2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, as BAMPFA’s “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia” is quick to remind you, but this year also hosts a more ignoble anniversary for the hippie: the publication of Joan Didion’s chronicle of ‘60s depravity “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
With its shocking scenes of misguided street performers in blackface and 5-year-olds on LSD, Didion’s photo-essay was an early example of the lens through which later generations would view the ‘60s unrest: clueless tree-huggers, naïve anti-war protesters, drug-addled “flower children” and so on. And, following that stereotype, the stunning variety of visual art, performance and multimedia experiments produced by the so-called “hippies” have been largely left out of the grand narrative of 20th-century art, obscured by more traditional gallery-sponsored and critically-approved art movements like Pop Art, Minimalism, Color Field, and so on.
“Hippie Modernism” is the latest in a recent rise of exhibitions focusing on ‘60s countercultural art practice, heir to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver’s “West of Center” and SFMOMA’s “The Utopian Impulse.” Andrew Blauvelt, curator of “Hippie Modernism,” seeks to capitalize on this surge of interest by expanding the ‘60s narrative beyond the confines of the West Coast, and by highlighting ignored, but popular counterculture art like psychedelia. The purpose of much of the exhibit, therefore, is to break the viewer’s assumptions about the so-called hippies and other then-contemporary movements, in often spectacular fashion.
The installation’s layout is instrumental in achieving this effect. “Hippie Modernism” immediately immerses you in the different ways technology (presumably the “modernism” half of the exhibition’s title) was integrated with the New Left movements of the time.
There is a wide selection of radical publications like “Computer Lib” and “Guerrilla Television” on display that meld the two themes together, as well as fantastic art such as Ettore Sottsass’ visions of a utopian interstellar future or Haus-Rucker-Co’s strange futuristic housing designs like “Yellow Heart,” an inflatable capsule built to withstand the predicted future levels of air pollution. This part of the exhibition, focusing primarily on the intersection between technology, utopian ideals and environmentalism, is extraordinarily strong, mainly for its surprising prescience. For every wacky vision of the future, there’s a disquietly close-to-home one, like “Community Memory,” a public computer terminal that functioned like an “electronic bulletin board,” according to the wall text, presaging Craigslist or Facebook.
The second half of “Hippie Modernism,” dubbed “Utopia Now,” is somewhat less successful it its coverage. It focuses, more or less, on protest groups that tried to affect society now, like feminists, the Black Panthers, and the Queer Liberation Movement. But, unlike the first half, the coverage here is desultory. For the Black Arts movement, only a few pages excised from the Black Panthers’ newspaper are on display, which is outrageous considering the Civil Rights Movement’s prominent place in the history of the ‘60s. We get glimpses of these movements, but there’s little oddly effort to integrate them into the larger narrative of the exhibition; instead, they exist in a contextless vacuum.
“Hippie Modernism” works very hard in its quest to make a space in the canon for ‘60s counterculture art. It tries to juggle covering protest art, environmentalist art, Buckminster Fuller-style utopianism, commune art, counterculture publications, radical architecture and political protest theater, and then how all of the above resonated within the art world both locally and globally. In short: way too much. But what makes the exhibition essential viewing is the caliber of the work highlighted here.
There’s an eerie sense of relevancy in “Hippie Modernism,” as leftist movements like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter echo the criticisms that ‘60s counterculture pioneered. Maybe the most unnerving moment is to be found inside Ken Isaacs’ “The Knowledge Box,” from 1962. Visitors are welcome to step inside the room, which contains 24 projectors flashing hundreds of photos that cover every face of the box, creating a sort of three-dimensional magazine. One of the images displayed was a sign at a Civil Rights protest that declared, “Stop Police Terror.” If only history had listened, instead of sweeping counterculture’s most radical ideas under the rug.