The Phoenix Network:
About  |  Advertise
Adult  |  Moonsigns  |  Band Guide  |  Blogs  |  In Pictures

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.

IS THE SOCIETAL DRUG TABOO ADDRESSED IN YOUR BOOK? A lot of people I talk to say it's great that I'm working on this and that it needs to be written. There's a piece of the puzzle that's missing otherwise. If you read standard art history of the past 50 years, you could assume that no one even smoked pot. If you look at the art, however, it's inexplicable without drugs. How you talk about it though, whether it's a cause an effect or more of convergence in history... that's what I'm working on.

The more I explore different people's bibliographies. There's an awful lot to read about. It's turned out... you know as a journalist when you're writing something different every few days, it's nice to have a continuous project and see it develop.

Ian Paige can be reached

"ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? ART, RELIGION AND THE PSYCHEDELIC REVOLUTION" | with Ken Johnson | March 6 @ 1 pm | University of Southern Maine, Burnham Lounge, Robie Andrews Hall, Gorham | Free | 207.780.4800

Related: Premier coup, Poetic sense, Hoopleville Pop Art, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Culture and Lifestyle, History, New York Times,  More more >
  • Share:
  • Share this entry with Facebook
  • Share this entry with Digg
  • Share this entry with Delicious
  • RSS feed
  • Email this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Today's Event Picks
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   CONVERSATION PIECE  |  April 29, 2009
    Leon Johnson explains his trans-historical-post-colonial-dinner-wait-what?!
  •   GROWING PAINS  |  April 08, 2009
    Although no one piece in this spartan biennial is lacking in value, the collective effect is one destined to get lost in the Rolodex.
  •   STATE OF THE ARTS  |  April 01, 2009
    In Portland, and around Southern Maine, developing trends hold promise for our changing, but still cantankerously distinct, artistic character to act as a new kind of cultural reflection.
  •   HANGING IN THE BALANCE  |  March 11, 2009
    Septuagenarian Andre LaPorte may be a veteran artist but, relative to his long career, he is a new painter.
  •   ALTERED STATES  |  March 04, 2009
    Talking drugs, Zen, and painting with art critic Ken Johnson

 See all articles by: IAN PAIGE

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed 

  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2009 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group