“William Blake and the Age of Aquarius” Preview- The Block Museum to host a blockbuster exhibition

Richard Anuskiewicz, "Inward Eye #2", 1970, serigraph; courtesy of Swope Art Museum
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The Block Museum of Art will present a major exhibition on British poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827) and the 20th century counterculture artists he inspired.  “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius” will run Sept. 23, 2017, through March 11, 2018, at the Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive on Northwestern University’s Evanston, Illinois campus.

The first exhibition to consider the impact of Blake on American artists from the end of World War II through 1970, the show features more than 150 paintings, drawings, photographs, films, posters and other medium from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, more than 50 rare Blake rare engravings and pages from illuminated books which have been loaned from major collections including The Rosenbach in Philadelphia and the Yale Center for British Art.

This is also the first major museum exhibition to present Blake’s prints and illuminated poetry such as “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” side by side with objects from 20th-century art and popular culture. This approach illuminates new trans-historical connections between these periods.

Victor Moscoso, “The Doors”, “The Miller Blues Band”, Daily Flash, June 1-4, 1967, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries

“William Blake and the Age of Aquarius” will build upon the Block Museum’s recent focus on art and culture of the 1960s undertaken with “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s,” to expand understanding of a unique facet of mid-20th century counterculture, as well as make a contribution to existing scholarship in the fields of art history and American cultural studies.

In his own lifetime, William Blake was a relatively unknown, eccentric and nonconventional artist with a strong political bent. From the 1940s through the 1960s, some 200 years after his birth, Blake became a model of non-conformity, self-expression and social and political resistance.  In the summer of 1967, more than 100,000 young people streamed into the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in order to celebrate peace, love, music and mind-altering drugs.  Many of the artists, poets and musicians associated with the “Summer of Love’s” anti-war sentiment embraced the work of Blake and used it as a compass to drive their own political and personal evolutions.

Blake’s poetry and political ideas had unique currency in postwar America, unifying artists working across various media. The exhibition brings together artists who used Blake’s lyrics as titles, experimented with printing techniques and innovative combinations of image and text and cited Blake’s worldview in letters, diaries and essays. Artists and musicians as diverse as Diane Arbus, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Robert Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Stanley William Hayter, Jimi Hendrix, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Maurice Sendak, The Doors and The Fugs will be featured, united by the influence of Blake on their work.

Sam Francis, “Damn Braces”, 1960, color lithograph, Milwaukee Art Museum; photo by John R. Glembin

The exhibition was curated by Dr. Stephen F. Eisenman, critic, activist, and Professor of art, Northwestern, in consultation with Corinne Granof, curator of academic programs at the Block. “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius” will feature both well-known and under-recognized American artists who cited Blake as an inspiration, and present their work alongside Blake’s.

This reviewer had the opportunity to interview both curators on the eve of the exhibition. Their paraphrased remarks follow:

This exhibition is composed of 2 parts that reflect upon each other”, notes Dr. Eisenman. The first portion is comprised of the work of William Blake. He was a great artist and poet, not as well known as other artists of similar cultural significance; for instance, he was equally as significant as Monet in his imaginative breadth”, said Dr. Eisenman. “ Some of Blake’s achievements were remarkable. He displayed a willingness to challenge existing morals, values and norms”, he commented.

John Stephan, Painting for cover of “The Tiger’s Eye”, C. 1948, oil on canvas, Yale University Gallery, courtesy of John Stephan

“The 2nd portion of the exhibit focuses on the reception and response of American artists of the 1940’s-1960’s to the work of Blake. Thus, the exhibition as a whole allows audiences to see how works of art have multiple lives, evoking multiple responses. Blake’s work has had, in essence, a series of afterlives.”

Dr. Eisenman agreed that the Blake exhibit “is a natural followup to the show, ‘A Feast of Astonishments’, which focused on the work of artist Charlotte Moorman, “who also challenged many mainstream ideas. As part of the Block’s examination of the culture and politics of the 1960’s, it keeps the ball rolling’, he mused. “However, in the Blake exhibit, there is a longer story being told with more major artists involved. Artists and others confronted with the circumstances of oppressive rulers will resist; Blake resisted and later artists looked back to him and were inspired”.

Corinne Granof notes that Blake’s “childlike joy” is a big part of the exhibition, “but so is the dark side of childhood”. Her role has been to work with Dr. Eisenman as consulting curator. “Everything the Block does”, she stated, “has an educational and academic component because one of our primary audiences is the University community. Thus, the Blake exhibit seeks to shine a light on history, to examine the past through works of art, to place art within a broader context”.  She continued, “There is a great nostalgic appeal to the show as well. It connects art with ideas, events and music. On opening day we will have D.J’s from Northwestern’s radio station playing some of the great 6o’s era rock and roll”.

William Blake, “The Number of the Beast is 666”, C. 1805, The Rosenbach, Philadelphia; photo by Jonathan Donavan

“This exhibition, the first to explore William Blake’s impact on 20th-century popular culture, is populated by beats, hippies, poets, rockers and artistic voices of the counterculture.  Blake’s protests against the conventions and repressions of his own society became a model for many young Americans, particularly those disillusioned by social conformity, consumerism, racial and gender discrimination, environmental degradation and the Vietnam War,” notes Dr. Eisenman.

Adds Granof, “The show considers ‘the long 60’s’- the period after WW 2 through the end of the Vietnam War, when people were reacting to the dehumanization of war. In response, many of the works of art displayyed prize individuality and embrace independence and originality.”

An early section of the exhibition will focus on artists working in the mid-1940s who discovered Blake’s unique voice in such poems as “The Tyger” and “The Shepherd” and drew inspiration for their own work from his ideas. These will include Sam Francis, Stanley William Hayter, Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock, Charles Seliger, Robert Smithson and Clyfford Still among others.

Clyford Still, 1946, oil on canvas, courtesy of Clyford Still Museum

Another exhibition theme focuses on Beat culture and the role of radical poet Allen Ginsberg in promoting Blake to fellow poets and writers. It will examine Blake as a model for the artist as outsider and bring together works by Helen Adam, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Robert Frank and Jess.

A final section inspired by Blake’s famous phrase “the Doors of Perception” will trace the wider circulation of Blake’s art and imagery and how it permeated popular culture as the alternative movements of the 1960s came to full fruition.  Including classic concert posters and music this section will examine Blake’s influence on artists and musicians who embraced psychedelia and Timothy Leary’s call to “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”

The exhibition “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius” will be complemented by a variety of engagement programs throughout Fall 2017 and Winter 2018, which use the exhibition as a springboard to explore Blake’s continued contemporary influence, the relationship between image and text, and the resonance of the art and politics of Blake’s work. Considering parallels between Blake’s time, mid-twentieth-century America and today, museum events and speakers will touch on such topics as political repression, social transformation, and struggles for civil rights.

William Blake, “Ancient of Days”, frontispiece from “Europa a prophecy”, 1794, relief etching. The Rosenbach, Philadelphia; photo by Jonathan Donavan

Opening Day Program: “Blake, Now and Then”
Saturday, Sept. 23, 10AM to 1PM

“William Blake and the Age of Aquarius” kicks off with an opening day program including a conversation with Dr. Stephen Eisenman and W.J.T. Mitchell, Blake scholar, editor of “Critical Inquiry” and Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. The talk will explore Blake’s role within his own time, his influence on countercultural American artists and musicians of the 1960s and the ways in which Blake’s independence, imagination and resistance to authority impacted those who came after him.

The illustrated discussion “Blake, Now and Then”, at 2PM, will look comparatively at three periods in the reception of Blake: the first is his own time, when he was virtually unknown, a neglected outsider artist whose work could have easily disappeared except for a few devoted friends; the second is the period of modernism from the pre-Raphaelites to Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Bataille, and Joyce; the third is the “long 1960s,” starting with the Beat Generation and moving into the era of Marshall McLuhan, the rise of the New Left, the Hippies and counterculture. The conversation will conclude with the question of our own time: what is Blake’s relevance to our moment?

This conversation will be preceded by an all ages morning of printmaking and music William Blake and the Age of Aquarius: Block Museum “Be-In” from 10AM to 1PM.

 In the summer of 1967, more than 100,000 young people streamed into San Francisco to celebrate peace, love, and music. Many of the artists, poets, and musicians associated with the “Summer of Love” embraced the art and ideas of British visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827). Blake’s protests against the conventions of his day were inspirational for many young Americans disillusioned by social uniformity, materialism, racial and gender discrimination, and environmental degradation. From the 1940s through the 1960s, some 200 years after his birth, Blake became a model of non-conformity, self-expression, and social and political resistance.

Celebrate the imaginative spirit that unites Blake and the Age of Aquarius. Make an original print with Chicago-based print collective Spudnik Press, follow your muse with typewritten Poems While You Wait, groove to WNUR DJs and be part of Old Town School of Folk Music “Counter Culture Jam Sessions with Jimmy T & Mary Peterson.” Bring a guitar, bring your voice – join in the jam!

William Blake, “The Tyger”, from “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”, 1794, color-prints relief etching, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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