Psychedelic art is most commonly associated with the hippie movement and Woodstock, but it is experiencing a renaissance thanks to the next generation of music festivals. From posters and art installations to light shows and fashion, today’s music festivals showcase some of the most popular psychedelic art around. But psychedelia was born way before Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Governor’s Ball, Sasquatch, Pitchfork, and the many other festivals in the U.S. and Europe. Where did it really come from? As Millennials embrace the hippie movement by recreating their own Summer(s) of Love worldwide, we explore the roots of psychedelic art.
The term psychedelic was coined by the British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond in 1956 which means "soul-manifesting," with the implication being that psychedelics can allow one to access the soul and develop unused potentials of the human mind. Advocates of LSD, such as Dr. Timothy Leary and the Merry Pranksters, brought the term into public consciousness, consequently creating national controversy about psychedelic drug usage. The hippie movement applied this term to bands like The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience because they popularized the idea of psychedelic consciousness in their music, promotional materials, and the visual design of their concerts.
The music and visual aesthetic of psychedelia are deeply symbiotic. The psychedelic music conjures otherworldly distorted sounds, using voices with echoes and warped instruments. The lyrics include veiled references to drug use, as in Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, or blatant promotion, as in The Doors’ “Light My Fire” lyric, “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.” (Fun fact: Jim Morrison ignored direction to alter those lyrics for an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.) Some songs were less trippy and more intense. Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” juxtaposed the recognizable national anthem with Vietnam-protesting bomb sound effects, accompanied by wails from his guitar warped by a whammy bar. It is these type of distortions that were often reflected in the visual art.
Psychedelic Art is intricately detailed with many colors, often crazy, or mysterious. It draws from different influences tribal, or kinetic with optical illusions, and embraces a wider spectrum of surrealism. But at the heart of it is the expression of the spirit. It is any art triggered by the manifestation of the inner world. Thus, it may come in various forms, such as tribal arte, arte brute or raw art, kinetic art with optic illusions, art nouveau or surrealism with Salvadore Dali and Klimt as key artists. Psychedelic art was inspired by its predecessor, Optical Art (aka Op Art or Optical Illusions). Optical Art’s defining characteristic is a visual sense of movement, hidden images, flashing, vibration, swelling, or warping. (Today, Op Art is commonly found on USPS envelopes, Barbershop Poles, and interior design.)
Psychedelic art drew inspiration from Op Art, also including movement, hidden images, or other Op Art aspects. While Op Art is usually lacking in color (either black and white or on a grayscale), psychedelic art is an explosion of saturated color.
The climax of the psychedelic was in the ‘60s, arguing for an open mind and consciousness for global solutions in the society. Its boundaries and origins are hard to identify since it is present in a large spectrum of areas, namely in literature, cinema, comics, music, fashion, advertising etc. Psychedelic liquid light shows were created using colored dyes, inks, and oils on a slide, which was projected over or behind a live band—early inspiration for the visualizers on today’s music players. The Joshua Light Show was—and still is—the most famous light show company, operating mostly out of the Fillmore East in Manhattan and other New York City venues.
While some may consider psychedelic art to be exclusive to the period of the 1960s, its influence is still alive today at music festivals, in festival-favorite music genres like a psychedelic drone, as well as in contemporary paintings, art installations, and concert theatrics. Contemporary artists continue the legacy, such as Alex Grey, who has combined his passion for visionary art and spirituality to create the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, a gathering place for prayer that showcases his art in a psychedelic temple. Grey’s popularity has only grown in recent years, allowing him to expand space to exhibit his art.
Because of its commercial nature, psychedelic art was once considered to be “low” versus “high” art (as Op Art was). Some still question its legitimacy in the context of contemporary art, yet there is no denying that psychedelic art has a lasting impact. Representation of psychedelic experiences has never been easier than it is now with so many graphic software which allow easy and unparalleled freedom of image manipulation. The rave culture is also responsible for the subcultural revival of psychedelia and during the nineties psychedelic art merged with the cyber culture forming a unique cyberdelic phenomenon.