“Hippie Modernism”: Walker Art Center Revisits a Utopian Dream

“Hippie Modernism”: Walker Art Center Revisits a Utopian Dream

Last year, Miley Cyrus created the Happy Hippie Foundation: a nonprofit organization that aims “to rally young people to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations.” Cyrus raised awareness for the foundation through a series of loose, affectionate backyard music videos; meanwhile, she collaborated with the Flaming Lips on a psychedelic album they plan to promote with a tour featuring at least one all-nude (audience included) video shoot. For his part, the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne has just unveiled his first art installation: a giant hollow head that viewers can lie inside while they watch trippy visual effects and listen to Flaming Lips music.

There couldn’t be a better series of advertisements for the Walker Art Center’s new exhibit, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia. The show, assembled by outgoing design curator Andrew Blauvelt, revisits a utopian moment in art and culture—linking the groovy idealism of a global art movement that peaked in the late 1960s with the broader modernist project of demolishing the barrier between art and life.

At a press preview, Blauvelt explained that he chose 1964 as the approximate starting date of his survey because that’s when Ken Kesey and his Band of Merry Pranksters set out from the Bay Area and headed east, dispensing free LSD and symbolically conveying the freewheeling spirit of the Golden State to the heart of the art world in New York City.

The work on display in the Walker’s expansive show—which will travel to the Cranbrook Art Museum (Michigan) and to the University of California at Berkeley—is organized in approximately three sections corresponding to the three phrases of Kesey’s mantra “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” The wildly diverse array of pieces that fit into this scheme exemplify attempts to use art to dramatize and, often, catalyze, the hippie project of breaking free of traditional strictures so as to build a better world from the ground up.

Art may be the original drug, but there were plenty of others at play as well when members of the Drop City collective created the humbly titled Ultimate Painting, which reveals different patterns when illuminated by strobe light at various frequencies. (All this happens under a geodesic dome, of course.) That’s just one of several large-scale installations in Hippie Modernism, which also features the return of what Walker visitors colloquially refer to as “the hammock and Hendrix room” (Hélio Oiticica’s CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in-Progress) as well as Ken Isaac’s seminal Knowledge Box, an enclosed space featuring projections of press images.

The show also features a generous selection of psychedelic art and design including many of the prints and posters that were favored vehicles of hippie artists and their cash-strapped patrons. Blauvelt’s architecture background also informs the selection of items like John Habraken’s Heineken bottles designed to function as building elements—an early (though never realized) vision of “upcycling,” Blauvelt observed.

Hippie artists’ rejection of mainstream consumer culture and focus on sustainability is perhaps the most resonant theme in the show, though ironically—Blauvelt argues—it was precisely the coming of a time of scarcity, via the OPEC crisis of 1973-74, that effectively derailed the movement. Fixing the world wasn’t going to be all that easy, it turned out, and the disillusionment of the late ’70s led to the rise of the blithely optimistic Reagan era—but that’s another story.

This is rich, generous work, and the show gives visitors a lot to look at, listen to, and do. At first I wondered where Yoko Ono was, and then I realized that her tidy conceptualism and confrontational politics would be out of place among the happy hippies, who preferred profusions of sound and color: trips without predetermined destinations. Maybe the most Ono-like piece in Hippie Modernism is Evelyn Roth’s Family Sweater, which literally knits a nuclear unit together in what my friend described as “the ultimate Snuggie.”

Among the most poignant pieces in Hippie Modernism are the artificial environments that evoke a sense of peace and harmony more effectively than the messy real world ever could, providing a complex lens into the Baby Boom experience. One must remove one’s shoes, for example, to enter the carpeted realm of Öyvind Fahlström’s Garden—A World Model (1973). Just a decade later, hippies-turned-yuppies would be compelling visitors to remove their shoes so as not to dirty the white carpets of their condos.

Then there’s the de facto centerpiece of Hippie Modernism, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison’s Portable Orchard: a grove of orange trees grown under artificial light. Walking among the trees, which are framed in hexagonal boxes, gives one a sense of being in Silent Running—or, more to the point, in Southdale Center, designed as the nation’s first climate-controlled mall by utopian socialist Victor Gruen.

Knowledge Box is often described as an early approximation of the Internet, which became the ultimate post-modern invention. If the “hippie modernist” movement always contained the seeds of its own demise, it also sparked a flame that will seemingly be reborn again in perpetuity. While walking through the Walker’s exhibit, I tried to reconfigure Kesey’s mantra for the 21st century.