- West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977 by Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner
West of Center was first published in 2011 to coincide with an exhibition of the same name that opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. One of the editors of the book, Adam Lerner, is the museum’s director and the co-curator of the show with Elissa Auther, an associate professor of contemporary art at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The book is comprised of twenty essays, most of which offer illuminating insights into what the editors call the “anti-disciplinary politics and cultural radicalism” of the counterculture (xxi). Building on the work of cultural historians Julie Stephens (Anti-Disciplinary Protest: Sixties Radicalism and Postmodernism ) and Brad Martin (The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Performance in Sixties America ), the editors and contributors further undermine the once prevalent notion of the counterculture as apolitical and irrelevant to the movements for civil rights, social, and environmental justice that marked the time.
The movements and practices explored in the volume “stressed participation and process over the production of discrete objects, blurred distinctions between artist and audience, rejected ideology and conventional political behavior, and embraced irreverence, contradiction, parody, and play” (xxiii). In so doing, the essays’ authors argue, the counterculturists contributed to a utopian and visionary project that sought to undermine the economic and social inequality; the marginalization of the poor, women, peoples of color, and gays and lesbians; and the overconsumption and materialism of what they viewed as the core realities and values produced by American capitalism.
The territory that the book covers is broadly inclusive: from communal living experiments, Black Panther and Latino/a media productions, and psychedelic posters, to the folk/handcraft revival, underground film and video, and multimedia performances. This inclusiveness is not always convincing in terms of the claims the authors make for the political and social impact of all the projects included. But they are almost always convincing in terms of broadening our understanding of the building of social capacity, as well as of the aesthetic value of art-making outside of traditional venues, like art museums and academic institutions. It is also quite refreshing to read essays focused on the American West that account in myriad ways for the fact that “the counterculture was a movement centered largely in the American West, as much as it attempted to reenvision society at large,” with San Francisco as “its hub, serving as an alternative to New York as a site of creativity activity” (xxix). [End Page 436]
Among the most interesting and revelatory contributions are the following essays: Erin Elder’s “How to Build a Commune: Drop City’s Influence on the Southwestern Commune Movement”; Jana Blankenship’s “The Farm by the Freeway,” which discusses Bonnie Ora Sherk’s collaboration with Jack Wickert in transforming derelict urban spaces in San Francisco into agricultural, educational, and performative sites that art critic Lucy Lippard rightfully called “‘the most ambitious and successful work of ecological art in the country’” (44); David E. James’s “Expanded Cinema in Los Angeles: The Single Wing Turquoise Bird,” an avant-garde multimedia group that worked with noted singers, artists, and musicians (like Janis Joplin) to “expand the visual language of cinema with effects inspired by psychedelic drugs,” a motif that is common to several authors who discuss consciousness-expanding as one of several vehicles intended to enable people to see beyond the social, cultural, and psychic limitations that produced social and political violence and injustice on local, regional, national, and international scales, along with racial, class, gender, and aesthetic hierarchies (142); and the final essay in the book, Scott B. Montgomery’s “Signifying the Ineffable: Rock Poster Art and Psychedelic Counterculture in San Francisco,” comes as close to allowing the reader to experience the impact of drug-induced altered states on the creation of poetry and art as anything I’ve read...