Altered states

Talking drugs, Zen, and painting with art critic Ken Johnson
By IAN PAIGE  |  March 4, 2009


If you read standard art history of the past 50 years, you could assume that no one even smoked pot. 

Born and raised in the Portland area, Ken Johnson now reviews art for the New York Times. He will give a lecture at the University of Southern Maine's Gorham campus that explores both the roots and repercussions of the psychedelic revolution in art practice and experience.

YOUR TALK IS BASED ON RESEARCH FOR AN UPCOMING BOOK BUT YOUR CRITICAL WRITING SPANS WELL BEYOND THE BOUNDS OF PSYCHEDELIA. IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU'RE NOT THINKING ABOUT THIS AS A HISTORICAL LOOK AT THE '60S — BUT AS A SHIFT THAT HAS CONTINUED. This is not an isolated historical episode. It shapes people's ideas about what art was and the repercussions are still with us. The standard definition of art pre-'60s was it was something you looked at and assessed in terms of accepted aesthetic standards. In the '60s, it started to be something you experienced — think of Minimalism making you aware of the space you're in with the artwork. It made you realize you were embedded in the same kind of universe as the thing you were looking at. It's a short step from there to art becoming consciousness-raising.

There's a show at the Guggenheim right now called "The Third Mind" about the influence of Eastern Thought on Western artists — Buddhism became really popular in America in the '60s at the same time people were doing a lot of psychedelics. For a lot of people, psychedelics were like a gateway drug to Zen practice and meditation. There was a convergence then that still shapes a permissive environment now.

IS THERE AN EXAMPLE OF THIS PERMISSIVENESS FROM AN ART-MAKING PERSPECTIVE IN ADDITION TO THE VIEWER'S EXPERIENCE? A lot of artists, even people who make conventional paintings, will talk about art being a meditative practice. I was asking Chuck Close what he thought about this drug thing and he said, "Well, painting for me is a drug." And he meant that in the sense that it was a meditative, repetitive practice with psychological effects that he did day after day. The culture of psychedelia was so widespread, the assumptions it brought into the world affected people who didn't do drugs.

THINKING ABOUT THE SPECTRUM OF PSYCHEDELIC ART BEING ANYWHERE FROM CRUMB TO AGGRESSIVE SWIRLING VISUALS TO IMMERSIVE INSTALLATIONS, WHERE DO YOU PLACE WHAT'S COMING FROM CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS TODAY? With younger artists, psychedelia is this popular meme and there's a lot of retro work being made by people who weren't alive in the '60s. There's the obvious neo-hippie art but I think more about a guy like Richard Serra, with these giant curving slabs that you walk into — he himself says it's not about the object, it's about the space. It's an experience and I consider that work psychedelic. Al Held in the '80s and '90s, he was making these intensely layered geometric structures and I read recently that he said his mind was altered by psychedelics in the '60s. It's not something people talk about. I mention that to people who know his work well and they were surprised to hear that.

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