The Sixties: Alternating Current
From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983
An inaugural exhibition in celebration of the opening of the new Vancouver Art Gallery
at Robson Square, October 15-December 31 1983
[ 4,313 words ]
It was a decade of paradox, ego, and lifestyle impossible to explain unless you had lived it. We loved the sixties, the friendships, the art, the feeling of achievement and change — being part of the world and its experimentation, appetites, and discoveries. It was an important time in which the consciousness of a generation was raised and everything changed. Vancouver then was like no other place in Canada. Artists here sensed that their generation promised a beginning, and in such an environment the arts were bound to thrive. In an attempt to explain the period, one can easily separate the technical progress, politics, and contributions of individual artists. But what occurred was neither a time nor an activity nor a body of work. It was a way of life and the question becomes where to concentrate one's attention to distinguish the details from the overview.
In 1963 Dr. Timothy Leary was dismissed from Harvard for administering LSD to students. 'Through these drugs,' he said, 'the modern person could replicate the visionary experiences of the ancients and in this way release the ages old wisdom of oneness with God.' War in Asia. American imperialism denounced. We wanted to see beyond the violence and materialism and perceive the world with feeling and vision: the candles lit, the strobe lights on, the music loud, as everyone lay back and did their own thing. To be in touch also meant friends had bad trips or got busted on drug charges. People we didn't know 'crashed' on the living room floor. Our walls were decorated with prints, drawings, and posters. We were eating health food and sharing ideas; hanging out at Fourth, Robson Street, English Bay, Kitsilano; meeting at the Cecil, the Alcazar, comfortable places to drink and talk politics, art, who was doing what.
Nuclear disarmament, student and civil rights movements, heightened political interest. One's life also connected with the music — rock and roll, Joan Baez, Dylan, freedom and sacrifice, love and war: 'What's that sound, everybody look what's goin' down,' Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones. Celebration of self, sharing and getting stoned with a little help from your friends. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Alan Watts's Zen Buddhism — the psychedelic experience. 'It feels right' perception.
In postwar Canada there was a tremendous upsurge of optimism about moving ahead and producing a kind of social Utopia. We felt we could control events — if enough of us got together our energy would be felt. We were convinced that anything was possible — that we could change the human race to a more loving, more positive one. At the same time we were made aware of all the contradictions to that optimism.
Refusing cooperation with industrial competitiveness and social suppression did not mean there was political change. The capitalist economic system was as powerful as ever. By the end of the decade many of the people who were left in a 'sixties' lifestyle that was being reabsorbed chose to drop out and leave the technological urban scene. A few acres of land on one of the Gulf Islands or in the Interior were all that was necessary as an alternative to social restriction and materialism. Style substituted for substance.
Art had not progressed beyond the awareness of individual artists who alone or with others were able to be a part of what had happened. Little of the Women's Movement, Native Rights, anti Vietnam protest and counter-culture lifestyle was reflected in the electronic, plexiglas, and hard-edge colour paintings of the sixties. What the sixties did was to make some people artists, and art helped some people to keep sane.
From 1960 to 1969 we went from one new experience to another, inspired by the trends of thinking as well as the ever-new means and materials for visual expression. Art was thrown wide open to the imagination. Because nothing mattered, everything counted. By 1960 American, notably New York, art was known about, but few Vancouver artists had ever seen it. Scarcely were we familiar with the work of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and others of the 'New York School' when a younger generation set out in a different direction: Warhol, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Jasper Johns. Their art was focussed on society: the consumerism ideal and the political scene. In large measure, they determined the art of the sixties internationally. The pop art of Richard Hamilton in England came to full bloom in the United States with its evolving continuum of fashion, magazines, and supermarkets. We knew that another time was dawning and it was an exciting period of creativity unhampered by tradition. Insight gained one day was challenged the next. There was more of an acknowledgement of direction than a championing of the result. Abstract expressionism gave way to post-painterly abstraction, pop, and minimalism. Formalist art, as an art that stressed 'form' rather than 'content', tended to be grounded in geometric appearances.
Formalist criticism emphasized the values of purity, integrity, and truth to materials. This criticism influenced what artists were doing. Formalism as a visual tool arose in the social criticism of Clement Greenberg in the late 1930s out of his need to expunge literary issues from the arts. Greenberg placed new emphasis on problems that were immediately bound to artistic procedure and the nature of the medium as distinguished from issues that were tied to social ethics. From this standpoint, new art forms were seen to be in linear progression. The difficulty was that all the lines ran in different directions. The period was built up in layers with a pluriformity of expressions. The new generation had been nurtured on abstract expressionism, that no holds were barred, that anything could serve as an idea. When American pop art was exhibited for the first time it caused a sensation for what was seen as a lack of content and experienced as a private language. Latching on to the reality of industrialised western civilization, the style was similar to Happenings on the street in its synthesis of life and art.
In the mid-sixties it was as if this realism was still too dependent on artists as instruments of observation. Their sights then became fixed not so much on this reality as on a certain objectivity, with impersonal principle serving as the basis for making art. Various movements, whether Systematic Art or Minimal Art, were customarily discussed in an almost scientific manner: art as visual research with art theory providing visual information. Ideas took form with the aid of the most modern materials and advanced techniques. By the late sixties art broke through the barrier of physical possibilities to Conceptualism — with the result that objects were free from the link with process. What was important was the validity of the idea.
At the same time, in Los Angeles, a group of artists had achieved international prominence. At a seminar in Vancouver in 1968 they discussed their attempts to circumvent the process of 'reading' or ordering as required by pictorial conventions to force a more direct visual confrontation:
'The whole idea of transference of ideas no longer works as a thought form for us. I don't think that art is really something that has to do with objects. Once you come to non-objective art, you begin to deal with the physical existence of something and ideas are no good. They [the objects] only exist in terms of what they are. When you forget the ideas they all become important. We are not involved with the whole classical tradition any longer. We are disenchanted. The idea of saying, "What do you think?" is irrelevant in the sense that there is no way of motivating all these people in one singular direction. Like the spiritual values, the social values... have absolutely nothing to do with the art at all. They happen to be one of the results of the art. When art exists, then from it will come social meaning, political meaning, economic meaning.' (Robert Irwin)
'I guess what it's all about is where our heads are, in a sense... it's like a point where you don't really think about it any more in terms of it being art.' (Craig Kauffman)
A great deal of attention focussed on the Los Angeles artists' use of techniques, processes, and surfaces. They used transparent and translucent high gloss materials to maximize the role of colour and light as denotative factors. But the real shift was that for them the medium was an instrument of perception, human perception — the idea that the observer completes the work of art. Their position was based on a belief about the nature of experience rather than on any considered diagnosis of the contemporary situation.
Virtually everything was included within the terms of art by the end of the sixties. The world was not brought within the framework of art, but rather within the experience of art. Every reality, under organized intensification, could acquire the aspect of art by making a unique statement that led to an experience for the viewer.
Art could furnish information either about the reality of the experience or about the conceptualizing of the idea. The distinction lay in the material and the direction. By 1970 Donald Karshan, at a New York conceptual art exhibition, was to say, 'We know that quality exists in the thinking of the artist, not in the object he employs — if he employs an object at all. We begin to understand that painting and sculpture are simply unreal in the coming age of computers and instant travel.'
There was also an interesting change in gallery attitudes. Museum curators were no longer just installers / critics / interpreters, but involved in the actualization process of this art. In an attempt to be part of the mainstream, galleries opened their doors and seemed prepared to listen.
Under the direction of Tony Emery and Doris Shadbolt, the Vancouver Art Gallery took on the responsibility of exhibiting works of an experimental nature, even if they were unresolved. The public was willing to participate in this indulgent experiment, since people were beginning to understand the qualities that made art important to them (although this development did not achieve all the expected results). The willingness to let art be the record of experience was in full bloom. Each time the New York scene shifted all the media carried news of the event and the 'stars' who created it. Innovation became paramount.
The idea that the visual arts were en route to perfection was reflected in the idea of progress in society. Nowhere was modernity so strong as in the concept of advancement in the mid-sixties with its meeting of art and technology, and overcoming of material limitations. Things previously imagined were now experienced and brought within the terms of art, visible in an image that could be identified with the situation.
Although observing now included meditating and experiencing, the formal qualities of the object never left west coast art. Today, if one asks the artists involved how it was, they are inclined to describe a loss of specifics, a change, an attempt to make art political, erotic, mystical, or scientific.
During the sixties there was an increase in the demand for the expensive art object by an affluent middle-class. Attempts to meet this demand included the proliferation of 'multiples,' serial imagery, 'disposables', and signed reproductions / prints. However, the basic structure of the art market remained unchanged. Mass production and serial imagery such as Warhol's identical silkscreen images represented a political rejection of the unattainable and unique art object. Nevertheless, these objects soon assumed thevery commodity status they questioned.
Attacks on the 'unique objects of the wealthy' created new categories of art, conceived under the influence of democratic social concepts and a new internationalism. This led to a coherence and apparent logic scarcely matched since — ah audience, a function, a unity, and a vital core. Such a situation, with obvious significance for the history of art in this century, has never properly been explored; it seems to have been obscured by the cult of artistic 'originality' and a nostalgia for what was most ephemeral in the past. The great difference between art then and now lies not in the surface aspect of innovations but in the framework within which they were applied.
The common view of the sixties that modern art was a glorious progression gave it, above all, a sense of direction. Ultimately this sense was political, based on the artist's conscious involvement with a society new both in its structures and in its material resources. This sense is what caused many artists to rise to a new plane where their art would penetrate the life around them.
Why a particular cultural manifestation occurs at a certain time is difficult to determine. Some insights are provided by the following comments from eleven people who were part of the art energies of the sixties in Vancouver. With today's hindsight, they look back to remember and reflect.
DORIS SHADBOLT: There is something pretty fundamental about this landscape by its very nature. If people are looking for a refuge and for a life that is counter to everything that is represented by urbanism and war, this is an ideal place. We tended not only to get people who represented a kind of back-to-nature, back-to-the-land, all that was involved in the spirit of those times, but the people who represented that sentiment. They were the ones who came. The American influence amplified what was already potential here.
The West Coast had to do with spirit or energy a lot more than objects. The physical nature of the place, the geographic location, the sense of being between the mountains and the sea. The fact that on the other side of the sea we know is the Orient and inevitably an interest in what the Orient means in terms of religion and philosophy for a lot of people. I would say that the spirit of the sixties offered the manifestation, the strong manifestation, of an existing spirit.
IAIN BAXTER: The essence of the sixties in Vancouver? A lot of really healthy energy and a slightly healthy naïvete, but a global consciousness was coming out of there.
In the sixties we thought that art could change life; change the environment, change Vancouver. A lot of artists got involved with looking at art as a way of living.
MICHAEL DE COURCY: There was no need to work. There was unemployment and welfare and all sorts of other ways of getting by. We all crowded together in little houses and paid very little rent. On Welfare Day we bought cans of tobacco and cases of beer. Vancouver was like Florida or California. It was warm all the time. You could lounge around on the streets and have a fine time. And drugs were here. There was a serious kind of experimental atmosphere surrounding drug use. What we were doing was really important, and it hadn't been done before. It was emanating from California and the sense was that if you were really serious about drugs you would get down there and experiment with the real McCoy. New ideas in psychiatry and social awareness and all that touching and feeling.
RICHARD SIMMINS: I loved Vancouver from the time I stepped off the plane (in 1964). I haven't changed; I still love Vancouver. I think that there was a lack of cohesiveness then as far as the art movement was concerned. B. C. artists found themselves rather isolated. I think that the Vancouver Art Gallery did play a certain role, I'm not saying the only one, but it did play a certain role in creating an art consciousness in the community.
DORIS SHADBOLT: Richard Simmins was determined to get us [the Vancouver Art Gallery] out of the kid's league, and everything that that meant. I think that was his real contribution. Richard would say, 'If you are into art, which we are, you are in all the way. You are concerned with quality all the way through.'
DAVID ORCUTT: The sixties were part of a general, social phenomenon that was not just confined to Vancouver but certainly began in Vancouver as early as it began any place else. I think there is a feeling that it all happened in San Francisco first and then came here. And I do not think that's the case.
ALVIN BALKIND: I don't think the sixties are all that unique because there have always been periods in history when there was an upsurge of one kind or another informed by philosophical ideas, informed by the exhaustion of the previous society leading to decadence, to breakdown, and to the necessity to rebuild, be reborn. With that hope and with those ideals you can do certain things.
TOM SHANDEL: In Vancouver we were even more provincial than Canada was as a whole at the time. Intermedia gave us access to the international scene. It put us in touch with international artists and consumers of art and brought, via the visiting artists that came floating through, the germination of other ideas. For Vancouver, it had a significance beyond art.
IAIN BAXTER: I put a telex in my house because I felt you could plug into anywhere in the world and it didn't matter if you were a little tiny town. I sent a telex to the head office of Harper's Bazaar just by having that telex machine in my house in North Vancouver. They couldn't believe it.
MICHAEL MORRIS: The simple fact is that for art to be a necessity of life, which I believe it is, one needs vast populations. So we have a choice never to find an identity through art because our population is too small or to face up to the reality of the world and our status in it. The world will not wait for us to find our identity unless we allow art to define our 'cultural ecology'. The rest of the world will define it for us in their molds.
IAIN BAXTER: You thought in the sixties that if you made people aware of some of the formal values and the aesthetic values they would start to have a more critical response to society.
JACK DALE: The Vancouver artists, socially, were with each other all the time. Socially, everybody went to the [gallery] openings, everybody talked, everybody met each other and everybody discussed.
CLAUDE BREEZE: I was marching in Ban-the-Bomb parades. Those various social aspects were very relevant to me at the time and I had to not just paint another abstract painting but do something that reflected how I was politically active.
GLENN LEWIS: Roy Kiyooka had a great influence. He brought a kind of tough, critical, intellectual awareness to painting at that point, encouraged students like Michael Morris and others to take their own work more seriously in that respect. Besides Roy Kiyooka's and other artists' places, the Cecil pub actually was one of the places for artists and poets. Before that, when I was at art school, artists used to go to the Alcazar but later it was the Cecil and for many years all the poets would go there, and many of the artists, and they would meet, drink beer, and talk things over.
ROY KIYOOKA:... energy was an outpouring of the sixties, clearly, with all its Utopian spirit and hallucinatory drugs and strange other-worldliness and madness. And that persists in a person like me.
ALVIN BALKIND: It was believed at the time by a lot of people that no God-given talent was necessary, all you needed was work and inspiration. If you express what's within you, therefore, you are part of the great big stream and isn't it wonderful. The best of the Intermedia artists never bought that any more than I did.
GARY LEE-NOVA: The Canada Council got wind that there was something going on in the West and they had better pay attention. So they came out and they held a conference. David Silcox came early and he hung around for almost a week and he went to all these performances and he was visibly shaken. He was seeing and hearing all the electronic music experiments and all the painting that was going on and all the sculpture and he just sort of stepped in like the sheriff and started making things happen.
WERNER AELLEN: It was a fascinating mosaic of video. At that time, video was practically unheard of. The first experiments at the Film Board were made around 1965 so only three years after those experiments we used one of the first generation of 1/2 inch video in Vancouver. The effect on the art community, here and elsewhere, was slight shock but they couldn't help being fascinated by this new endeavour. The critics loved it. They felt they had something to relate to. Something new to get their teeth into. A lot of them were bored with the uncertainty of whether art was going anywhere.
IAIN BAXTER: I was driving up on Tenth and saw a shock absorber at a gas station. The shock absorber was in three dimensions, hanging in front of a gas station just before you go in the door. You've seen lots of those, they're point-of-sale ads, and here it was in three dimensions like it was coming out. I thought, Jesus, that's got to be a great way to do something because it's a material that it's made in, it's the object itself, and it's there and it's got its own background.
GARY LEE-NOVA: I had just been accelerated by all that exposure in London, all that art, American, European, British, young pop stuff, so that when I got back, and saw them setting up a still-life at the Art School, I'm going 'Oh, my God!' I was painting great big six- foot-square canvases in England and I was too accelerated. The pace of Vancouver in 1963 was a bit like a really slow carousel, you know. Up and down, up and down.
GLENN LEWIS: I lived in the 'New Era Social Club' on Powell Street. Dennis Vance, Taki Bluesinger, Gerry Gilbert, Michael de Courcy and Gregg Simpson stayed there at different times. Gary Lee-Nova had used it as a studio before that, too. There wasn't a public scene, it wasn't like a café society. The social interaction happened through Intermedia or through people's places and studios; there was a definite sense of a scene going on. We would just get together and talk and so on. It was a vital situation.
GARY LEE-NOVA: Sam Perry and all these crazy people interested in media rented a storefront [Sound Gallery]. We just very openly got hold of all this stuff that Sam had, magicland and projectors and slide projectors and movie projectors. We hung all these weird curtains and screens and mirrors around and Al Neil would go in there and pound the piano for three hours and we'd just project images, you know, no script, no nothing, just see what happens. Let's see what happens. That kind of mood-altering, conscious-altering thing, that's what was fascinating. The media was capable of altering consciousness.
GARY LEE-NOVA: Staying on the West Coast and putting up with the rain and taking the low road is better. I'd rather be second rate here than first rate there, because at least I'm learning something.
DORIS SHADBOLT: I would say on the whole that the sixties weren't motivated by idealism. That kind of idealism might be found as rationale for it, but I think it was more exhilaration with the sheer excitement of expanding the notion of creativity and breaking boundaries between disciplines. The notion of sharing, so to speak, in whatever way and, certainly, involving the spectator.
TONY EMERY: It was a very particular time and it had too many factors that will never repeat, I hope, like the Vietnam War, like the rock explosion, like the drug culture, like the absolute magnetism of oriental philosophies. It was something that happened then and it's left its mark forever, the western world's consciousness has been changed by it.
GLENN LEWIS: I think art in Vancouver now is much more diverse. There's maybe not the sense of a scene as much. There is obviously a scene, but it's diverse. It's not as coherent as it was then. It's interesting if you compare Vancouver and Toronto or the East. I'm always aware of the European influence. I feel the weight of tradition when I'm in the East and out here I don't feel that. There isn't the sense of tradition to stymie you.
DORIS SHADBOLT: There was this high that probably had to do with timing after the war and a kind of affluence which did result in a societal change, which was reflected in art. It wasn't just art, it was the Greening of America. It's like a kind of excess of a certain kind which has its spiritual component but by its nature cannot be sustained. It involves at the time a flinging aside of some of the more conservative elements, but those elements gain force again and close in. There were gains that have not been lost and that have to do with not just artistic changes but humanitarian changes and spiritual changes that have had a permanent residue in all. We have now higher consciousness as people, and there are more manifestations of all the kinds of rights that exist.
From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983
Text: © Lorna Farrell-Ward. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.