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The Summer of Love Experience
San Francisco’s Peaceful Revolution

In a large-scale exhibition, the PalaisPopulaire revives the spirit of the “Summer of Love.” Achim Drucks on the rise of a whole generation that is still impacting our lives today.
On January 6, 1967, the California sun shined on Golden Gate Park and the 20,000 people who had gathered there for a gigantic happening. The crowd danced rapturously to the psychedelic rock of Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. Plumes of incense and marijuana smoke filled the air. They had come to what was billed as “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In.” Fans of the city’s most popular bands mixed with beatniks and political activists from Berkeley University who were taking a stand against the Vietnam War and racism. Hells Angels were there, as was Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. But the scene was influenced most by the hippies. What all of the different groups had in common was a longing for a different, freer America. On the stage, poet and avowed Buddhist Allen Ginsberg sang his mantra: “We are all one. We are all one.” And LSD guru Timothy Leary proclaimed: “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” calling on people to expand their consciousness, to drop out of society, and out of the war. “The war did what almost nothing else could have,” wrote social scientist Charles A. Reich in his 1970 bestseller The Greening of America. “It forced a major breach in consciousness. (…) And it made a gap in belief so large that through it people could begin to question the other myths of the Corporate State.” Between 1965 and 1973 more than 27 million young men became legal adults. Any one of them could be drafted and sent to Vietnam. The war, which took the lives of almost 60,000 U.S. soldiers, two million Vietnamese civilians, and more than one million soldiers from the communist regime in North Vietnam, polarized an entire generation.

The Be-in was the birthday party of a movement that reached its pinnacle only a few months later with the “Summer of Love,” an incredible time in which 100,000 young people headed to San Francisco to join a movement that would bring radical change– and not only in America. During that summer, the antiwar movement merged with psychedelic counterculture, producing a quake that would rumble across the globe. Music, fashion, design, and art broke new ground. Free love and alternative forms of cohabitation were tried out. Rigid social structures were shaken up. Summer of Love: Art, Fashion, and Rock and Roll brings to life the special atmosphere of that eventful year. The show at the PalaisPopulaire, conceived by the de Young Museum in San Francisco, not only presents iconic rock posters, record covers, and fashion, but also avant-garde films, music, and light shows.

Additionally, the exhibition investigates the rise of a postwar society that sought to liberate itself from old constraints. Many who attended the Be-in grew up in the conservative 1950s. The Cold War reigned, and the atomic bomb and communism caused trepidation. At the same time, the USA was experiencing an economic boom. More and more suburbs with similar-looking houses encroached on the countryside. There was no room for nonconformists. Back in the late 1940s, hipsters belonging to the Beat Generation had already rebelled against materialism and repressive middle-class morality, experimenting with drugs and exploring Far Eastern spirituality. But a new scene manifested itself in Golden Gate Park, whose representatives the beatniks called, somewhat derisively, “junior-grade hipsters,” or hippies for short. They preferred rock to jazz. Depressing black was replaced by bright colors. Tired of coolness, the 1960s bohemians turned to mindfulness. While the beatniks wanted the world to leave them alone, the hippies wanted to change it.

The place where they realized their utopia was Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood around Golden Gate Park where numerous buildings from around 1900 stood vacant. The rundown district, labeled “Hashbury” by Hunter S. Thompson, had enough housing space for people to live together in communes. The denizens tried out alternatives to consumer society and meritocracy, and worked on expanding their consciousness by studying The Tibetan Book of the Dead and taking LSD. “Feed your head,” sings Grace Slick in the hit White Rabbit. Her song was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which would become the bible of a generation that could no longer endure bourgeois reality.

Slick’s band Jefferson Airplane, along with The Grateful Dead, combined rock ’n’ roll, folk, country, blues, and ethno-sounds to create the psychedelic San Francisco sound. The concerts were accompanied by light shows in which kaleidoscope-like shapes and coalescing colors were projected. Everything liquefied, everything became one. Concerts mutated into multimedia, multisensory spectacles, which Rave and Techno would pick up on decades later.

Anything goes was also the motto of the artists who designed the posters for those concerts. The big five—Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse, and Wes Wilson—created visual counterparts to the new sound. For their posters, they sampled everything art and cultural history had to offer: historical circus posters, old Hollywood films, Op and Pop Art. They also tried to give visual form to the consciousness-expanding experience of the light shows or of an LSD trip. Wilson discovered Art Nouveau writing in an exhibition catalog and took its floral forms to the extreme in his designs. Moscoso, who had studied with Josef Albers, a Bauhaus artist known for his color theories, let complementary colors like red and green or blue and orange collide. As such combinations do not allow the eye to focus, their motifs begin to dance, as in Joe Gomez’s Optical Occlusion (1967), one of the many posters on view at the PalaisPopulaire.

Hippie fashion was just as eclectic as the posters. Its look was strongly influenced by the tastes of the late nineteenth century. The word of the day was “old-timey.” During that period, many old buildings in San Francisco were torn down, and to compensate for that loss, junk shops offered a rich selection of Belle Epoque clothing. The Charlatans, for instance, were a trendsetting band whose members looked like actors in old Westerns that had been beamed into the present, complete with Winchester rifles. Women wore the dresses and headscarves of their great-great grandmothers who had accompanied their husbands as they conquered the Wild West. Clad in feather boas, fur hats, and round, violet-tinted sunglasses, Janis Joplin became a style icon. The exhibition presents a handbag made expressly for the singer that is embroidered with violet, red, and orange silk and small glass beads. In the middle is a bright yellow star that looks like an energy center. The bag embodies the idea of a classless society in which anyone can be an eccentric noble, a bohemian, or a pioneer—in which anyone can make a fresh start. The hippie ornaments adapted from Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement also conjure up a return to nature, handicrafts, and originality.

But around Haight-Ashbury, a new form of economy was also being lived out. The word “free” was omnipresent. The Diggers, an anarchist street theater group, opened free shops where everything was given away; from clothing to scrapped television sets. As more and more penniless teenagers began to flock to San Francisco in the spring of 1967, the situation eventually became precarious, so a soup kitchen was organized in Golden Gate Park. The free food was prepared from products that supermarkets had thrown out—an idea of sustainability that is topical again today. But that progressive attitude was contradicted by very traditional gender roles. Even among the activists, women were responsible for cooking. The Diggers also initiated the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, where doctors treated up to 250 patients a day, including many young runaways and drug addicts.

Like many in the country, those teenagers saw pictures of the Be-in and set out for San Francisco. Soon masses of wannabe hippies and curious individuals thronged the streets of Haight Ashbury, and visitors gawked at neighborhood residents from tourist buses. Alas, the fundamental ideas of the hippie movement were quickly watered down by the mainstream, which was keen on reducing this attitude toward life down to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. But the Diggers’ free mentality had solid political motives. “We were deep into cultural warfare,” recalls cofounder Peter Coyote, who later acted in Hollywood productions such as E.T. “The Diggers were cultural revolutionaries. We began to analyze the situation more deeply and realized that the entire culture was producing the Vietnam War—this wasn’t a political aberration. If you accepted the premises of profit and private property, you wound up in Vietnam.” Many of the original hippies had had enough of San Francisco after that first summer, and particularly of the dealers, who were trafficking more and more hard drugs. They fled to the countryside. It was for them and millions of other Americans trying to lead communal, ecologically oriented lives, that the first Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of do-it-yourself tips, product recommendations, and information on vendors, was published in 1968. People found out where to buy new mountain bikes, how to breed goats, or how to build a geodesic dome. It was a kind of Google in book form. A total of 1.5 million copies were sold in 1972 alone. Behind the project was Stewart Brand, who had assembled an impressive network of counterculturists and computer pioneers at Stanford Research Institute. In 1968, he supported engineer Douglas Engelbart in a demonstration that presented, for the first time, the computer mouse, hypertext, and technologies on which today’s videoconferences are based. He also coined the expression “personal computer” for the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand was also way ahead of his time when he cofounded the first online community, The WELL, in 1984.

In a very personal speech delivered at Stanford University in 2005, Apple founder Steve Jobs called the Whole Earth Catalog “one of the bibles of my generation.” Indeed, the link to Silicon Valley illustrates the fact that the hippie movement also greatly influenced our networked and virtual world. Finally, Jobs imparted to students the motto that can be read on the back of the last issue of Brand’s catalog: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

The legacy of the “Summer of Love” is also omnipresent for ex-Digger Peter Coyote. Although the counterculture didn’t win its political battles—it didn’t end the Vietnam War, racism, or imperialism— it did win, in Coyote’s words, “all the cultural battles. There’s no place you can go in the United States today where there’s not a women’s movement; an environmental movement; a slow food, organic food movement; or alternate medical practices. Alternate spiritual practices. And those are ways that people actually live. And they’re much deeper than politics. I think, we actually won a lot more than people recognize.”

Summer of Love
Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll

June 20 – October 28, 2019