Leah Dorrian

Art 335

Book Review Outline

Psychedelic, Optical & Visionary art since the 1960s. David S. Rubin. (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 2010. 135p.)

In the book “Psychedelic, optical & visionary art since the 1960s”, author David S. Rubin examines the cultural atmosphere of the Psychedelic era that inspired colorful, hallucinatory, and anamorphic artworks that present alternate perspectives of our reality. The title is straightforward and an effective catch for it’s readers. He delves into the history of surrealist and abstract artists and their usage of tools to help create visual representations of the higher realms of consciousness, providing evidence of how these artists created a momentum for the evolving consciousness of the 1960s. Rubin suggests that the psychedelic art of the 60s was a continuation of the artist’s quest to uncover and express visions of the unconscious and subconscious mind.  He maintains that the psychedelic culture has had an extensive visual impact on an “assortment of artists working over the past five decades” (foreward).

After WWII ended in 1945, the depression had ceased and an economic expansion transformed the U.S. in many ways. Now that the country was no longer focused on military spending, consumerism and materialism began to drive this new golden age of capitalism. American citizens were bombarded with advertisements, being praised and encouraged to invest in machines like “televisions, cars, refrigerators, toasters, and vacuum cleaners: the machines that would help them modernize their lives” (PBS-Rise of Consumerism). One major effect of this newfound stability was “the baby boom”, where an enormous increase in birth rate took place. In the middle of the 1960s, these “baby boomers” were young adults who began to question the material culture they were raised in, and countless revolutions based on the principles of freedom from oppression and discrimination swept the country.

With the hippie movement in full swing, partially led by popular rock bands like The Doors,  Janice Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Who, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, a thriving atmosphere for artistic exploration and experimentation emerged. This generation was known for seeking spiritual experiences through Eastern Mysticism, famously brought to the western world by the Beatles, as well as using psychedelic drugs. Ruben explains how artists and musicians alike created works that focused on producing “a profound sense of intensified sensory perception, sometimes accompanied by severe perceptual distortion and hallucinations and by extreme feelings of either euphoria or despair” (dictionary.com/psychedelic) for the viewer to participate with and reflect upon. Drawing from a wide range of influences, the Psychedelic era borrowed characteristics from existing movements of Abstract Modernism, Pop Art, Surrealism, and Art Nouveau and expanded upon them to reflect the progressive culture of the 60s.

Ruben provides a thorough exhibition of artworks that fall under the Psychedelic category with essays that deconstruct the drastically different approaches, mediums, and content of each work. From conceptual photographic artwork of Yayoi Kusama that shows the infinite dimensions that a mirrored room creates, to oil paintings by Robert Williams and Alex Gray that are collage-like and realistic takes on spiritual beings; Ruben shows that consciousness has no limitations or rules, and that it is expanding and performing through various colors and form. While each work has a unique optical goal, the most persistent underlying themes appear to arbitrate the mysterious nature of time and other dimensions in the universe that play a role in our psychological experience as humans (with an ever-expanding understanding of them). He suggests that all of the artists are “looking inward for new signs, for a revitalization of what may suddenly appear on the surface of reality and revive a sense of feeling alive, productive, and happy against all odds” (47). It is quite refreshing to see this wave of artistry that defied the social norms of the art world, that questioned the parameters of the cultural confines and explored the deeper and more complex matters of consciousness. Also, to my surprise, Rubens adds that despite the varying beliefs on using drugs, the artists works reflected the persistence of a subculture that valued transcendental and consciousness-expanding aesthetics. He argues that “psychedelic substances are catalysts and tools that can assist us in this process of awakening-when used properly” (54). Evidently, these substances can be powerful tools that have been used by indigenous peoples for millennia, and his point is supported by the high caliber of artistic technique that each of these artists demonstrate.

The organization of the book is unorthodox, and with better organization of the quality content that Ruben has compiled, the book would have been more successful. There are three essays in the beginning that divulge into the history of the movement as well as the analytical comments of the works, however, all of the artworks are printed at the back of the book. This makes for an rather inconvenient reading experience, where one has to find the piece of art that Rubens is referring to in the front of the book. Breaking up the essays and inserting the psychedelic piece that he is analyzing would be a more effective organizational style. 

This book discusses the motivations and influences of the Psychedelic era and presents comprehensive research as to how this “stimuli for a new millennium” (2) broadened our collective view of reality, encouraging us to reconsider the depths of our imaginations and our connection to the world’s beyond our immediate scope of vision.  Rubens maintains that there has been an intensification of our collective psychic capacities, which have resulted in much more elaborate and contemplative works of art.  As a result, artworks from the 60s have been influential in today’s art, whereby many artists assume the role of “conduits [that transmit] optically charged information, enticing viewers into sumptuous wonderlands for inquiry, speculation, and connectivity” (31). And while the stereotype insists that the movement has been convoluted by drugs and is mostly appreciated by hippies, the truth and examples of the movement’s true origins and connections to our cultural values is illustrated beautifully in Ruben’s arguments on the importance of psychedelic art in helping the evolution of humanity.

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