KEN JOHNSON with Irving Sandler
On the occasion of the New York Times art critic, and contributing editor at Art in America, Ken Johnson’s recent publication Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art, consulting editor Irving Sandler welcomes the author to his West Village home to talk about his life, work, and more.
Irving Sandler (Rail): Let’s start with where you come from. What’s your background? How did you get into criticism?
Ken Johnson: I was born in 1953 and I grew up in southern Maine. My father’s a retired minister, a liberal Congregationalist who studied with Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich at Union Theological Seminary. He’s probably still more to the left, politically, than I am. He didn’t push religion, but he was a great storyteller and orator. Having the Bible read to me, I learned exegesis at a very early age, so I think that impulse to interpret imagery, metaphor, and symbolism was kind of wired into me in my childhood.
Rail: Where did you go to school?
Johnson: I went to a public high school called Thornton Academy in Saco, Maine. And then I went to Brown University.
Rail: Why Brown instead of other known art schools, like the one right next to Brown, RISD (Rhode Island School of Design)?
Johnson: At the time I really wanted to be a novelist. My interests were really far more literary than visual, although my grandmother was an award-winning fence show artist. She made landscape paintings in and around Kennebunkport.
Rail: Did you take any art course? And was Kermit Champa teaching then?
Johnson: He was an amazing lecturer and a very intense teacher. He could make Kenneth Noland seem like the greatest painter ever. Otherwise, I took more English classes than art classes. Some creative writing because I wanted to write fiction, but I found it just impossible, even though I was very good at writing expository and analytic interpretations, and so on. Logically I should’ve gone on to get a Ph.D. in literature. But I took some studio classes and I did an independent drawing study in my final semester with Hugh Townley, who was a very inspirational teacher, and I made tons and tons of drawings of all kinds, from imagination, from landscapes—not that much life drawing. Anyway, about midway through the semester I brought in a big stack of what I’d produced over the previous couple of weeks, and he was very impressed by my industry. He said, “So, what’re you going to do after you graduate?” And I said, I don’t know, and he said, “Why don’t you go to graduate school?” And I thought to myself, graduate school? I’m not prepared to go to graduate school. But Townley had a friend whom he had been in Paris with on the G.I. Bill named Richard Callner. And Callner had just taken over as chairman at SUNY Albany’s art department. So Townley encouraged me to go there, and that’s what I did. In the midst of this, I married a classmate, Gayle Van Alstine, who was the star of the art department at Brown. She was a really great painter, a painterly realist. Actually, when I said to Gayle, “Well, I’ve got this chance to go to grad school,” she said, “You’re not supposed to be going to art school, you’re supposed to be the writer. I’m the artist.” And I said, “Well, I think I’m going to go.”
I was really a child of the ’60s. I had no career plan, I didn’t know where it was going to lead, but it seemed like an exciting thing to do. And that was it. We packed up and went to Albany.
Rail: What happened next?
Johnson: I got an M.A.—I didn’t get an M.F.A.—and I did it quickly; I did it in three semesters. Again I was lucky in that I studied with Mark Greenwold, who was an exceptional teacher.
Rail: I can imagine, with his love of painting and art history.
Johnson: Exactly. So after I finished, I got a job working as a technician in a painting conservation lab run by New York State, which was nearby in Waterford, NY. And I worked there for five years, during which time I was overexposed to the solvents and other chemicals so I had to quit. It was kind of a crisis, because by that time we had two very tiny children, and we had just bought a house in North Troy, NY. Meanwhile I had just read this book called What Color is Your Parachute?, which is about how to change careers, and I said to Gayle, “I think I’ll become a freelance writer.” A less supportive wife would’ve said, “Are you crazy? Get a job!” She said it was a great idea. And that’s how I started. That was in 1983, ’84, and I started writing reviews for the Albany Times Union newspaper, which was really great training for the kind of writing I do today. I think that besides that, having a degree in studio art is about the best training a critic can have. For me, anyway, it was about how to understand the difference between intention and fulfillment. It’s a very simple thing. You understand what somebody’s trying to do and whether they’ve managed to do it, I mean in the terms that they set for themselves. That’s aside from whether you like what they’re doing; that’s another part of it, which has to do with your sensibility as a critic.
Rail: What brought you to New York?
Johnson: Well, I was writing for the Times Union and for some local publications, and I thought if I could get a review published in Art in America, which I used to read from cover to cover in the ’80s, it would fulfill my destiny as a writer. I could die then, and feel like I’d accomplished something. I was that impressed by the art magazines because I was living upstate. What did I know? But before that I also wrote for Arts Magazine. During the year 1987, I wrote about 10 fairly long, 2,000 to 2,500-word monographic pieces for Richard Martin on artists like Joe Zucker, Cindy Sherman, Roger Brown, and Elizabeth Murray. Then I sent clips to Betsy Baker, and she said, “Come on down, let’s talk.” And pretty soon I was writing not just reviews but full-length articles for Art in America. So for the next nine years that was my main thing. I did adjunct teaching upstate at a couple of different schools to supplement my meager income.
Rail: So that takes you into the early ’90s.
Johnson: Yes, I start writing for Art in America in about ’88, and at a certain point around ’94, out of the blue, Michael Kimmelman called me and said, “We’re expanding our coverage. Would you want to throw your hat in the ring?” And I said, “Yeah, great, but I can’t move to New York.” So Holland Cotter got that job. However, a couple years later—this would be in ’97—I guess they were expanding again, they needed someone to write short reviews, what they called agates, which they used to run a lot more of in the late ’90s into the early 2000s. I was getting remarried that year, and I couldn’t move to New York, but I got called again, partly on Chuck Close’s recommendation this time. So I said, I can come to New York every single day of the week, if I have to, by way of Amtrak, which was a three hour ride. And Kimmelman said, “All right, let’s see how it goes.” That’s how I started with the Times. From then until 2001 I went back and forth on the train before moving to Flushing, where I have been living since 2001.
Rail: What’s your conception of criticism? What do you aim for? What do you think its function is?
Johnson: First of all, I want the viewer to know what it is I’m talking about. I think description of what you see is a big part of the act of criticism, because it’s an editorial activity. You’re picking out what you think is significant. So the hardest part of writing is description. Otherwise, it would just be an inventory of observations. I hope that the reader will understand not only what it is I’m looking at, but the basis on which I’m making my judgments. A sneaky thing that critics often do—and I’m probably guilty of it myself—is sometimes to misrepresent the work. I think some descriptions are more accurate than others, or some are better than others. It is subjective, but within some limits. So I want to have a sense for myself—I’m looking at a work that an artist has made, and I think, if this work was done as well as possible, what would that be like? And it might be that’s what I’m looking at. That the artist is making a work that he or she does as well as that sort of work can be done. Most works of art fall short of being as good an example of that kind of art, or genre, as they could possibly exemplify. In a way it leaves me out of it. Because I’m assuming that I’m just being analytic. I’m looking at it objectively. Because in every work of art, you have some kind of experience, even if it’s the best example of its kind, you still might not like the experience. And that’s where the critic’s sensibility comes in.
Rail: Do you have any conception of who your audience is? In other words, do you try to write from the vantage point of the artist, or with the viewer in mind? Roberta Smith, for example, insists that she’s only writing with the viewer in mind. I know I’m writing with the artist in mind.
Johnson: I write for the reader. I have a friend who is often my first reader, and I trust her judgment, although I don’t always agree with her. Her mother, who is 80-something years old, loves my writing. She’s not particularly well-informed about contemporary art, but she’s a very smart, well-educated person. Sometimes I have this conversation with my friend and she says, “Well, who do you think you’re writing for?” And I say, “Well, I think I’m writing for your mother.” [Laughs.] I used to say if what I wrote made sense to the reader first, then to the artists second, those would be the two most important things to me. I sometimes worry about art historians and the more academic folks only in the sense that my writing may not seem complicated enough, or ideologically on board with some particular movements, and so on.
Rail: But then when you step back, you’re in very good company: Schjeldahl, Saltz, Plagens, Smith.
Johnson: Well, I read Peter Schjeldahl when he was writing in the Voice in the ’80s, and I’d never encountered anything like it. If that’s what writing about art can be, that’s pretty cool. So he was my first hero, somebody who could make art criticism feel alive and hip.
Rail: But he also made it literary because he has such prose style.
Johnson: I agree. I also love Dave Hickey as well. I tend to err on the side of trying to be lucid. When I was making art I had this tendency to simplify the overall imagery. I like John Wesley’s or Lichtenstein’s work for its lucid simplification—I flatter myself that, if I get it right, that’s what I’m trying to do as a writer.
Rail: Let’s move on to your book. I want to begin by saying that when I first heard you talk about the psychedelic experience in art, I said to you right afterward that yours was an entirely new and fresh approach. It wasn’t formalist, it wasn’t existentialist, it wasn’t art historical. It dealt with consciousness and the fruits of consciousness. So what is the psychedelic experience?
Johnson: The word “psychedelic” was invented by Humphrey Osmond, a friend of Aldous Huxley. It means “mind manifesting” or “soul manifesting.” The idea was that you take drugs and a good part of your mental being comes into a different kind of awareness. Huxley thought that the psychedelic effect was prompted by an opening up of what he called the “reducing valve” that ordinarily reduces the otherwise overwhelming incoming flood of perceptions in normal consciousness. “Psychedelic art” is associated with a certain kind of style that emanated from San Francisco rock posters and underground comics, and that whole culture from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Part of what I’m saying is that contemporary art across the spectrum of today’s styles is psychedelic in spirit if not generic style. If you go back to what the word is supposed to mean, “soul manifesting,” it’s simple. We live in a time when the only thing you can say about all art, as I see it, is it’s manifesting the mind of our culture and society, rather than trying to isolate a particular kind of art whose quality is above question in, say, aesthetic terms. We have so many different kinds of art today, and there are a variety of theories to account for this pluralism. It could be due to the exhaustion of Modernist aesthetics, or maybe it is the diversifying effect of capitalism. What I’m trying to get across is that in the mid-’60s you had a huge population of middle class young people experiencing this kind of phenomenon that happens when you take these kinds of drugs. They find that there’s a lot more to the mind and the consciousness than people thought in the ’50s. I don’t think Greenberg thought about consciousness much. He was interested in taste, in making judgments. Even Harold Rosenberg’s idea of the artist as a kind of existential rebel hero was more about a sort of vandalizing action than imagination and consciousness.
By the late ’60s, there was this whole generation of people feeling like they wanted to take it all in, from Beethoven and Stravinsky to the Beatles and the Stones. It’s a cliché to say that the distinction between high and low has collapsed, but it’s not usually recognized why it collapsed. And I think it was that artists of the ’60s generation started to see what was happening in this mass culture. They realized that what people were doing out there with their political and social lives was way ahead of what was happening in the art world, which had cornered itself into this formalist dead end. In other words, because of that early history, kids going to art school now can look for inspiration everywhere. They’re finding it on the Internet, in music, in magazines, in fashion, and so on. But they’re also reading Derrida and Shakespeare, simultaneously. At least some of them are, I hope. I think the impulse is not just pluralistic; it goes to more of a holistic sense of consciousness. I don’t know if taking a drug will make you think that—but for many who had taken drugs and knew of this experience, this phenomenon, this sort of cultural emergence makes a lot of sense. And the culture changed from what the standard culture was up until then.
Rail: And you don’t think that there’s a psychedelic style or a psychedelic look even?
Johnson: In college I was deeply influenced by Carl Jung, who is not fashionable in academic circles these days, but one of the things that remains to me a useful structure is the four personality types, oriented towards four different functions of mind that Jung had divided up: thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation. Any sort of art you might mention now would be under the dominion of one of those styles of consciousness: Conceptualism, Expressionism, Surrealism, or purist abstraction. And any of those styles can be psychedelically animated.
Chris Martin spoke fairly eloquently about how, after having taken LSD while he was an undergrad at Yale, he realized just how intense the raw materials he was working with were. And he got more interested in that effect than in representational fantasy.
Rail: We think of Abstract Expressionism as essentially a tragic art, where psychedelic art is not, and as a matter of fact you talk about it as if much of it is related to the comic.
Johnson: If you look through the images in the book, there’s hardly any negativity in them. What I said at the panel (New York Public Library, September 28, 2011) was, “Has there ever been a sizeable civilization whose art was dominated by a humorous or comic mood?” It seems to me that our art culture is unique in the degree to which so many artists that are now celebrated make art with a comic mood in the expanded sense of the comic. Alex Katz to Urs Fischer. Jeff Koons, obviously. Cattelan, whose work is all about jokes. Actually, one of the most common reactions to, let’s say, smoking marijuana or taking other kinds of hallucinogenic substances is that it will enhance people’s sense of hilarity. My theory was that what they find funny was that things are the way they are; it strikes people that they are the way they are arbitrarily. And that they could be another way, because somehow psychedelics enable you to shuffle other scenarios around. Then you hook that up with the fantasy that consciousness doesn’t conform to reality, but reality conforms to consciousness. In other words, it’s the tail wagging the dog. If consciousness is what affects reality, that’s essentially comic. Very hopeful. Especially in the euphoria of the mid-’60s when folks like Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary were encouraging everybody to take acid, which would result in the world becoming a much better place
As I understand it, the Sufis posit three universal realms. There’s this world that is grim and dumb, and full of squabbling and people trying to get their own space and those of others, too. And then there’s the high, spiritual realm, which we can’t even conceive of because it’s so far beyond the limits of human being and consciousness. And then there’s this middle range, the realm of Imagination, wherein you can cultivate spiritual entities that become powerfully real psychologically. I have a kind of mystical sense that it’s that level that art can be born out of. A Marxist-atheist would say that’s pure indulgent escape into wishful kinds of entertainment. I guess I am enough of an old hippie to think that changing consciousness at the level of the imaginative or the level at which something unknown comes into being as an image, that that’s a good aim for art. And then art can become a point of psycho-spiritual orientation for terrestrial politics.
Rail: The drug of preference of my generation was alcohol. The drug of preference of your generation, the generation of the ’60s, tended to be a variety of different smokes and drugs. What’s the difference in the experience?
Johnson: Alcohol tends to enhance willfulness, the ego; it makes you more comfortable in the world because you feel confident and relaxed, which in its defect can make some people very obnoxious. But as a whole it promotes Socratic dialogue. My impression with hallucinogens is that the ego isn’t inflated in the same way. They in fact awaken a sense of interestedness, a kind of interested receptivity to perceptual experience and to thought. For me the beautiful thing about marijuana is the thinking part, the flow of thought, and hilarity that seems to come with it.
Rail: In the second chapter, you mention Heinrich Klüver’s classic, Mescal and the Mechanisms of Hallucinations, which made me think of one of the prominent, if not the earliest, consumers of mescaline, Henri Michaux, who shares with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs the fascination with the use of drugs to heighten consciousness. Did you think of Michaux in this context?
Johnson: First of all, my book’s not really a history; it’s really more of a personal commentary. One benefit from having written this book is that it would invite some art historians to pick up some of the threads and try to substantiate or expand them in real world, historical terms. I’d love to read that book, but I couldn’t write it myself.
Rail: Before we had marijuana, which doesn’t come in until the ’60s, there were mushrooms, mescaline, and peyote, which came from American Indian culture. I remember I talked about the mushroom experience with the sculptor David Hare, who was part of the Surrealist circle in New York. And of course, they certainly had experimented with some of those substances.
Johnson: True. In fact, we know that people have been doing consciousness-altering drugs since, maybe since the beginning of human consciousness. Maybe it was mushrooms that actually caused people to acquire a language, which is what Terrence McKenna theorized. But something never happened before the mid-’60s, which is that psychedelics went from underground to almost completely above-ground. They altered mainstream culture.
Rail: And the whole ethos changed.
Johnson: I don’t like to use the word “paradigm” loosely, [laughs] but I really think it was a paradigmatic change. Some people say, “Well, what about cocaine in the ’80s?” Those are changes in the current, but the main paradigm hasn’t really changed yet. I don’t know what it would be if there was to be a change, but I still think that if you think about art in general, it’s psychedelic. It brings out the mind. Nobody cares about aesthetic—I mean you apply aesthetic standards where they are relevant. But you can’t apply an aesthetic standard to Urs Fischer digging the floor out of Gavin Brown’s gallery. You can only look at it experientially. Does this experience thrill me? Or not?
Rail: What about Hans Haacke’s 1993 installation, in which he dug up the floor of the German Pavilion? That was a political act. What are the politics of psychedelic art?
Johnson: One political tenet that you can draw from it is that there are no absolutes. I mean there is a sort of neo-Gnostic tendency that allows everybody to have his or her own god. And that’s not to say it’s cultural relativism, it’s to say that each person has his own imaginative world, which he or she can negotiate with the collective world. There is a notion with some that they take a psychedelic and they can tune into some absolute, ultimate reality. But leaving that aside, it comes back to the politics of irony, not in a trivial sense, but in a deep sense that the way the world is isn’t foreordained or determined. It could be different.
Rail: But you don’t want to change political mechanisms. Can the psychedelic experience lead to any kind of political action?
Johnson: Well, we can certainly see the occupation of Wall Street as a kind of gentle, neo-hippie political action. They have no platform, but they go there and they create an environment out of necessity. It’s not that different from when Norman Mailer and a bunch of people went to the Pentagon and said we’re gonna elevate the Pentagon. Well, that’s insane in the real world, but in the level of imagination, which has been so exploited and misused, it’s up to artists to stand up for the integrity and the value of it. Essentially, the politics that come out of psychedelia are similar to the political spirit of Dadaism. The point is, you can shock common sense or consensual reality by making people stop and think, “Oh, maybe things could be different.” And that happened big time in the mid-’60s. There were folks who did all sorts of things from wearing colorful ties to dropping out, divorcing, moving to a commune. People made radical changes in their lives based just on imagined possibility that life could be different.
Rail: There was often the identification of the psychedelic experience and psychedelic art with spirituality. You pointed this out that at the time that psychedelic drugs came into general use there was also a great interest in Buddhism and Zen.
Johnson: Even though the culture of psychedelia awakened in great numbers people who longed for spiritual foundation or some kind of active, spiritual orientation, it’s not clear what the benefits of taking drugs were. Clearly, they could be bad for some people. The real question was, did the desire for higher consciousness come first? And then one of the answers was psychedelic drugs? Or did psychedelic drugs become widespread and that caused some people to say, “Well, drugs are great, but let’s find a more sustainable way,” and then turn to Buddhism and other spiritual traditions?
Rail: Could you talk more specifically about how the psychedelic consciousness applies to various kinds of art that you write about in your book?
Johnson: I’ve toyed with the idea that there could be such a thing as psychedelic art criticism, which has to do with how art can be seen as a consciousness-altering experience. But equally as important, I’m really interested in metaphor, which I hope will be the subject of my next book. I’m curious about this, because metaphor has been written about so often in literature, but it has rarely been a topic in art history, art theory, and art criticism.
Rail: That’s partly because too many art historians have preferred to deal with iconography and connoisseurship. But that may be changing.
Johnson: If art today is this kind of soul-manifesting medium for collective culture, how does the soul manifest itself? As metaphor, I think. When I look at art, I don’t really understand what I’m looking at until I grasp it as metaphor. The metaphor might be in the object itself or in the persona of the artist. When Urs Fischer digs the floor of Gavin Brown’s gallery out, I don’t really understand it until I get a sense of what sort of metaphor he’s enacting. Similarly, with artists like Marina Abramović, it’s about enacting metaphor. And I think psychedelic consciousness is highly attuned to metaphor. That someone like that could take over the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, the most important modern art museum in the world, and that thousands would come is unimaginable without the psychedelic revolution. Same thing can be said of Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” and Gordon Matta-Clark’s cut-ups of buildings, which, I am convinced, couldn’t have been possible without the euphoria of tripping.
Rail: And there are no more artistic frontiers in terms of style.
Johnson: In the sense that, yes. The final frontier is mind. We landed on the moon; there’s nothing but dust and rocks. There’s nothing on Mars, maybe some ice. The idea that somebody’s going to appear from outer space is a complete fantasy. What is left then? It’s the mind that we have left. And it would be pretty depressing if we conceived of the mind the way it was conceived of in the 1950s as just normal consciousness.
Rail: Well, in the ’50s and in the ’60s, as Modernists, we still believed that barriers in art could be breached. The avant-gardes did that, but after 1970 with the Information show at MoMA, if anyone made a claim to being avant-garde, “I found a new barrier to break through,” they’d get a raised eyebrow. In the postmodern era, things have opened up for individual artists, according to their own consciousness and imagination; they are freer than ever before to make different kinds of personal statements.
Johnson: I think the art world is more cohesive than is commonly acknowledged. If I go from a Peter Saul exhibition at a big-money gallery like Haunch of Venison to a show of socially engaged activist art in Essex Street market, I don’t experience a lot of cognitive dissonance. There’s painting and there’s activism, and all these sorts of different things, and they’re all part of the mix. One thing I know for sure is, after writing this book, I found myself a lot more open to a wider spectrum of things than I ever was before.
Rail: On that note, if Fischer is considered psychedelic, how about Jeff Koons?
Johnson: Carroll Dunham told me that he thought Koons’s work was “alarmingly psychedelic.” Under the influence of a hallucinogen, ordinary things may appear weirdly vivid and out of scale. Koons’s “Balloon Dog” is most commonly seen as a piece of late Pop, but I think its perceptual intensity is more interesting. Haim Steinbeck’s show that’s up now at Tanya Bonakdar has a similar quality in that the objects that appear on these perfect shelves seem to have a mysteriously urgent presence. The same can be said of Kay Rosen’s work, in which she gave language, letters, words, and sentences a new physical dimension. The experience of language under hallucinogenic influence can be wonderfully mind-stretching.
Rail: Would you consider Jackson Pollock a psychedelic artist?
Johnson: Almost anything and anybody can be seen psychedelically. But I think it would be anachronistic to see Pollock’s work as animated by psychedelic sensibility in the way Smithson’s, for example, surely was.
Rail: But unfortunately his—Pollock, that is—drug was drinking.
Johnson: And people thought in the ’50s that LSD could be a treatment for alcoholism. Lately, serious research along those lines and for other psychotherapeutic applications has been revived.
I’m big fan of Thomas Pynchon. I read him in the ’70s, but it wasn’t until I went back to Pynchon over the past couple of years that I realized how deeply grounded his whole oeuvre is in a psychedelic world. The paranoia—an amazing sense that anything can happen, a possibility on every page: reading Pynchon is experientially psychedelic.
One of the things I said in the book was the first kind of art that we identify as psychedelic—rock posters—were wildly eclectic. They’re like a very early, maybe the first visual form of postmodern scavenging from other cultures and other histories. I wrote in the preface that I equate postmodernism with psychedelia. Everything that is attributed to postmodernism, I would attribute to psychedelic culture. Probably the most influential place you see it is in movies—mainstream movies like The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Avatar, and many others. Recently it occurred to me that The Truman Show can be seen as a parable about the contemporary psychedelic artist’s quest for truth.
In that film, which starred Jim Carry, Ed Harris, and Laura Linney (1998), the protagonist Truman Burbank grows up in a constructed world called Sea Haven. He doesn’t know it, but he’s actually the star of a reality television show. He figures out what is going on, so he tries to escape, unsuccessfully at first. Ultimately, he steals a sailboat, sails across stormy seas, and bumps into the sky, which is a painted façade with a door marked “Exit.” He goes out the door—the Door of Perception—into the unconstructed unknown. There’s this powerful mythology driving interesting art today asking the question, more or less overtly, “How are we gonna get out of this?” We’re so completely captured by the apparatus of language, government, consumerism, and the art world, trapped by a Foucaultian system that penetrates down to the molecules of our being, that it seems only by altering mind itself can we find a way out. For better or worse, that seems to me to be the mission of art today.