Saturday, September 15, 2012

Midnight Oil

A few months ago, New York Times art critic, Ken Johnson, published a book arguing that psychedelic drug culture was a sine qua non for the last half century of American art.  That's a hard pill to swallow.  The Haight-Ashbury music poster aesthetic seems a million miles away from minimalism, conceptualism, superrealism, neo-expressionism, and other movements deserving chapters in recent art history.  Psychedelic sensibilities are a bit more evident, perhaps, in op-art and some street art, but these trends have barely made their way into into major museum collections--or at least that's not the stuff that museums keep regularly on view.  Johnson's nostalgic joy ride is a fun if fatuous peyote hunt, which serves to underscore a gulf, rather than a bridge, between the Leary and Lewitt.  Indeed, psychedelia bears a closer relation to surrealism, fauvism, and art nouveau, suggesting that Johnson has the order of influence exactly backwards.

Still, we should not scoff at art in the age of acid.  Right now a series of concerts at NYU are providing a welcome opportunity to see psychedelic visuals in their natural habit: as a backdrop to musical performances.  In New York, the undisputed king of the psychedelic light show was Joshua White, who improvised visuals for everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Frank Zappa in the heyday of the Fillmore East.  Now the Joshua Light Show is back on stage, providing sumptuously intense visuals for a host of talented musicians.  Last night, my big brother and I were lucky enough to catch the magic with John Zorn, Lou Reed, Bill Laswell, and Milford Graves, who definitely stole the show.  White did a spectacular job playing along with these unfettered musical experimentalists.  His oils, gels, and pulsating lights served as a fifth musician, rounding off the sonic dream team.  And conversely, the musical improvisations took on synesthetic visual qualities when complemented by the colorful assault.  Though more associated with trippier tunes, the Joshua Light Show felt like a good fit with this aggressive avant jazz.  The music pushed the psychedelic aesthetic in new directions, and, at times, the visuals made contact with contemporary abstract painting.  Even if we reject Johnson's thesis that psychedelia was the wellspring contemporary art, we should accept Joshua White as a serious visual artist, whose blend of performance, new media, and abstraction deserves a place alongside other important art innovations of recent decades.


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