Now Showing at BAMPFA

Hippie Modernism — The Struggle for Utopia

By David L. Laidig


The entry hall inside BAMPFA displays 35 concert posters, many familiar to those who lived through the psychedelic era, such as the one above by Gary Grimshaw

Heading for the Hippie exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum, I was expecting a flashback to 50 years ago. What I saw, besides the groovy art and a focused history lesson, was an assortment of fanciful ideas and plans from the past, predicting a different future. The show offers an accessible look back to a period when dreamers searched for any way they could to confront increasing commercialization and senseless military action.

Open until May 21, 2017, “Hippie Modernism—The Struggle for Utopia” assembles an international mix of art, costumes, publications and film/video from the mid 1960s through the 70s.

Entering the main gallery, I encountered the “Knowledge Box,” a closed environment designed for sensory overload. Inside, 24 slide projectors throw images of familiar heads from the 1950s and 60s on the floor, ceiling, and all walls as the great voices of that era—from Nixon to Castro—pontificate. When the info barrage is over “EXIT” is projected to show the way out.

Outside the box are many display cases, a small group of mannequins, a geodesic dome and several wall- mounted video displays. The mannequins display “Family Sweater” (one garment for four persons) by Vancouver weaver/artist Evelyn Roth. A video explains how she crocheted a car cozy and other items from 3-inch video tape salvaged from the trash of a local TV station.

I had never heard of Drop City, a long-gone commune. Writing on the wall goes into great detail about their short history in Southeast Colorado. What I will remember is their art inside the dome: a spinning wheel lit by variable strobe. Different flashing frequencies freeze the figures in distinct ways.


Poster boys for the exhibit, The Cockettes (above) were a quintessential San Francisco tribe. Their flamboyant, elaborate costumes (right) are also on display. On April 21, 2017, the Pacific Film Archive, an integral part of the Berkeley Art Museum, will screen a restored 16mm color print of Steven Arnold’s 1971 film “Luminous Procuress” featuring “a gender-bending funfest” according to the program guide.


Photo Credit: David Laidig

A large display box holds a jumble of seemingly unrelated items. They are from Aspen, first published in 1967. Sporting different themes, editors and designers, each issue of this “Magazine in a Box” includes a variety of printed articles in a range of papers and formats, perhaps accompanied by small sculptures, super 8 film, flexi-vinyl audio disks, posters and postcards. The project was discontinued in 1971, after 10 issues, due to “disregard for U.S. Postal Service regulations for magazine circulation.”

A prolific producer of silk screen posters, Sister Corita Kent used her graphic arts training for high impact anti-war statements. Most notable here is “Yellow Submarine.” If you take time to decipher the reversed, sideways and upside-down type, it reads: “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR— VIETNAM—What has it done to the home of the brave?”

Another source of published matter in the show is Superstudio, a group in Italy’s Radical Design movement. They produced photo collages sourced from popular magazines and travel brochures illustrating two concepts: society, following its current path, would find itself in a dismal global monoculture of multi-national consumerism or, conversely, there would be a world-wide grid providing shelter, communication, and everything nomadic people of the future needed for survival. They expounded on these ideas in two 1970 films, video versions shown here.

Architectural plans for space-age living pods were designed by the British group Archigram. In 1968 one of this group proposed “Info-Gonks” with cumbersome mini TV screens. As documented in photos, they look clumsy compared to today’s Google Glass. They also proposed an “Enviro-Pill” to change one’s perception so change need not be physical.

The lower level gallery has a more political flavor.


(Above) Superstudio satirically projected visions of relentless, intrusive cybernetic access and a world of total urbanization dominated by commercial bliss.

The Provos in Amsterdam and the Diggers in San Francisco both operated in anarchist mode. Free bikes, food and housing in Holland. Street theater, free food and subversive publications in California.

On October 6, 1967, Diggers celebrated the end of the Summer of Love, staging “Death of Hippie, Birth of Freedom” by carrying a coffin down Haight Street into the park. Filmed by Allen Willis, a noted African-American documentary film maker, a video rendition of this event is on display along with artifacts from this prolific group.

In Theater 2, a small viewing space near the lower level reading room, short films by Allen Willis and others are showing. Times are posted next to the door.

A special free screening of “Festival Express” will take place on a big outside screen at the corner of Oxford and Addison, on April 29, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. The movie is about a 1970 trans-Canada train trip transporting the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, and other top name groups between venues from Toronto to Calgary as they party all the way.

The Berkeley Art Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, and located just one block away from Berkeley City College at 2155 Center St.

If you are under 18, or it’s the first Thursday of the month, entrance to the galleries is free, otherwise, BCC students pay $10 or $8 for films in the Pacific Film Archive.

For more information about films and talks connected to the museum exhibit, check out:


(Above) Community Memory, a wooden relic of the past was originally set up inside Leopold’s Records to facilitate information sharing. Reading was free. To enter information about past or future events you needed to deposit coins. According to a plaque on the wall, it’s now recognized as the first ”digital social network.”

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