The Artist in the Counterculture: Bruce Conner to Mike Kelley and Other Tales from the Edge

Princeton Univ. Jan. 2023. 288p. ISBN 9780691236162. $55. FINE ARTS
In this deep and perceptive dive into the subculture that was the West Coast cutting-edge art scene during the 1960s and beyond, art historian Crow (NYU; The Long March of Pop: Art, Music, and Design, 1930–1995) tells a series of stories conveying how immersed the main practitioners were within the political and cultural upheavals marking the era. In so doing he counters more elitist art market opinions of artists like San Franciscan Bruce Conner and Angeleno John Baldessari, arguing instead that such wildly divergent creative types arose within a rich context of civil rights reckoning, anti-war activism, and lots of LSD tripping. Crow demonstrates that despite—or because of—the hallucinogens, they were far more than the “motley-garbed, guitar-bashing wastrels” as that generation is ordinarily portrayed. It’s an art-historical take helped out by a cast of characters who, refreshingly, are not a parade of macho-but-tormented white men. Among many getting deserved fresh attention are the zeitgeist-affirming Sister Corita Kent and Black Panther stalwart Emory Douglas. Conner’s life lends it structure, centering the action in California and generating such tidbits as his hilarious Gorey-esque greeting cards and perilous collaborations with the unstable, perennially stoned Dennis Hopper.
VERDICT An account of unprecedented depth about a time quickly fading from memory, for aficionados of the avant-grade.
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