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 British psychiatrist Dr. Humphrey F. Osmond in 1956 to scientifically refer to hallucinatory experiences. 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. 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.
The hallmarks of the aesthetics: bright colors, distorted shapes, were distinctive but not entirely unique. Psychedelic art was inspired by itss 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. For example, many concert posters from the ‘60’s have abstracted letters that are meant to be difficult to read unless under the influence of psychedelic drugs. However, while Op Art is usually lacking in color (either black and white or on a grayscale), psychedelic art is an explosion of saturated color.
Psychedelic visuals appeared everywhere from flyers, to album art, to live show projections (long before high-tech computer graphics at EDM concerts). 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. (Watch a Joshua Light Show!)
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 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.