Jeff Koons’s “Rabbit” (1986) the gleaming, stainless-steel cast of a Mylar balloon rabbit, which became in its own time, a symbol of Postmodernity. Seemingly almost as ephemeral as the breath that inflated it, it was solidified into the most durable of metals. And, like the novelty liquor vessels he had cast in stainless steel around the same time, it is, metaphorically, a container of spirit. The rabbit is a symbol of fertility and magic, and, thanks to Lewis Carroll and the Jefferson Airplane, of the underground delights and terrors of pharmacologically altered consciousness. Like the hovering basketball sculptures, it has an iconic presence as if it were an altarpiece of a heretical, mammon-worshiping cult. It has strangely faceless, spherical head, as if to prevent us from seeing into its soul – instead of the inner emptiness we see only ourselves reflected back in warped miniature by its mirror bright surface.

Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986. Stainless steel. 41 x 19 x 12 in. (104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5 cm). © Jeff Koons; by permission of Gagosian Gallery

Many years ago, I used to puzzle over certain kinds of art that seemed boring to me — Minimalist sculpture, for example—types of art that seemed to offer very little by way of aesthetic or imaginative excitement. At first I assumed it was just a matter of taste; I just had the wrong palette. Then I began to think, what state of mind would I have to be in to enjoy those types of art? What if, for example, I were stoned?

All kinds of things look better and more interesting to the stoned observer, but many kinds of art produced in the 1960s seemed to require not just a new sort of taste but a heightened, maybe Zen-like state of attentiveness, a kind of receptivity to subtleties of space and time and forms and materials that could readily be achieved by smoking weed or ingesting a psychedelic drug.

Joe Brainard, If Nancy Was an Acid Freak, 1972. Mixed media.
7 ¾ x 6 in. (19.7 x 15.2 cm). Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego. © The estate of Joe Brainard; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, and the Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego

Mary Beth Edelson, Woman Rising/Sexual Energies, 1973. Photograph with ink, paint and chinagraph pencil. 10 x 12 in. (25.4 x 30.5 cm). © Mary Beth Edelson, courtesy the artist.

Feminism was not a psychedelic movement. It was going to happen anyway, and it needed no inspirational drugs to get going. But the intersection of sexual freedom made possible by the Pill (introduced to the American market in 1960), psychedelics and women’s liberation spawned something unprecedented in the West – and anywhere ever, for that matter – as female artists began to make art out of their own experiences rather than trying to make it according to what male-dominated Modernist tradition valued.

In the 1970s Mary Beth Edelson did solitary, outdoor performances in which her naked body was painted with concentric circles as if she belonged to a primitive tribe. She posed for the camera in aggressive postures, and added to the resultant prints elements of collage and paint, to create images of a fierce, masked, warrior goddess, channeling the archaic female energy that modernity vehemently repressed.

In American history, there have been three Great Awakenings — periods when religious fervor emerged from the torpor of habit and inflamed the population with hope and belief in metaphysical realities. One took place in Colonial times; the second, prior to the Civil War; and the third around the turn of the 20th century. Whether there was ever a fourth has not been agreed upon, but I think the 1960s should be in the conversation. Some kind of awakening took place in art back then, and the creative and intellectual energies that were brought to life still are feeding the imaginations of artists today.

Tony Matelli, Sleep Walker, 1998
Reinforced aquaresin and oil paint. 65 x 30 x 30 in. (165.1 x 76.2 x 76.2 cm). © Tony Matelli; courtesy the artist and Leo Keonig Inc.

Maurizio Cattelan, La Nona Ora, 1999. Mixed media. Dimensions: lifesize. © Maurizio Cattelan; photo by Attilio Maranzano, courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

Stoner humor is everywhere in art today, and Maurizio Cattelan has been one of its notable purveyors. His most notorious work is Pope Struck by Meteorite (1999), a hyperrealistic sculpture representing Pope Jean Paul II in full papal regalia lying crumpled on the floor with the big cosmic rock, which evidently just fell from the sky, on top of his legs. Devout Roman Catholics are unlikely to be amused, but denizens of the art world, where secular liberalism prevails, could enjoy the sheer effrontery of it. Also, if you consider that being hit by a meteorite is what insurance companies like to call an “act of God,” it takes on greater resonance. Why would God strike down the Pope? Could it be that he objected to the Pope’s hubristic presumption to be God’s chief terrestrial emissary?

Is nothing sacred? Maybe not for an age of irony and contingency where nothing is inherently meaningful, no truth absolute, no authority unimpeachable; wherein the ultimate value is the free play of creative mind. Since humor, which depends for its effect on surprising connections between ordinarily separate thoughts, images and categories, is one of the best ways to advance that spirit of mental freedom—to unsettle dogma and literal and hierarchical thinking—it has become one of the default modes for today’s art, the way tragedy was in the time of Abstract Expressionism.

R. Crumb “Whiteman Meets Bigfoot” (detail), 1971
Comic book panel.

Crumb has freely acknowledged that most of his best known characters, ideas and narratives came to him during a period of near total immersion in psychedelic experience. He first took LSD in 1965 when it was still legal. “When I took LSD,” he recalls in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book, “it was the road to Damascus for me! It completely knocked me off my horse and altered the way I drew. I stopped drawing from life. I sort of lost concentration. I became detached from the whole ego-involvement with cartooning somewhat. LSD liberated me from my ego for a brief period. All my drawing came from inside… an inner… a miraculous vision. It was the most free my subconsciousness been in my life. From November ’65 to April of ’66, I was egoless, drifting along, totally passive. About the only thing I could do was just draw in my sketchbook… I remember wandering around Chicago on the public bus aimlessly. My mind would drift into these crackly grotesque cartoon images accompanied by off-key tiny music. It was in my brain. I had no control. NO control… which was good for the art.”
“It was during this strange period that I came up with all these characters: Mr. Natural, the Vulture Demonesses, Eggs Ackley, Mr. Snoid… The LSD Thing was the main big inspiration of my life.”

Robert Therrien, No Title (folding table and chairs, green), 2007. Painted metal and fabric. Table: 96 x 120 x 120 in. (243.8 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm), 4 Chairs: 104 x 64 x 72 in. (264.1 x 162.6 x 182.9 cm). © Robert Therrien; courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Odd changes in the apparent size of things is, of course, one of the intriguing features of psychedelic experience. In 2008, Robert Therrien created an installation at Gagosian Gallery consisting of brown, metal folding chairs and card tables that looked exactly like a common, instantly recognizable type of institutional furniture except that they were all more than twice life size. The One Pill Makes You Small effect of this giganticized realism was transporting. You might have felt the way you did when you were a toddler and could walk under tables without hitting your head. Or as if you’d entered a world of giant office workers.

Fred Tomaselli, A Cyclone of Paradises, 2001. Photocollage, acrylic, and resin on wood panel. 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm).
Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. © Fred Tomaselli;
photo by Erma Estwick, courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

Under a glossy layer of clear resin, psychedelically-stylized, wriggly veins of red and yellow fire spiral out to the edges from a ring of flame that frames a central portal into a softly modulated, blue and white space – a cosmic realm not unlike the blue yonder glimpsed through the bars of Gober’s installation. Between the lines of flame are patterns of vine-like green tendrils on dark blue, punctuated by white dots like stars in the night sky. And within those darker areas, Tomaselli pasted small photographs of Midwestern-type buildings – house, barns, cabins and trailers.

In 1956 the British Canadian psychiatrist Humphry Osmond coined the term psychedelic, a conjunction of the Greek words psyche and delos meaning “mind or soul manifesting.” It remains a good word in that these kinds of drugs do seem to reveal much about consciousness itself that normally eludes awareness. While they may engender experiences resembling psychosis, including hallucinations and paranoia, more importantly they seem to expose the workings of the mind in all its wondrous range and complexity. Sensory perception, intellectual recognitions, visual imaginings, spiritual intuitions, these and other psychic events become objects of intense fascination.

Popular notions of the psychedelic as mainly a kind of visual experience overlook how comprehensively these drugs act on the mind and how much they reveal of its full potential. Consciousness delights in itself, and, when a trip goes badly, learns to respect its own terrifying powers.

Peter Saul, Vietnam, 1966. Oil on canvas. 79 x 67 in. (200.6 x 170.2 cm).
© Peter Saul; courtesy David Nolan Gallery, New York

Welcome to Ken Johnson’s Are You Experienced?:
How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art.

If you’d like to purchase the book, please click here.


“Part of what I’m saying is that contemporary art across the spectrum of today’s styles is psychedelic in spirit if not generic style. If you go back to what the word is supposed to mean, “soul manifesting,” it’s simple. We live in a time when the only thing you can say about all art, as I see it, is it’s manifesting the mind of our culture and society, rather than trying to isolate a particular kind of art whose quality is above question in, say, aesthetic terms.” Read the whole interview here.


Johnson spoke with CNN about R. Crumb, tripping on the steps of the New Hampshire capitol, and why the term “psychedelic” tends to turn off people in both mainstream and high art circles. Read full article.


Johnson gives a lecture on this thought-provoking topic along with a vibrant, full-color slideshow of images from his book, spanning the work of dozens of artists. Artists Deborah Kass and Chris Martin join Ken Johnson in discussing the role that psychedelic culture plays in their work and in the work of their peers. Full event info.


“For a long time, drugs have been played a role in the social life of the art world. Charles Baudelaire wrote about them. If you do not possess a Delacroix, he said, the next best thing is to be high. But he was opposed to drug use, a weak person’s way of achieving aesthetic experience.” Read full article.

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Horizons is a conference about psychedelics that is held annually in New York City. Its goal is to open a fresh dialogue on their role in medicine, culture, history, spirituality, and creativity. Link to site.


Candidly and in personal terms, Ken Johnson addresses the role that psychotropic drugs historically played in modern American culture. He describes how mind-altering substances opened up ways in which viewers of art could move beyond cognition and aesthetic experience to engage with art on through direct experience. Link to full article.


Many years ago, I used to puzzle over certain kinds of art that seemed boring to me — Minimalist sculpture, for example—types of art that seemed to offer very little by way of aesthetic or imaginative excitement. At first I assumed it was just a matter of taste; I just had the wrong palette. Then [...]


“If you remember the ’60s,” the old joke goes, “you weren’t there.” Ken Johnson, today a widely respected art critic for the New York Times, was not only present but—despite inhaling and taking a few acid trips—still recalls everything clearly. Now he’s finally ready to talk. Read full article.


In “Early Sunday Morning” (1930) we look out rather than in, but the piercing loneliness is just as palpable. The raking sun is hard and cold. The windows of the buildings are implacably dark. Painted with a dry, slightly brushy touch, it is a scene of aching solitude, although relieved by the transcendental light. Read full article.