"Electrical Banana" and the Selling of Psychedelic Art

The cover of the new psychedelic-art book Electrical Banana (via D.A.P.)

In Electrical Banana: Masters of Psychedelic Art (Damiani, $39.95), co-authors Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel cite the 7UP “Uncola” advertising campaign, launched in 1967 by the J. Walter Thompson Agency, as “the ultimate mainstream psychedelic expression. . . . This was the first time psychedelic art had gone mass market on such a scale, and, for many viewers, their first inkling that youth culture was being, in a sense, co-opted.” The seven artists featured in this book helped establish the swirling acid-trip fractals and Tarot- and Eastern-religion-inspired symbols that came to represent the counterculture more than any of its individual instigators and practitioners. As Hathaway and Nadel make clear, these artists found themselves clumped into this genre through many different avenues, but for all of their differences, and for the purpose of this collection, “Psychedelic art as we mean it is commercial,” in the words of the authors.

The paintings, murals, and designs created by Heinz Edelmann, Martin Sharp, Dudley Edwards, Marijke Koger, Keiichi Tanaami, Mati Klarwein, and Tadanori Yokoo grace landmark albums like Cream’s Disraeli Gears and countless iconic concert and movie posters. But psychedelia did not become a cultural movement because of some bands and trippy, sexually suggestive visuals. These were merely components in a surge of nonconformity that had erupted in the U.S. and the U.K., giving youth culture the confidence to let its freak flag fly. Concerts and parties morphed into “happenings” where everyone and everything conjoined in some lava-lamp-hued, amoeba-shaped hug of positivity and unlimited potential that flaunted convention and challenged all the rules.

Electrical Banana does not concern itself with how this critical mass was achieved, or how it sputtered out, but what it does document, through both the artwork and the excellent interviews that reveal elements of process as well as gossip about famous musicians, is how these artists thrived on, and took advantage of, the zeitgeist.

Dudley Edwards, via D.A.P.

Some of this work comes off as camp. Dudley Edwards applied his “brightly colored and electrified take on traditional fairground painting” to store displays, cars, and, most notably, the piano Paul McCartney used to write “Hey Jude.” (A candid interview with McCartney, accompanied by some of his sketches, serves as the book’s foreword.) But viewed today, Edwards’s designs evoke Austin Powers more than the Fab Four and the Kinks. It’s hard to imagine how Cream, the ultimate rock ’n’ roll power trio, wailed with any ferocity wearing the flowery, flouncey blouses designed by Marjike Koger, the driving creative force behind the art collective the Fool, which was also famous for the Hair mural painted on the Aquarius Theater in Los Angeles. But no matter what today’s high-definition perspective is on these visuals of yore, there is no denying that at the time they were all the rage, representing a lack of inhibition that had begun to infiltrate popular culture.

Marijke Koger, via D.A.P.

The kids staring into ornate album cover designs and decorating their bedrooms with racy, disorienting bubble-lettered posters might not have realized how derivative much of this work was in terms of art history, but the artists certainly did, as the interviews indicate. Major contemporary influences on these works included American underground comics and Push Pin Studios. Of course, those in turn both borrowed from their Art Nouveau and Art Deco predecessors, as the authors point out. The late-19th-century forms and figures of Alfons Mucha, Aubrey Beardsley, and Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec quake and pose in this work from the 1960s. But whereas Art Deco angles can stand the test of time, when they’re propped up by sherbet colors and soft shapes the visual takeaway loses something—or perhaps just reminds us of the fleeting nature of this cultural optimism.

Martin Sharp, via D.A.P.

Many elements of the featured artwork remain fresh today. Martin Sharp, who shared a studio with Eric Clapton and wrote the lyrics to the Cream song “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” created “record covers that signal ‘psychedelic’ stronger than anything else in this book.” But his work for the magazine Oz really catches the eye; it appreciates white space, rather than filling it to the point of bloating the composition. Mati Klarweain’s cosmically spiritual women arranged amongst elements of sacred geometry were raised to the level of goddesses on the album covers for Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and Santana’s Abraxas, and maintain their visual allure today. Tadanori Yokoo, the most formal designer of the bunch, happened to be associated with this movement by virtue of his “deep well of historical and personal symbols” for “work that at once combined shocking imagery with deeply humane concerns, virtuoso Japanese printing techniques, and an innate cool.” He had been oblivious of the movement, and only learned about it when visiting Yukio Mishima’s biographer, John Nathan, in New York in 1967. It was there that the word “psychedelic” first entered Yokoo’s vocabulary, which he recalls Nathan translating “as a combination of ‘psychology’ and ‘delicious.’”

Mati Klarwein, via D.A.P.

But no matter what mind-set the artists brought to the work, ultimately there was a paycheck at the end of the kaleidoscope tunnel. Keiichi Tanaami, who staged radical happenings in Tokyo where images were projected onto nude men and women in public, admits that “it was just business . . . I never liked the music.” Heinz Edelmann, best known for his Yellow Submarine animations, does not recall those days with stained-glass nostalgia: “All I can say is, I’ve finally made my peace with Yellow Submarine. I’m no longer ashamed of it, but I never, ever liked the psychedelic era. It was the first outburst of decadence. It was not a fresh start. I think the earlier ’60s and the late ’ 50s were much more inspiring then all that psychedelic stuff was.”

Between the artwork and the interviews, Electrical Banana bottles lysergic lighting, capturing a moment in time, showcasing the genuine innovative beauty of artwork borne out of cultural and political upheaval that set the course for the future—and making clear that it never was all peace, love, and rainbows.

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