“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” —William Faulkner
“The Summer of Love era has never really left us,” writes author, historian, and music publicist Dennis McNally, guest curator of the California Historical Society’s exhibition On the Road to the Summer of Love. “Our current national culture wars are rooted in the profound intellectual challenges of the 1960s.”
McNally has curated the CHS exhibition with historical perspective, beginning with the Beat era of the 1950s, when the poet Allen Ginsberg first read his groundbreaking work Howl at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street (1955), when Jack Kerouac published On the Road (1956), and when San Francisco columnist Herb Caen was inspired by the Sputnik space program (1957) to coin the term “beatnik” (1958) for this nonconforming and almost otherworldly lifestyle.
The Beats’ influence extended to art and the performing arts, which joined over the next decade with student political protests, psychedelic drugs, and rock and roll to create what McNally describes as “a mindset that would . . . culminate in the countercultural social phenomenon called ‘hippie’ and various kindred events in the winter, spring, and summer of 1967.” What follows are examples of McNally’s perspective.
Not far from the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street was a building known as Painterland, which became “a fundamental node in the post-Beat avant-garde art world of San Francisco.” It was here that Jay DeFeo painted her famous work The Rose (1958–1965), along with other inventive, almost psychedelic, works, including The Jewel (1959), which she conceived as a companion painting to The Rose.
The Tape Music Center at 321 Divisadero Street was a co-op recording studio and public performance space whose founders “would expand the very notion of what music was.” Established in 1962, this collaborative, creative, and experimentalist venture encompassed art, music, dance, and technology, breaking new ground in musical aesthetics.
The Tape Music Center shared the building at 321 Divisadero Street with the avant-garde pioneer choreographer Anna Halprin. Halprin’s Dancers’ Workshop brought “an entirely new sensibility to dance, very much of an organic natural ethos and as such very San Francisco. She, too, would be part of a vital collaborative tradition among all these artists.”
“In Berkeley, Ben and Rain Jacopetti formed the Open Theater; inspired by the liquid light projections they were seeing from Romero, they created ‘Revelations,’ in which nude actors and actresses were clothed by the swirling forms of light.”
The Free Speech Movement erupted at Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley campus in the fall of 1964. Specifically addressing students’ right to protest for campus civil rights, the demonstrations were “in essence . . . a countercultural protest against a university that treated students as a product and their education as training.” The car on which Mario Savio stood contained an arrested activist. As fellow protesters surrounded the car, refusing to allow it to move, the car “became a stage and podium for speakers who led a serious inquiry into the nature of free speech and academic freedom.”
Parties called Acid Tests distributed free LSD. They received their biggest moment at the weekend-long Trips Festival held in January 1966 near Fisherman’s Wharf. Represented were the Open Theater, the Dancers’ Workshop, the Tape Music Center, and other avant-garde groups. But LSD, rock and roll, and light shows “were the big takeaways” for thousands of people.
The Grateful Dead was present at many Acid Trip parties. They “would become legendary for playing for free in the Panhandle, a strip of parkland that bordered the Haight.” Haight-Ashbury, “the world’s first psychedelic neighborhood,” was where “seemingly every young person in America looked at the pictures of flower-bedecked dancers . . . and started plotting how to get to San Francisco” . . . especially for the 1967 Summer of Love.
Dennis McNally, draft, “Not Past at All,” Summer of Love: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll—A Pictorial (Berkeley/San Francisco: University of California Press/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2017)
Matthew Nichols, “Beyond the Rose,” Art in America (March 1, 2013); http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/beyond-the-rose/
Interview with Jay DeFeo, conducted by Paul J. Karlstrom, Larkspur, California, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, January 23, 1976; http://www.jaydefeo.org/interviews/karlstrom3.html