Before World War II, the center was Paris. After it, New York set the global standards for design, fashion, and the avant-garde. In the 1940s and ’50s, Abstract Expressionist painting (otherwise known as the New York School) synthesized several preceding trends into an internationally dominant style. This paradigm invested the modern artist with hermetic power to tap into pure energies, drawing a clear demarcation between fine and commercial art idioms.
In direct response, the 1960s ushered in Pop Art’s wryly mercenary take-over. Andy Warhol left a successful commercial-illustration career behind to reinvent himself as a producer of groundbreaking objet d’art. He and other Pop artists took contemporary commercial art and simply re-presented it, changing scale (bigger was better), medium (the mechanical redone by hand), and context (from the marketplace to the museum).
These were primarily conceptual twists, performed for an elite audience in on the joke—and funded with their resources. In form, Pop Art remained discretely “modern” because it essentially just quoted modern design (Warhol coolly championed doing as little as possible.) Minimalists like Donald Judd or Carl Andre wanted to remove all sign of the human hand from the finished artwork, cultivating a rigorously industrial look. Hard Edge Abstraction and Op Art likewise asserted a machinelike aesthetic, often refreshingly spare and weightlessly devoid of symbolic representation. Conceptual artists sniffed at the need to have any art object at all, much less one that caused any visceral jolt.
West coast Psychedelic artists, on the other hand, were impassioned obsessives, idealistic visionaries, and imagistic muckrakers. Their intended audience was not an educated, high-culture elite, but rather high low-culture fellow travelers. Weirdness reigned, and the only rule was, no rules. Humor was not a hidden subtext but was often overt and grotesque. Desire and fear were not icily sublimated but explicitly depicted. The psychedelic paradigm was informed by the capacity of the drugs (and other techniques) to enhance concentration, imaginative flow, esoteric propensities, disregard for cultural hierarchy, and faith in intuition. Consciously or not, psychedelic artists rejected modernism’s mania for clarity but also academic Postmodernism’s Duchampian critical detachment.
Postmodern theory was developed by neo-Marxist French philosophers in the 1960s, and in often comically impenetrable language it was employed to delineate (and direct) developments in literature, art, and architecture in the 1980s and ’90s. As the name implies, Post-modernism posited itself as a disillusioned awareness of the collapse of Modernism proper (roughly defined as the century following the advent of industrialization, 1860–1960). In the wake of devastating global conflagrations and persistent socioeconomic inequities, Modernism was deemed hopelessly imperialistic, classist, sexist, and patriarchal. Postmodernism declared that the individual self, rather than having any fundamentally meaningful essence, is essentially indecipherable, composite, sedimentary, and impermanent—an ever-shifting construct shaped wholly by language, society, economy, and chance. Postmodernism questioned the possibility of originality, saying about style and persona that there’s nothing new under the sun; civilization and its discontented subjects are shaped by the manipulation of arbitrary, socially constructed signs wielded in conspiracies of power. Ironically, the Postmodern fine-art product is typically a dry, intellectual affair requiring the interpretive intercession of a high-art priest (i.e., a gallerist or museum curator) to illuminate the public regarding the artist’s true intentions and persuade them why on earth they should care.
Because Pop Art is so characterized by this emphasis on sign recontextualization, it is often said to herald the Postmodern age. Although contemporaneous to Pop and more truly populist, psychedelic artists aren’t usually mentioned in this respect. Even in music, Warhol’s pet project the Velvet Underground (ex-Warlocks east, led by the perpetually oppositional, heroin-shooting Lou Reed) to this day retain New York high-art cool and credibility. The Grateful Dead (ex-Warlocks west, led by the persistently affable, heroin-smoking Jerry Garcia) decidedly never have. Yet psychedelic artists and musicians were effectively responding to the same Postmodern insecurities and concerns, and psychedelia is defined by a recognition of the flexibility of ego, intellect, social standing, and subjective feeling.
Psychedelic artists recontextualized too, willfully raiding history for unreasonable graphic styles. They were fond of collage, using images cobbled from nearly any source—ancient or from that morning’s newspaper—appealing to deep archetypal memories and synchronous collective foci. Such images were then playfully repurposed, inverted, and even perverted in unprecedented combinations. As was true for Pop artists, it was common for psychedelic artists to redefine formats like comic strips or advertising, using them in service to freakier visions and purpose. Postmodern theory was a hyper-rational, purely academic construct; as much as it championed the art or behavior of social or political outsiders, it acted as an antithesis to psychedelic gnosticism. Its visual presentations are appropriately austere. The psychedelic artists were emotionally fevered, prone to mystical trance and tricksterism, and their art transmits this. They magickally invoked not dead European intellectuals, but gods and demons, rebels and gurus. In such encounters, the light of rationality can seem a weak flame. Conventional philosophies, ideologies, and aesthetics get thrown out the window—or at least hung out by the ankles and shaken hard.