Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art

Linda Yablonsky


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SOME PEOPLE MIGHT THINK Ken Johnson was hallucinating when he wrote Are You Experienced? But the New York Times art critic’s first book is not a stoner’s kiss-the-sky meditation on visual culture so much as a disarming, sometimes overreaching, memoir of the ways contemporary artists have expanded his own mind.

Does boring art look better on drugs? Were Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, and Robert Smithson high when they came up with the “Torqued Ellipses,” Rabbit, and Spiral Jetty? How high would you have to be to feel transported by a Warhol Brillo box? Johnson takes on these questions, and more, in his holistic examination of art since the social revolution of the ’60s.

No question that art derives power from the kind of vivid color and freaky, outsize imagery that psychedelics inspire. Johnson chooses Pour Your Body Out (above), Pipilotti Rist’s immersive 2008 installation for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as one example of work that gives consciousness accessible material form. But his tying of the advent of Conceptualism to the heyday of psychedelic drugs approaches conspiracy theory, and to think of Koons’s pornographic “Made in Heaven” ink-jet paintings as “an exercise in modern shamanism” is a bit of a stretch. Still, such digressions make this eccentric survey as comprehensive and entertaining as it is personal and revealing.

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