May 26, 2017

In the Field: Hippie Modernism

By Jesse Pires, Chief Curator

In March I visited the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive to see Hippie Modernism, a recently closed large-scale exhibition devoted to late ’60s-early ’70s counterculture movements that merged utopian aspirations with technology, art, and politics. Curated by Andrew Blauvelt for the Walker Art Center, the iteration at BAMPFA was a sprawling, encyclopedic journey. I spent two days exploring the numerous galleries on both floors of the museum, homing in on some of the key aspects of the show as I conducted research for a future curatorial project.

The first work you encounter in the galleries is Two Mantras or No Ow Now by Gerd Stern, who visited Lightbox Film Center a few years back. The circular text spiraling before you speaks to Stern’s time in the Bay Area beat poetry scene and connects it to the emerging 1960s psychedelic movement. Stern was a founding member of the multimedia collective USCO, which also has several works in the show. I’m particularly interested in their multisensory, audiovisual “happenings.” These types of environments are represented in Hippie Modernism with recreations of works by Ken Isaacs, including The Knowledge Box, comprised of 24 slide projectors and over 300 images projected on the interior of a cube located within the gallery. The Drop City communal artwork the Ultimate Painting was housed within a small geodesic dome within the same gallery. This kinetic work is activated by a series of buttons that spin the circular painting and project strobing lights onto its surface.


Two galleries in the basement of the museum were devoted to similar works, namely Helio Oiticica’s Hendrixwar, part of the Cosmococa series and the Boyle family’s liquid lightshow, each employing special seating to create an immersive environment for the viewer.

Stewart Brand and Buckminster Fuller are also present throughout much of Hippie Modernism: Brand very visibly with the inclusion of several issues of the Whole Earth Catalog along with a video from 1969; Fuller as inspiration and mentor for the various projects, including those of Ant Farm, Archigram, Lloyd Kahn and Steve Baer.

Film is interspersed throughout the exhibition, mostly in the form of documentation of various projects and happenings from the era. One exception is the film An Alternative Model for Life on Earth by Italian architecture/design collective Superstudio. The film is presented alongside of several of the group’s collages, and is perhaps one of the best examples of the convergence of psychedelic, hippie whimsy and Buckminster Fuller inspired techno-utopianism. Four programs of short films are running throughout the day in a small basement theater. The programs include West Coast experimental film pioneers Bruce Conner, John Whitney and Jordon Belson, along with rarely screened documentaries that examine, among other subjects, the Haight-Ashbury café culture that birthed the hippie movement and the San Francisco performance group The Cockettes. The concurrent film program presented by the Pacific Film Archive covered both mainstream film representations of the era (Medium Cool, Gimme Shelter) along with numerous screenings of rare, experimental and nonfiction works. In all, it was a fascinating exhibition that provides an important window into an era when anything seemed possible.