San Francisco

Reconsidering the Summer of Love Aesthetic: ‘Hippie Modernism’ Exhibit in Berkeley


The hippies who created the Summer of Love aesthetic should get more respect for their contributions to design, architecture, technology and politics, according to the curators of an art exhibit in Berkeley.

"Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia," which runs at BAMPFA through May 21, strives to go beyond the tie-dye and jam bands to highlight the revolutionary ideas behind imagery of the late 60s.

"The stereotypes of the counterculture don't allow us to see it as a time of serious experimentation in all kinds of art forms," said Greg Castillo, the exhibit's co-curator and a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley.

While art historians focused on the conceptual art and minimalism that rocked the art world in the 60s, the San Francisco Bay Area was a hotbed of innovation in art, architecture, design, computing, and social change.

Like the intricate and colorful fabrics of textile artist and Berkeley native Frances Butler, or the cozy, hand-hewn interiors that Barry Shapiro captured in his photographs of backwoods cabins, the Bay Area's design aesthetic in the late 60s was the opposite of minimal.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis organized the show, which features pieces from around the world. Castillo's job was to make sure that its presentation at BAMPFA had a distinct Bay Area flavor.

"We decided that if we were bringing a show on the counterculture to the epicenter of the counterculture, we needed to add more local content to it. So that's what we did," Castillo said.

While the exhibit includes everything from psychedelic and political posters, DYI buildings, and sexy happenings, spanning diverse mediums and messages, themes of ecology, technology and dramatic social and political change emerge. 

One collection of colorful screen prints was produced on reams of discarded computer paper in the basement of Berkeley's architecture department. The unsigned posters were sold for 5 cents each to raise money for anti-war efforts. This enraged then Calif. Gov. Ronald Reagan, but no one was punished because no university paper and ink were used to make the prints, Castillo said.

Another piece, a vintage computer terminal borrowed from the Computer History Museum in San Jose, shows how Berkeley-based "cyber-freaks" experimented with early computer networking to respond to the Free Speech Movement, Castillo said. The Community Memory terminals were installed at public libraries, bookstores and record shops throughout downtown. The free computers allowed people to post about ride-shares, astrology, and community events on a publicly accessible proto-BBS, or bulletin board system.

San Francisco was also home to groundbreaking gender-bending troupes of improvisational "acid drag queens" like the Cockettes, the Angeles of Light and the Diggers.

Castillo notes that these performers joyfully played with gender and sex more than 20 years before academics like Judith Butler theorized that gender is socially constructed and performed.

While pieces in the exhibit look psychedelic, some of the art actually was. Some examples of LSD blotter paper art belonging to San Francisco collector Mark McCloud showcase the designs on sheets of LSD tabs.

Castillo said the collection is worth preserving as "counterculture folk art." But whatever psychotropic chemicals are left on the framed sheets -- it's no longer LSD, which is how the museum can display them.

For more information on the Hippie Modernism exhibit, running through May1, click here

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