Catalog/essay review: West of Center (MCA Denver)

Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, JoAnn Bernofsky, Gene Bernofsky, and Charles DeJulio, “The Ultimate Painting” (1966, in front of the Theatre Dome, Drop City – Trinidad, CO)

If naivete and idealism eventually gave way to cynicism and reaction, temporarily falling those utopian dreams, the desire for the unachievable never dies. It provides something to brainstorm about, something to long for, something to work for something that cannot yet be put behind us. -Lucy Lippard (Foreword)

Never before have I been gripped by an indescribable desire to go back in time and visit the ’60s (and early to mid-70s, for that matter). Actually, I rarely ever think to myself, “How cool would it be to go back to the (insert memorable time period)?” Why? Because I love living in 2012: the environment hasn’t quite gone totally to hell yet; major advancements have been made in medicine; and substantial progress has been made for women, the LGBT community, civil rights, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of work to be done in these latter areas, but seriously, look at history. We’re doing a hell of  a lot better now than we were for centuries. But this exhibition brings back the spirit of the ’60s that I always idealized in my head.

West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977 is yet another exhibition that I missed, and my excuse is the worst yet: I didn’t know it was happening. It was at MCA Denver from November 11, 2011 to February 19, 2012. And I have another embarrassing confession: I’ve never been to MCA Denver. Admittedly, I’m much more of a modern art person than a contemporary person anyway– ironic, considering how much I like living in the here and now, not to mention that I see an enormous amount of contemporary work at my job– but as has been previously alluded, I really, REALLY need to work on my game. Luckily, one of the reviews of the exhibition I read said that the catalog was much more informative than the exhibition, and the exhibition itself was more of a “cultural documentary.”

Moving past my personal musings about time travel and inadequate museum-going, West of Center was a fascinating first attempt at a wide-ranging (but not comprehensive) look at the counterculture born out of the 1960s. The flower-toting, LSD-imbibing, commune-living hippy is the most prominent figure that comes to mind when discussing counterculture, and while counterculture was made up of hippies, one has to be careful to not reduce it to a stereotype. Counterculture, when properly used, is a term used to define a sect of society that “radically disaffiliated” itself from mainstream culture. According to historian Theodore Roszak, counterculture is characterized as “both cultural and political, organized around a ‘personalist style’ and directed toward liberation from the alienating forces of technocratic domination, highlighted… as a form of cultural radicalism wherein personal transformation was embraced as the key to revolution” (xx). It is different from subculture in that subculture  is generally ambivalent to dominant society, making it a subset of mainstream culture. Counterculture sought to instigate social and political change through cultural radicalism. Art was a way of life, ideals were highly utopian, psychedelia was widely embraced, and hierarchy amongst the community (and between genres) disappeared. The true counterculturalist movement did not last long, and has unfortunately been widely disregarded as a legitimate movement worthy of serious scholarship, but it had a lasting impact on contemporary art and scholarship. 

The counterculture was the American West’s answer to the avant-garde movement of the East Coast. It was inspired by the Happenings and chance operations, but it developed in an environment that was fantastically seen as open, free, and spiritual. It cannot be entirely encompassed in a single exhibition or a single collection of essays, which is acknowledged in the catalog, because it was so prominent in so many different areas: feminism, environmentalism, art, activism, and many others. It conflicts with traditional art historical methodologies and was outside of the art centers of the time (i.e. New York City), which is largely why it has never been taken seriously by art history. According to co-curators Adam Lerner and Elissa Auther, “The art of counterculture is the process, product, and remainder of endeavors to reimagine something no less than modern society at large. It is a series of attempts to recast current understandings of the relationship between art and life, work and leisure, individual and society, material and spirit. The art of the counterculture is often invisible to art historians, not because art was only a minor part of the counterculture movement but because the entire movement can be seen as a kind of art” (xxvi). The catalog and exhibition broke its ideas down into four categories: 1) Communal Encounters, or the objects and practices of the collective, such as urban farming, commune building, and workshops, all of which defined life as an art form; 2) Handmade Worlds, in which craft and art are not differentiated; 3) Cultural Politics, which challenges the apolitical stereotype of the counterculture; and 4) Altered Consciousness, in which art practices (not all of which are related to psychedelic drug usage) try to elevate consciousness.

I was particularly interested in two of the essays: “How to Build a Commune: Drop City’s Influence on the Southwestern Commune Movement” by Erin Elder and “Goddess: Feminist Art and Spirituality in the 1970s” by Jennie Klein. The title of the first essay is pretty self-explanatory in that it looked Drop City, the first major commune, which was formed outside of Trinidad, CO. Drop City was built entirely out of salvaged and repurposed materials using experimental architecture which came to define the architecture of the counterculture. Inhabitants came from all over the country, giving up all of their worldly possessions save for $1000, with the goal of living in DIY-utopia. The commune and the marginality of the counterculture, both of which are built upon the notion of collectivity, reminds me greatly of Simon O’Sullivan’s discussion of the minor history, but I will build upon that idea more later. Drop City eventually was seen as a camp of “dropouts and leeches” who stole food and lived off of drugs, and it disbanded (and was demolished) after seven years. However, its echoes can still be seen in contemporary art in the usage of unconventional materials and blending of ideas from different disciplines.

Betsy Damon, “The 7,000 Year Old Woman” (1977)

“Goddess” addressed feminist spirituality, which is often overlooked in feminist historical scholarship because it is so far outside of the mainstream and academia. The role of the Goddess is rarely mentioned in regard to cultural feminist art, preferring instead contemporary theory, the role of the body, and performative identity. Southern California (unsurprisingly) was the center of cultural feminism and feminist spirituality. According to Klein, “For these artists, making women-centered images was the necessary first step toward overturning the years of oppression they had talked about in their consciousness raising sessions. It was a link to a sociopolitical system that was pro-women, pro-choice, pro-body, and pro-ecology” (237). I was quite interested in the statement that there was no set aesthetic, which made me think a lot about how Surrealism/Post-Surrealism’s lack of a set aesthetic fostered identity and spiritual growth for women before feminism. Furthermore, the effect on contemporary art– and women artists– is even more apparent than that of Drop City.

The bits that I have read so far have given me a lot to think about, and I hope to read more of the catalog in the future for my own enjoyment. Unfortunately, it is a little far outside of my time range and pertaining to a different culture (haha) that is not really applicable to what I am looking at in my research. I saw that it will be traveling to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art– maybe a trip to Arizona is in my future!

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