I have always been a poor visualizer. Words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind. No hypnagogic visions greet me on the verge of sleep. When I recall something, the memory does not present itself to me as a vividly seen event or object. By an effort of the will, I can evoke a not very vivid image of what happened yesterday afternoon, of how the Lungarno used to look before the bridges were destroyed, of the Bayswater Road when the only buses were green and tiny and drawn by aged horses at three and a half miles an hour. But such images have little substance and absolutely no autonomous life of their own. They stand to real, perceived objects in the same relation as Homer’s ghosts stood to the men of flesh and blood, who came to visit them in the shades … This was the world—a poor thing but my own—which I expected to see transformed into something completely unlike itself.
So wrote Aldous Huxley just before an afternoon mescaline trip, his first, in 1954. The psychedelic sixties would take Huxley’s message to heart, opening new doors of perception while under the influence. But for graphic designer Heinz Edelmann, Huxley’s journalistic exploration was mescaline enough. After reading the British novelist’s account, Edelmann thought, “Well, I don’t need mescaline. I can do that stone cold sober.” If you don’t know who Edelmann is, have a look at Yellow Submarine: he created the look of the film and designed all the characters.
As influential as Edelmann’s work was at the time, his relationship with the culture was fraught—he found it too decadent—and he describes himself as being ashamed of his work on the Beatles’ film (his other work more closely resembles that of Milton Glaser). As Electrical Banana: Masters of Psychedelic Art, by Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel, shows, Edelmann’s story isn’t the only exception to some of the generally held rules of sixties psychedelic art. Another is that there were no great women artists of the period. How, then, to explain Marijke Koger, member of the design collective the Fool (which created, for instance, the costumes for the Magical Mystery Tour film), painter (her murals for the Aquarius Theater provided the backdrop for the famed LA run of Hair), set designer (on the 1968 film Wonderwall), and onetime musician (she’s credited as the tambourinist during the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” telecast). A modern women, she did it all.
The language of psychedelia existed beyond the borders of the Western world, too. Two of the seven artists profiled in the book are Japanese. Keiichi Tanaami’s illustrations, record sleeves, and posters are inflected with elements of ukiyo and manga, Pop art and underground comics; they’re also significantly informed by his memories of World War II. “Toyko was on fire,” he recalls. “It was very psychedelic for me.” Tadanori Yokoo’s designs heralds a kind of postmodernity: hot, flat colors electrified by vibrating juxtapositions and repeating designs; collaged and written elements; a host of references, including biblical and biological, Indian and Japanese—and rainbows! His poster for the Roger Corman–directed psychosexual film The Trip, shows Peter Fonda and Susan Strasberg locked in a mind-bending CMYK-color-separation erotic embrace. (Look for Yokoo’s work among other geniuses of the postwar Japanese avant-garde in MoMA’s “Tokyo 1955–1970” this winter.)
Plenty of art from the psychedelic era seems dated and slightly embarrassing, occasionally even puerile (the kind of thing you’d see under black lights in a college dorm room), and a handful of works in the book don’t convince me otherwise—Dudley Edwards’s painted piano for Paul McCartney doesn’t strike me as particularly revolutionary, but Dave Hickey once argued that “it was a communal polemic art, vulgar in the best sense and an international language.” So perhaps a psychedelically painted piano is more than the sum of its parts. It’s an art that is sophisticated and poetical, too, on occasion. Mati Klarwein’s paintings are of that stripe, a staggering cornucopia of cultural references merged fluidly into unified compositions. His may be best known for the cover art of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew—quite possibly the be-all and end-all of album art. In looking at his densely woven paintings, one would guess that Klarwein is a cosmic master, able to peer into multiple dimensions at will. And he may very well have been: of Robert Graves artists’ community in Majorca, where Klarwein lived until his death, he said, “Like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase to the local beach for a midnight swim of salt and kisses, I can see the afterimages of my past gesticulating in an overlapping succession of familiarity, painting, swimming, walking to the village to go shopping, discussing Wittgenstein at the local bar, getting pissed, playing the congas, tripping over the psychedelics amongst olive trees, and being seduced by my best friends’ daughters.”