Distant Horizons: Pioneers of Psychedelic Art, the exhibit currently at the Carl Solway Gallery, is a show devoted to 1960s art at its most radically transformative. The four principal artists — Isaac Abrams, Ira Cohen, Tony Martin and the artist collective USCO (especially its member Gerd Stern) — were, in many cases, so turned on by LSD that they sought to create work that, like the drug, could see through all of life’s pretensions and artifices to arrive at the pure white light/white heat of revelatory truth.
So what are two copies of a poster for Head, a 1968 movie starring The Monkees — so often derided as the ultimate in fake, commercial boy bands — doing in this show?
It’s a beautiful screen-printed poster — an image of a serious-looking, bespectacled young man’s head on reflective Mylar, with colors swirling around. It’s so memorable it’s in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Still… The Monkees?he explanation relates to USCO’s Stern, who at age 88 has a fascinating history as a poet, visual artist, Beatnik and hippie. There’s a 329-page interview with him, conducted by the University of California’s Regional Oral History Office, available online to prove how unusual his life has been.
He, as part of USCO, was involved in a groundbreaking Long Island disco, called The World, that used new media projections so groundbreaking it received widespread press coverage. The Solway exhibition has a copy of a 1966 Life magazine featuring the place. At the time, Stern was represented by a young John Brockman — now a top literary agent — in his commercial ventures.
“One day, we got something from Hollywood saying they had seen our publicity and would like to meet with us,” Stern says. “And later, in front of (Brockman’s) Central Park building, a huge limousine stopped and they asked us to come down.”
In the limo were two men, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who had created The Monkees, a television sensation from 1966-68 in which four actors were hired to portray a zany, tight-knit Beatlesque band. By 1968, Rock music had moved on and they were seen as too synthetic and adolescent. Still, Rafelson and Schneider had parlayed their success into a six-picture production deal with Columbia Pictures. For the first film, they wanted to make the band newly appreciated for the turned-on generation.
Stern says he partook of marijuana in the limo, but Brockman didn’t touch the stuff. “They said they hadn’t thought of a name for the picture yet and I thought of (one). I said, ‘Let’s call it Head. It’s a great name for a movie.’ ‘Heads’ are people who smoke dope. And Rafelson is the movie’s director, so he’s the head. We’ll do a psychedelic poster of his head.”
According to Stern, the two producers sent him and Brockman to Hollywood to plan for the movie’s promotional campaign.
“We went to a photographer’s studio and I said to Rafelson, ‘Sit down in the chair and we’re going to take your picture for the poster.’ He said, ‘It ain’t gonna be me. It’s going to be John.’ I said he’s not a head — he doesn’t smoke and he’s not the director. And he said, ‘Who’s paying who?’ So it ended up being John.”
Rafelson, in a 2002 interview for Mojo, had a somewhat different story: “The ad was originally supposed to have a picture of me on it, but John Brockman was a Marshall McLuhan scholar and said, ‘It doesn’t matter whose picture is on it. We’re not going to say it’s The Monkees. We’re just going to say, ‘What’s Head? And whose head? and basically enquire people into the theater.’ He was afraid this picture was too radical for The Monkees’ audience, so let’s allow people to discover it as an individual movie. That was the philosophy.”
Stern says USCO’s Judi Stern and Barbara Durkee printed 100 copies of the Mylar posters. There were also paper ones. Stern kept four of the Mylar ones.
Head flopped when released but has since become a cult favorite. But Rafelson’s and Schneider’s next production, the Dennis Hopper-directed Easy Rider, changed Hollywood and made actor Jack Nicholson a star.
DISTANT HORIZONS: PIONEERS OF PSYCHEDELIC ART is on view through Sept. 16 at Carl Solway Gallery, 424 Findlay St., West End. More info: solwaygallery.com.