June 26, 2007 — -- It was 40 years ago when hippies brought counterculture to San Francisco and America, ushering in a time of free expression, free experimentation and free love. But along with all the sex, drugs and rock and roll, there was art — the visual representation of the emotion, energy and ethos of this era.
Now, a new exhibition of psychedelic art, appropriately titled "Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era," is on display at the Whitney Museum in New York City. It celebrates not only the art of the 1960s and '70s but also the spirit of these years.
"The exhibit is called 'Summer of Love' because it is based on art that was produced starting in the mid 1960s through the early 1970s, which deals with the aesthetic of psychedelia," said Stacey Goergen, an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum, in an interview with ABC News.
Broken down by medium, "Summer of Love" embraces the much-maligned paintings, drawings, films, graphic designs, music and even architecture of San Francisco, New York and London — the major hubs of that counterculture movement.
The exhibit purposefully calls these psychedelic creations works of art, holding them to the same standard as some of the more formal minimalist and contemporary art of the same period.
"This was a time and a period where there was a lot of creative innovation occurring, and yet, it's often overlooked in the canons of art history, in terms of being an important contribution to what was happening at that time," said Goergen.
"Yet, many of the things we live with … daily … now incorporate this psychedelic aesthetic, and we take that for granted because at the time, this was a very radical, very political movement."
Fed by civil unrest and social upheaval, psychedelic art reflected the instability of these years but also the wildly subversive ideas, beliefs and actions of the growing youth movement — hippies who broke all social norms, experimented with their sexuality and mind-altering drugs and, said Goergen, "transgressed everything that their more conservative parents believed in.
"The curator of this show [Christoph Grunenberg of Tate Liverpool] would say that a lot of this work is based on the use of LSD in order to break through into a different type of art, an art which was much more free flowing, that violated the norms that were dictated by formal art, and also allowed artists to express themselves more freely," Goergen said.
This freedom of expression and emotion manifested itself in bright, flowing colors, fluid shapes and the mixing of mediums, such as light shows, which combined light and sound, concert posters, a combination of concert information with pop art, and even rock singer Janis Joplin's famous car, painted in a rainbow of different colors by one of her artist friends.
"You see with psychedelic art, the freer use of color," said Goergen.
And the graphics continued to get funkier over time, especially on band posters, Goergen said, as advertisements for rock shows developed through the 1960s.
"A lot of them start off with a very legible name of the band, the venue and the date, but as you go through time, they become increasingly illegible, the graphics become difficult to read, the colors become more chaotic … and trying to decipher what [these posters] said, trying to understand them, became part of the experience."
As poster artists combined art and information, so, too, did musicians and light artists come together to create incredible displays of graphic art, in the form of light shows.
Light shows added another dimension to the music of this era, allowing musicians to express themselves through a visual representation of their music and audience members to experience the music through images as well as sound.
"So much of what this art was about was experiencing, about actually feeling something through taking part in [it]," said Goergen. "These light shows [and other works] give you a real feel for the chaoticness, the craziness of the movement that was going on at that time, which is what a lot of this was really all about — the free-form, free-flowing feel of that era."
Perhaps surprisingly, this free-flowing, chaotic jumble of light, sound, color and form still attracts both artists and civilians.
According to Goergen, "Summer of Love" has proved to be one of the Whitney's most popular shows of the past few years, drawing in people of all ages and backgrounds.
"We have college students coming in who like the music and want to understand what was happening during the 'Summer of Love,' 1967," Goergen said.
"We have a lot of people who come through who were alive during that period and who were part of it in some way. And we also have artists coming through who are interested in seeing the art of that time."