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.


Salvador Dali

Dali was a Spanish artist and surrealist icon, known for his paintings, drawings, photography, sculpture, writing, and film. With this comprehensive repertoire of artistic skills and a love for Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, Dali ployed various techniques to access his subconscious mind to use as a creative tool. One method that he used was his paranoid-critical method, a term coined by other surrealists that describes the practice of uncovering surprising dream-like images from deep within one’s mind. By diving into the realms of his hidden psyche, he materialized bizarre scenes into art forms. He began his artistic journey learning Cubist skills and would begin to encompass many other styles of art like the those of the Renaissance and avant-garde movements as his craft improved (2). His most famous works fall under the surrealist category, however, of illogical scenes with realistic photographic precision.

Dali’s first surreal painting, Honey is Sweeter than Blood, was made in 1927 at the age of twenty-three. This painting marks his transition away from Cubism and more towards the visions of the subconscious mind. It was made between “Dali’s first visits to Paris when he became increasingly influenced by artists who would found the Surrealist movement” (1). The main subject of the painting is a nude woman without a head who sits amongst soft blue and grey clouds. A small fairytale-like creature is placed at the top corner of the painting, and has no proper relation to the center figure. A few impossibly-grown tree branches are incorporated into the scene as well. There is one light source that drapes highlights over the figure, the colors blended to create an incredibly realistic body. The arrangement of matter in the painting creates a non-sensical story that has no evident meaning but to represent the worlds of the subliminal mind- one with “decadence, death, and immortality.” (1).

After his first venture into the surrealist techniques, Dali soon mastered this art form and his most prominent works were completed between 1930 and 1955. He has been acknowledged as a big inspiration for many artists worldwide, and continues to be revered by people of all professions for his unique perspective of the mind’s subconscious.



2. http://thedali.org/timeline/


Women in European Art Nouveau

      Cultural changes experienced throughout the Industrial Revolution in Europe had a tremendous impact on the portrayal of women in art. Before this revolution, women were often defined by their household roles, allowed to claim no legal rights or identity apart from their husbands. Women typically remained at home to bear and nurture children, while the men provided for the family monetarily. During the late 19th century, this dependency and inferiority transitioned into “a gradual emergence of women into more fulfilling lives that allowed them to play larger roles in society” (Eskilson, 72).

     Art Nouveau was a new artistic style that emerged synchronistically with this new culture throughout the Industrial Revolution. Heavily influenced by the Japanese, where eroticism and the rise of popular theater were promoted, European graphic designers strayed away from traditional depictions of women. One example of this shifting divergence from more conservative artworks is Privat Livemont’s Absinth Robette. Completed in 1896, Livefont masterfully blends the old and new styles of fine art and graphic design to create a captivating ad for Absinthe. He uses fine art modalities with an emblematic womanly figure, draped in a sheer cloth standing against a backdrop of dreamy, soft, warm tones. Livemont then pairs this illustration with organic and striking graphic design characters to conjure a “powerful sexual fantasy” (Eskilson, 65). The sexual overtones that this image embodies deviates from the reserved and constrained women of the past and invites the viewer to witness a new reality of the independent woman.

      Similarly, designers like Alphonse Mucha began to illustrate the “lives and leisure time of young women” (Eskilson, 72) with more sexual and provocative qualities. Alphonse’s ‘Waverley Cycles’ poster (1898) of a woman on a bicycle is a quintessential example of empowered women as “the modern bicycle became emblematic of women’s newfound freedom and ability to assert themselves as active members in American society” (Eskilson, 72). The woman, whose pale skin glows against a vibrant red background confidently leans over her bicycle and rests her arm next to a hand tool. Pairing these feminine features with these more ‘industrial-linked’ items,  Mucha captures a moment in the everyday life of a sensual and self-determined woman.

     The illustrations of women, throughout the Industrial Revolution, like the ones created by Livefont and Mucha, not only captured the essence of their new lifestyles, but assisted and encouraged the culture of equality that changed the history of gender roles.


Privat Livemont, Absinthe Robette, 1896


Alphonse Mucha, Waverley Cycles, 1898