MCA Denver, Exploring the Counterculture (West Coast Style)
The counterculture movement was in essence a western phenomenon. That’s the premise of West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977, a book and exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. Yes, significant moments played out at Woodstock and in Greenwich Village, but the American West allowed for (and provided space for), the counterculture to “drop out” and explore how fully art could be integrated into life. Yet this is not an art exhibition in the traditional sense. There are few precious objects here, and those that are on display were never intended or created to be viewed in a museum setting. This is an exhibition of items documenting happenings, performances, lifestyle, experiments. It’s a treasure trove of ephemera from a bygone era, yet one that continues to impact and influence our lives.
Conceived by Adam Lerner and Elissa Auther, the peer reviewed book includes twenty different essays focused on events, happenings and art moments. The twenty were then condensed to eight case studies to create the exhibition on view at MCA. Each element highlights how art was not merely a minor part of the movement. Instead, the exhibition focuses on how the entire counterculture movement was a kind of art. And one that went beyond psychedelic style and design.
Take for instance the Cockettes, founded by George Harris, the preppy blonde in the iconic photograph by Bernie Boston, putting carnations in gun barrels during an antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon in 1967. He was 18 in that photograph and on his way to San Francisco where he changed his name to Hibiscus and came out of the closet. The Cockettes were not merely a gay-themed drag troupe as they are often described, but a group of counterculture individuals both gay and straight who lived theatrically, in costume, performing lavish stage acts for free. Glam rock and contemporary androgyny would not exist if not for the Cockettes. A treasured object on display in this exhibition is a handmade book created by Hibiscus. It’s been carefully photographed by MCA and sits under glass in all it’s sequined glory. It’s the only item George Harris’ mother Ann has of him. Harris died in the early 1980s of complications from AIDS. But he left behind a glamorous legacy. According to Allen Ginsberg, “The Cockettes brought out into the street what was in in the closet, in terms of theatrical dress and imaginative theater.”