Psychedelic Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s

Originally published in 2010 ‘Psychedelic – Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s’ is a visual history of the ‘psychedelic sensibility.’ Three essays, by the book’s editor David S. Rubin, Robert C. Morgan and Daniel Pinchbeck, introduce and frame the diverse selection of paintings, mixed-media and new media works, within a succinct cultural perspective.

For many the ‘psychedelic era’ is a time period located during the Sixties but whilst optical, visionary and, indeed, psychedelic artistic sensibility found its earliest popular expression during the decade, its historical reach is much larger. In his forward, Marion Ottinger Jr., writes that this book “explores the visual impact that the psychedelic culture of the 1960s and earlier has had on an impressive assortment of artists working over the past five decades.

David S. Rubin, the collection’s editor, is The Brown Foundation Curator of Contemporary Art, at the San Antonio Museum of Art. His introductory art history essay puts the genre in a cultural context and examines the historical development from abstract early modernism, through colour theory, Bauhaus influence in the U.S.A and others. Like psychedelic literature, the artistic movement draws its influence from a wide range of outlets.

Thinkers, such as Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley, are mentioned because of their influence on transcendental elements. It’s fascinating to see how not only the psychedelic experience itself, but literature and philosophy have contributed to optical and visionary art. Whilst some artists like Henri Michaux and Alex Grey were directly affected by drug experiences, others like Frank Stella and Victor Vasarely primarily sort to overcome historical and artistic problems. Such variety lends itself perfectly to the kaleidoscope of visionary art.

“By the late 1970s the op art phenomenon and the psychedelic movement were considered trends that had seen their day. Nevertheless, the optical and psychedelic styles that occurred sporadically during the 1970s and 1980s suggest that, for some, the impacts of aesthetics of these subcultures was significant.”

One of my favourite plates included in the book is ‘Shonen Knife’ by Peter Halley.  In the 1980s neo-geo artists, like Halley, began to expand on the ideas of critical theorists like Michael Foucault and Jean Baudrillard. In ‘Shonen Knife’ the thick blocks of day-glo paint, give the impression of social strata and individual alienation. The effect is both simple and thought-provoking.

The two other essays that introduce the collection of over 70 plates extend the historical scope of the collection. Robert C. Morgan’s ‘Eternal Moments – Artists who explore the prospect of happiness’ looks at cultural influences and movements, like the pop art of Andy Warhol, but also highlights questions raised by the genre. For example, questions about “whether these forms are fleeting or substantial in their potential to open doors of perception.” And Daniel Pinchbeck examines the specific role of the psychedelic movement in regard to its influence on wider culture.

Christian Schumann and Gary Panter’s ‘A. Grokpit’ and ‘B. Motherbox Mushroom Gauntlet’ were among those plates that really caught my eye; busy, urban, intricate works that reveal new complexities with each viewing. From installation, to digital and through traditional techniques, all the plates belie quick referencing and certainly spur one on to wanting to see the works in the flesh. The greatest challenge of such a collection is to present a vast range of artists succinctly and this, I believe, has been successfully achieved.

In conclusion, Rubin said it best: “Using psychedelic pictorial languages as seductive stimuli, these artists are merely conduits transmitting optically charged information, enticing viewers into sumptuous wonderlands for inquiry, speculation, and connectivity.” This is a beautiful book to hold in one’s hands and its ability to capture the eye, through such diverse means, is a great testament to both editor and artists alike. Sumptuous wonderlands indeed.

Via the House

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