Book Review: “The Artist in the Counterculture” — California Dreamin’
By Peter Walsh
If historian Thomas Crow’s goal is to explain how these rebels of the counterculture reshaped American art, he is at least partly successful.
The Artist in the Counterculture: Bruce Conner to Mike Kelley and Other Tales from the Edge by Thomas Crow. Princeton University Press, 288 pages, $50.
When 27-year-old Théodore Géricault’s massive painting, “Scène de Naufrage” (Shipwreck Scene) was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1819, its entire context was immediately and dramatically clear to its audience. The work — representing survivors of the wreck of the French frigate Medusa huddled on a makeshift raft, desperately trying to signal a ship on the horizon — immediately recalled its subject: a famous disaster and political scandal, a sensational news story with gruesome episodes of hunger, madness, suicide, and cannibalism, and a major embarrassment for the restored Bourbon monarchy. The work also signaled, to everyone who cared, a major turning point in the history of art, from Classicism to Romanticism. The uproar, pro and con, was enormous. “Our whole society,” said the liberal Republican historian Jules Michelet, “is aboard the raft of the Medusa.”
Today, under the title Le Radeau de la Méduse (Raft of the Medusa), the painting hangs prominently alongside other works of the French Romantic period in the “Red Rooms” of the Louvre Museum. But its rich context — social, political, and cultural — is lost to most of its viewers. It can only be recreated with the help of art history.
Something similar confronts Thomas Crow in his new book The Artist in the Counterculture. The art he describes is now part of the cultural history of the 20th-century United States, and the works he illustrates reside in the collections of major institutions — the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Research Library. But the setting — one of the most divisive and disruptive periods in American history — is fast fading from living memory; its political centerpiece, the Vietnam War, must now seem to younger generations as remote and emotionally inert as the Siege of Omdurman.
Crow, who is currently Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at The Institute of Fine Arts in New York, takes to his subject with energy, enthusiasm, affection, nostalgia, and a certain amount of bias. He moves easily from radical art forms like assemblage, performance art, protest art, and conceptual art to sidebars on early punk rock, the San Francisco psychedelic music scene, and progressive jazz. If his goal is to explain how these rebels of the counterculture reshaped American art, he is at least partly successful. But his focus is not always clear and ultimately his narrative seems to wriggle away from him.
In the historiography of art history, Crow has been part of a counterculture himself. One of the most prominent students of the Marxist art historian T.J. Clark, Crow upset the academic politics of more than one art history department, and he and other younger art historians like him went about challenging traditional assumptions about the study of art history. Like a wandering prophet, he moved from campus to campus preaching the social relevance of art. Like the once radical artists in his book, Crow, in his mid-70s, is now the historical Establishment himself. So there is, in this book, a sense of the musings of the aging revolutionary, looking back toward the wild days of his youth, encompassing art, protest, rock and roll, and the utopian ideals of the Vietnam Era.
There is also, it seems, a certain amount of chauvinism. “Defining and periodizing ‘the counterculture’,” Crow writes in his Prologue, “remains an endlessly vexed area for debate.” But Crow spent critical years of his life in Southern California, from his early teens through college and graduate school and parts of his early and later career. That region is the spiritual and intellectual center of his book. “[T]he mother ship of the California counterculture predominates in these pages,” he writes, and takes as his point of departure “an awakening born on the West Coast of America, drugs, hippies, eastern mysticism, an existential landscape.” Crow is less clear about the movement’s duration, though he implies it ended with the ’60s.
Crow barely mentions New York City, the nation’s established art capital, where Minimalism and Pop Art were the fashionable art movements in the ’60s. “Concentration on California in this book carries with it a certain intellectual argument,” Crow explains; this focus rejects the self-confident and exclusionary assumptions of “New York-centered art practice and criticism of the ’60s,” built on a formalist, “what you see is what you get” aesthetic, in favor of a “hybrid heterogeneity” that “constitutes the ethical norm.” It’s a legitimate point of view, for sure, but it sets up some problems for the rest of his study.
The book does start out splendidly. The first 80 pages, or about a third of the book, are a fairly straightforward biography of the artist Bruce Conner. Despite cutting out around the early ’70s, ignoring more than 30 years of Conner’s very active career, these are easily the most satisfying pages of Crow’s book. The historian/critic’s focus remains consistent, his writing style brisk with a subtle ironic humor, his narrative largely chronological, and his content, to those attuned to it at least, exhilarating.
In Crow’s account, Conner, originally from Kansas, is an extremely appealing figure: energetic, engaged, self-effacing (usually), relentlessly creative, introspective, and loyal to his many friends, even when their erratic behavior and substance abuse made them difficult to stick with. He is also a highly accomplished artist, working in painting, experimental film, drawing, and college. His most famous pieces are his arresting, erotic, quasi-religious assemblages from the late ’50 and early ’60s, with their highly original use of materials, including a dramatically expressive use of nylon stockings.
Crow follows Conner as he moves from Kansas to New York City to Boston to San Francisco to Mexico to Los Angeles to Taos. Conner is so obviously an artist of the counterculture that he needs no definitions: he is living the connection. His San Francisco studio shares space with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. He is involved with all the countercultural drug experiments.
When Conner and his wife return to Wichita from Mexico, tapped out financially and with an infant child, their friend the LSD guru Timothy Leary invites them to join “a communal residence in a capacious, nine-bedroom house outside of Boston in the leafy, prosperous suburb of Newton.” A frequent visitor to the house is Mel Lyman, a musician and later, as the head of a highly visible and controversial communal settlement in Boston’s Mission Hill district, a leading figure in the city’s counterculture. Through Lyman, his Waltham housemate, a “young artist named Charles Giuliano [later a Boston art critic], who had just graduated from Brandeis,” meets Conner. Years later, Giuliano wrote an extensive account of the experience that Crow uses as a source for Conner’s Boston period.
In Los Angeles, Conner becomes a close friend of, among many radical artists, filmmakers, and musicians, “the most notorious figure of young Hollywood,” Dennis Hopper, well before Easy Rider. In San Francisco, Conner moves into the newly hip Haight-Ashbury District, finds inspiration in the city’s burgeoning music scene with its extravagant light shows, and runs for the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors. He sends films and a set of printed cards to John Lennon and receives a cordial letter in return: “Thank for films/Thank for cards/THANK FOR YOU/must think ob [sic] beatle production that is when were through a small cycle.”
As the book moves on from the frenetic and well-connected Conner, the pace slows, the tone becomes more academic, and the organization resembles an art history textbook: many artists discussed fairly briefly, often considering only those slices of their careers that fit a prescribed chronology or theme, which includes explicit protest art engaging national issues like the Vietnam War or Civil Rights. At times, this approach can distort an artist’s career and its place in art history.
The one-time nun Corita Kent is one of the best-known artists in Crow’s narrative. He chooses to focus, though, only on a moment in her career when she produced works specifically protesting the Vietnam War, leaving out the much longer and more significant period that came before it. This is the phase when, under the influence of the early Andy Warhol and other pop artists, Corita developed her silk screen techniques of blending print, color, images, and handwritten texts, drawing connections between commercial brand names and advertising with aspects of the Christian experience (for example, using “Wonder Bread” to suggest the Christian Eucharist). These strong, early works have sparked the recent critical and art historical reassessment of Kent’s career. They are also the ones that — more than her war protests — probably most incensed her Catholic superiors as “blasphemous” and eventually forced her out of her order, part of a general suppression of a Vatican II–inspired counterculture within the Catholic Church.
Crow spends much of these later chapters discussing work created in and around his alma mater, Pomona College, outside Los Angeles (where artists James Terrell and Crow classmate Chris Burden studied as undergraduates). Notice is taken of the nearby Claremont Graduate School and the new studio programs at other Southern California schools, including recently established CalArts and the new University of California campus at Irvine — schools that professionally trained many progressive artists and later provided employment to some (along with Crow) in their art departments’ studio programs. Crow describes at some length a very brief period when Pomona art administrators supported advanced art and the campus was the site of many significant projects before the school’s conservative administration shut everything down.
There is a certain ghostly atmosphere here. American Conceptual Art and Performance Art emerged in these years, partly as a reaction against the idea of art as a precious object and status symbol for the rich and powerful. Many of the projects Crow describes were ephemeral indeed, existed briefly, and were barely noticed at the time even by their local audiences, much less by the rest of the art world.
Crow concludes with an extended discussion of career of the man he calls the “Last Artist of the Counterculture:” Mike Kelley. The book essentially ends with Kelley’s suicide in 2012.
For these final pages, the author makes exceptions to both the chronological and geographical boundaries of the rest of his text. Kelley, a native of the working-class Detroit suburb of Westland, entered the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1972 (Crow also taught at the school at one point). Crow excuses his digression from ’60s California by explaining that Ann Arbor was a significant countercultural location and one end of the “Detroit-Ann-Arbor musical axis,” home to Ann Arbor native Iggy Pop and jazz artist Sun Ra’s Solar Arkestra.
But by the early ’70s, you no longer had to travel to Ann Arbor or the West Coast or anywhere else in the United States to experience the counterculture. It was everywhere, heavily covered in the national media, co-opted in ad campaigns and slogans, built into hundreds of youth-oriented products and fashions. By the end of the decade, most cities, suburbs, and even small towns had their own coteries of pot-smoking long hairs, hanging out in someone’s basement, listening to the Grateful Dead and fulminating against the Establishment. It was just this homogenization of the counterculture across the nation that led many to conclude that its cultural force was spent, especially once the Vietnam War and the draft, which had helped hold its many parts together, were over.
Like the dinosaurs, these countercultural movements never completely died out; they spread to branch lineages and evolved into feminism, gay liberation, personal fulfillment movements, lifestyle choices, identity politics, an ever-expanding drug culture, folk lore and comedy routines, and the blue-red political polarization of today.
Crow’s book is admirable for bringing together so many disparate strands of a vanished cultural movement in one place. He convinces us that something significant was happening in the California art scene of the ’60s, but he never quite defines why that is. The reader is left with the nagging feeling that important chapters have been left out, that geography and origin tales are only part of the story.
The ’50s and ’60s in America, were, in fact, a time when old ideas of geography, place, and roots were upended. One of the period’s guiding myths was the road trip, an endless circular journey from one side of the country to the other and beyond in search of meaning and purpose. Influences sloshed from one coast to the other, like waves in a bathtub. In ignoring this, Crow’s subject slips from his hands.
Peter Walsh has worked as a staff member or consultant to such museums as the Harvard Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Boston Athenaeum. He has published in American and European newspapers, journals, and in scholarly anthologies and has lectured at MIT, in New York, Milan, London, Los Angeles and many other venues. In recent years, he began a career as an actor and has since worked on more than 100 projects, including theater, national television, and award-winning films. He is completing a novel set in the 1960s.