The American West has received considerable attention in the art world of late: first, Pacific Standard Time (PST) in Southern California,then ‘West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977’. Though far more concise than PST, ‘West of Center’, curated by Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner, casts a wider geographical net, making numerous stops in the vast swathe of land west of Colorado to the Pacific Ocean (all the while avoiding Southern California). It looks at the examples of six groups, taking in theatre, dance and communal living, all identified under the banner of ‘counterculture’. Both PST and ‘West of Center’, have been presented as counterweights to the gravitational force of New York, aiming to recuperate practices taking place outside the ‘centre’, and to ask why they were left out of the story in the first place.
In the case of ‘West of Center’, the answer seems to be that the counterculture may have melded art into life to such a degree that they became indistinguishable, making their activities difficult to identify strictly as ‘art’. In the exhibition catalogue, Auther and Lerner cite architect Chip Lord’s description of a workshop organized in San Francisco in 1968 by dancer Anna Halprin and her husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin: ‘It was a catalyst, was an education, was a trip into my future, was an art form, was a lifestyle, was a freestyle life race, was groove.’ Lord founded the experimental architecture and media collective Ant Farm with Doug Michels the same year he attended the Halprins’ workshop. In a collage featured in the exhibition, they define Ant Farm as ‘a group of ecoconscious environmentalist [sic] sharing the new age technology, spreading the total awareness it demands through life art (life art, i.e. playing the life game with a whole earth consciousness ... life as art)’.
Ant Farm’s Utopianism was a common feature of the groups included in ‘West of Center’. Also examined were the Womyn’s Lands of southern Oregon, a network of rural communes where women sought to create a new society beyond the influence of patriarchy. Their rituals and self-published magazines helped spread a lifestyle of rural female separatism that remains alive today. Anti-urbanism also drove the development of Drop City, one of the first countercultural communes in the American West, which occupied a remote southern Colorado field from 1965 to ’73. The commune’s founders rejected the rigid standardization of the American suburb and, inspired by Buckminster Fuller, saw the geodesic dome as an alternative. Their use of this inexpensive, flexible form established the dome as the paradigmatic architecture of the commune.
Drop City’s name came from an art form called ‘Droppings’ created by two of the commune’s founders, Clark Richert and Gene Bernofsky. Inspired by Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, which they encountered in New York, they inserted strange things into everyday situations: dropping painted stones from a second-storey window onto the busy pavement below, setting an elaborate breakfast table outside a hotel for passers-by to enjoy. These were art-works-as-interruptions, inserted without fanfare into the stream of daily life. Drop City was an expansion of these ‘Droppings’, a move into a place completely unknown to live a spontaneous, experimental art-life. Their experiences were constantly documented on 16mm film, some of which – blurred, double-exposed, artful – featured in the exhibition, projected onto a geodesic structure.
The Cockettes, an experimental theatre troupe based in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early ’70s, performed – and lived – in elaborate costumes that erased distinctions between male and female, gay and straight. They appeared in the exhibition in photographs and on video performing in lavish home-made stage sets in their elaborately decorated communal home. Yet their glamour was underpinned by a ‘philosophy of free’, as members tried to live outside the monetary system in a network of communes that shared resources like food and healthcare. Contemporary echoes can be found in ‘freeganism’ and the open-source software movement.
All the groups in ‘West of Center’ shared in the myth of the American West – a wide open space where new ways of living are possible. The exhibition hints at the relevance of revisiting the counterculture now, as Urban Farmers, Occupiers and others seek new approaches to what many see as a deeply flawed society.