pivotal moment in his career as an artist. In a 2008 interview with SFGate.com, Alex said the trip made him interested in the study of consciousness, and that he started making drawings of what he had seen. For Allyson the experience turned out to be equally profound, saying it “was to become the subject of our art for a lifetime” (Allysongrey.com). Alex’s Universal Mind Lattice (1981) and Allyson’s Jewel Net of Indra (1988) are both depictions of their LSD trip.
Another visionary artist associated with psychedelics is the Peruvian painter Pablo Amaringo. Amaringo, a vegetalista who depicted visions on ayahuasca, was brought to the attention by ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna and anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna. At Luna’s suggestion Amaringo started painting his ayahuasca visions, which resulted in the coauthored book Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman published in 1999. Apart from being a painter, Amaringo was the art teacher at his Usko-Ayar School of Painting and was supervising ayahuasca retreats.
Most visionary artists are highly skilled at their craft. According to Laurence Caruana, “as precise a rendering as possible is absolutely necessary for vision-inducing works. Fine lines, gradual transitions, infinite details – there is no limit to the pains endured nor the patience required to successfully render a vision into image form” (First Draft of Manifesto of Visionary Art 2001). One may wonder at what length the complex nature of altered states of consciousness – including those triggered by psychedelics – has affected the technical abilities of artists working in the visionary style. It’s possible that the sometimes incredibly detailed visions seen on mind-expanding drugs have forced these artists to perfect their work considerably more than had they worked in another artistic field.
When discussing artists who use psychedelics one should keep in mind that very few of them are likely making art while actually under the influence. For example, in an interview published on Historygraphicdesign.com in 2002 San Francisco poster artist Victor Moscoso strongly opposes to the idea: “People ask me, ‘Did you draw on acid?’ Draw on acid? That’s like drawing while you’re tumbling down a flight of stairs. Are you kidding? With you dying and being re-born, having an understanding of the molecular structure of your body and of the cosmos at the same time. Drawing is absurd. You can’t do it! Whatever you draw will not come close to what you can see, or perceive.”
Most artists using psychedelics would probably agree with Moscoso. Yet there are several examples of artists who have made art while they were on mind-expanding drugs. In 1990, Charles Ray shot a self-portrait when he was under the influence of LSD, resulting in his artwork Yes. Another contemporary artist making art while on LSD is Rodney Graham, who’s film The Phonokinetoscope is a 2001 reenactment of Albert Hofmann’s legendary LSD bicycle trip in 1943. Also in 2001, Bryan Lewis Saunders made a series of self-portraits while on a variety of drugs, including psilocybin mushrooms and DMT. The three artworks mentioned pose the question of how these artists actually managed to make art while tripping. In all likelihood, they either made their artworks while they were coming down from their trips, or their doses were low from the beginning. In the case of Graham, he is quoted on Ubuweb.com saying he ingested “a blotter”. Considering the fairly low doses usually distributed on blotter acid, Graham’s trip was likely rather mild compared with Hofmann’s, making the former’s reenactment a less dramatic event.
Why are relatively few artists associated with psychedelics? I can think of several possible explanations. For instance, it’s probable that many artists trying to depict visions seen on psychedelics actually fail in their attempts. Translating such complex experiences – as discussed by visionary artist Caruana in his manifesto – requires great technical skills and an endurance that few possess.
Furthermore, artists working in the contemporary art scene may feel inclined to keep their psychedelic experiences to themselves. In today’s highly professionalised, academically shaped and in many ways commercialised contemporary art world, it’s probable that many don’t want to risk being associated with psychedelics for fear of being reduced to a “drug artist”. This is something I have encountered myself during interviews with artists working in this field.
From a historical perspective, it’s likely that quite a few artists have been using mind-expanding drugs in their artistic process. However, without testimonies there is no way to know for certain. One such example is New York avant-garde filmmaker Storm de Hirsch. Although generally left out of history, her 1965 film Peyote Queen has become a minor underground classic. The film’s kaleidoscopic imagery, combined with its title, strongly indicates she had taken peyote. There are many artists, like de Hirsch, who have probably been using psychedelics in the past. Yet because of their relative obscurity, their experiences with these substances will remain unknown.
Artists in the future will most likely keep experimenting with psychedelics as part of their artistic process. One can also assume that the various types of mind-expanding drugs used for this purpose will be greater than those mentioned in this essay. How these artworks will look like, one can only try to imagine.
Perhaps we will soon see more art historians, curators and psychedelic researchers focusing on psychedelic art. Lately there have been many signs of a growing activity in this field. One recent example is the 2013 exhibition Under Influences – Visual Arts and Psychotropics at La Maison Rouge in Paris, where many artists directly influenced by psychedelics were exhibited. In addition, several books on psychedelic art have been published in recent years, clearly showing an increasing interest in the topic.
Caruana, Laurence. First Draft of Manifesto of Visionary Art (retrieved from http://visionaryrevue.com/webtext/manifesto.contents.html), 2001
Johnson, Ken. Are You Experienced?: How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art. Munich: Prestel, 2011
Larsen, Lars Bang. A History of Irritated Material: Psychedelic Concepts in Neo-Avant-Garde Art (PhD dissertation). Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 2011
Larsen, Lars Bang. Sture Johannesson. New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002
Masters, Robert E.L. & Houston, Jean (Eds.). Psychedelic Art. New York: Grove Press, 1968
Rubin, David S. (Ed.). Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art Since the 1960s (exhibition catalogue). San Antonio: San Antonio Museum of Art, 2010