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Art & Psychedelics

by Charlie Finch
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I haven’t done psychedelics since 1974, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I could trip again by reading veteran New York Times art critic Ken Johnson’s newly released volume, Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art. At a cost of $55, this picture book simultaneously has the most gorgeous assortment of color reproductions of trippy art, including multiple works by Robert Colescott, Roger Brown, Inka Essenhigh, Ed Paschke and Artnet Magazine’s own Reverend Jen Miller, and the most dull, formulaic text imaginable, which can be absorbed in five minutes.

Hence, the flashback, or flashback/flash-forward, as Johnson has the irritating habit, from a linear perspective, of going back and forth in time from Ashley Bickerton to Bruce Nauman, or Jules de Balincourt to Ed Ruscha, pausing, on his way, to reflect in his pro forma style, on Close Encounters of the Third Kind or R. Crumb, as if we, his natural audience, has never heard of them before.

The promised "extended interviews" with artists mentioned in the advance publicity for this nonbook are nowhere to be found. Instead, we get multiple (and I hope, for Ken’s sake, stimulant-influenced) statements of the obvious, such as an explanation of what Ken Kesey’s acid tests were, accompanied by long quoted stretches of dull artists’ statements highlighted in nonpsychedelic black.

I actually learned just three new facts from this wasteland of a book: that Adrian Piper and Deborah Kass once consumed bucketloads of LSD and that author Johnson dropped psychedelics on a visit to the Rhode Island State Capitol in 1974. Otherwise, Are You Experienced? resembles the description artist/critic Peter Plagens applied to writing about the art world for an uninformed  general audience: "How jazz came down the river from Kansas City to New Orleans."

But there is a way to justify your ol’ $55 on KenKen’s effort: read it backwards. Absorb the luscious color reproductions of Richard EstesTelephone Booths or a still from Michael Snow’s Wavelength, which exactly resemble each other. Then, as with the I Ching, pick a random Johnson apercu. Let’s see, page 77, "In his preoccupation with sensory experience and consciousness, Rosenquist illuminates the psychedelic frame of mind."

Oh heck! In the immortal advice of the late Abbie Hoffman, for the pictures alone, "Steal This Book!" 

Ken Johnson, Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art, Prestel, 2011, 240 pp., $49.95

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).