These days the word “hippie” has a stale vibe. Too redolent of mildewed bell-bottoms unearthed at a garage sale. Or tattered psychedelic posters for bands that got rained out at Woodstock or bummed out at Altamont.
Well. Forget that faded aura and take in “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia,” a fresh show of fascinating stuff — posters, furniture, films, installations, even an indoor garden of citrus trees — opening this weekend at Walker Art Center. A deep and well-researched dive into the novelty and idealism of the 1960s, it runs through Feb. 28 before traveling to museums in suburban Detroit and Berkeley, Calif.
Five years in the making, the show revisits a turbulent decade, 1964-73, when artists, designers, musicians, filmmakers, philosophers and tie-dyed fashionistas set about building geodesic domes, embracing the Earth, creating funky high-tech furniture, inventing light shows, wiring fab sound systems, reshaping print and film, imagining new lifestyles, and following Timothy Leary’s injunction to “Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out.”
“A lot of ideas and speculative products that are mainstream today were revolutionary then,” said exhibition curator Andrew Blauvelt, the Walker’s former design director who now heads the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Everything from Western embrace of Eastern spirituality and meditation to recycling, environmentalism, gay culture and the so-called “sharing economy,” exemplified by Airbnb and Uber, tracks back to the hippie fluorescence of the 1960s, Blauvelt contends.
“It’s about out-of-the-box thinking that defined design and shaped life today,” he said.
The show’s start date coincides with a cross-country journey that novelist Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) took in 1964 with an LSD-infused bunch known as the Merry Pranksters. Driving a psychedelically painted school bus, they tripped from San Francisco to the New York World’s Fair, stopping en route to amuse bystanders and hand out free acid.
“Ironically, it was not the fair, but the West Coast hippie culture that the Pranksters represented, that was the future,” at least for the next decade, Blauvelt said.
The end date coincides with the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-74 which, in Blauvelt’s chronology, signaled the end of America’s illusion of rising affluence and economic dominance.
With Leary’s mantra as its organizing principle, the show is divided into three sections.
“Tune In” includes trippy paintings for meditation, drug-themed posters, high-tech furniture and speculative plans for mind-expanding devices.
“Turn On” plumbs the print revolution, including mint-condition psychedelic concert bills, rough-edged antiwar statements and beautifully silk-screened calls for social justice.
Highlights of “Drop Out” include a “media van” that a collective known as the Ant Farm converted into a mobile audio-video production studio, and an installation by DIY pioneer Evelyn Roth, who crocheted a car-cozy out of old videotape and a yurt from recycled sweaters.
Gesturing toward four mannequins during a preview tour, Blauvelt said they would soon be swaddled in Roth’s room-sized “Family Sweater.”
“That kind of recycling is very much in vogue again,” he noted.
The show wraps up with innovative housing — a geodesic dome made from recycled materials — and a “Portable Orchard,” a gallery of dwarf citrus trees under grow lights to illustrate the complexity of ecosystems.
Far from a nostalgia trip, the exhibit seems startlingly topical even though the objects are a half-century old and some of the technology is, well, quaint.
Antiwar and social justice posters remain, unfortunately, all too relevant now.
Corita Kent, then a Los Angeles nun known as Sister Corita, was rightly famous for her Pop-style silk-screened posters decrying urban poverty, racism and the slaughter in Vietnam. Emory Douglas’ posters for the Black Panther Party echo the anger and frustrations expressed now by Black Lives Matter, while his photo collage of then-President Gerald Ford as a puppet of Wall Street channels the same contempt for big business that fuels the polarized politics of 2015.
Even back in 1968 “Info-Gonks,” a miniaturized television attached to a pair of glasses and a headset, looked like a Playskool toy, but the concept clearly anticipates such contemporary products as Google Glass.
Plastic “Flyheads,” invented in 1968 by Viennese architects known as Haus-Rucker-Co, resemble mod versions of beauty-shop hair dryer hoods, but they surrounded wearers with stereo sound and green plastic that would temporarily warp the perception of light. A “Mind Expander” from the same firm cocooned a couple under a pink hood designed to induce similar visual distortions. While the products never went mainstream, they anticipated innovative lighting “therapies” that abound now.
The “Triple Diffraction Hex,” by a group called USCO, was a 1965 party-in-a-box containing mirrored discs that scattered light when activated by a rat’s nest of batteries, wires and “surplus IBM parts.” Topped by a brass eagle, the “Hex” was a sculpture, a primitive disco ball, and an ironic carnival prop.
There’s a room-sized “Knowledge Box” in which visitors were surrounded — floor, ceiling, walls — by sound and images beamed from 24 slide projectors. And there are mesmerizing abstract films — all dancing dots and lines — that John Whitney produced in 1968 as IBM’s first artist-in-residence. More sophisticated programs are now available on most laptops, but Whitney virtually invented motion graphics on an analog computer patched together from salvaged anti-aircraft equipment.
In the intervening half-century, technology has moved on. As everyone knows, there’s more computing power in most pocket phones than could be found in an IBM lab of the 1960s. What’s notable in “Hippie Modernism” is the optimism, ingenuity and free-spirited play that design and technology inspired at the dawn of the era.