Expand Your Consciousness With William Blake and the Age of Aquarius @ The Block Museum of Art

William Blake
William Blake, Ancient Days  frontispiece for Europe a prophecy, 1794, relief etching on illustration board. Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia. Photographer: Jonathan Donovan.

The Block Museum of Art presents a comprehensive exhibition on William Blake (1757-1827) and the impact he had on American artists from the end of World War II through 1970. William Blake and the Age of Aquarius  features American artists who were inspired by Blake and includes more than 130 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, posters and films, as well as original Blake prints and illuminated books.

William Blake was a relatively unknown artist and poet living in Britain and was viewed as an eccentric and unconventional person. Throughout his life, Blake opposed the monarchy, the industrial revolution and war, and embraced the ideals of democracy, peace, handcraft and personal expression. Because he was outspoken about his beliefs, he was considered not only an outcast, but also a threat to the British government. He was tried for sedition but was eventually acquitted. Blake had only one exhibition of his work during his lifetime and Robert Hunt, who wrote the only review of the show in The Examiner, described his paintings as the work of an “unfortunate lunatic.”

Although Blake died unknown for his artistic accomplishments, he achieved fame over a hundred years after his death when he became a model for independent thinkers that included artists, writers, musicians and sociologists in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He was viewed as a visionary as well as a prophet of sorts for the Age of Aquarius during the 1960s. His art was seen as an endorsement for revolt against the accepted norms of society—from the anti-Vietnam War movement to expanding one’s consciousness, such as in Timothy Leary’s belief that people should seek hallucinogenic experiences in order to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”

William Blake and Aquarius
Sam Francis, Damn Braces,  1960, color lithograph. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Sam Francis Foundation, California. © 2016 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photographer: John R. Glembin.

This exhibition displays the work of major avant-garde artists from the mid-1940s and the ’50s such as Jackson Pollack, Charles Seliger, Clyfford Still, Jay DeFeo and Bruce Conner. They all found Blake’s work as a source of inspiration because of his beliefs that he followed no master and obeyed no rules except those of his own making.

Another part of the exhibition focuses on the Beat Generation writers during the ’50s. One of the major advocates of Blake’s work was poet Allen Ginsberg who was influenced by Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience—he believed it helped him experience, what he called, “eternal consciousness.” Ginsberg and his fellow Beat writers felt that Blake’s ideas represented a challenge to the political, social and sexual conventions of the time. In addition to the Beat poets, this exhibition also reveals how other writers such as Maurice Sendak, Kenneth Patchen and Aldous Huxley were also influenced by Blake.

Also featured are rock concert posters from the ’60s from the Fillmore West and the Cow Palace that advertised groups like the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. Even though the billowy script on some of the posters can be difficult to read, it’s refreshing to see the innocence and simplicity of that time—concert posters that are free of corporate logos. There are also posters created by Martin Sharp (who also designed album covers) of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Sharp’s vibrant use of psychedelic colors creates an electrical energy that seems to emanate from these iconic musicians. Also on display are framed album covers from the ’60s that make one realize the important role that cover art played when making an album.

Blake and Aquarius
Bonnie MacLean, The Yardbirds, The Doors, Fillmore Auditorium; San Francisco, July 25-30, 1967,  1967, offset lithograph, Collection of Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University. Courtesy of the artist.

Blake’s connection to ’60s counterculture is also artfully displayed with a dedicated room that has a ’60s lounge-like setting. Visitors can sit in the dark on beanbag chairs while watching numerous film shorts that include: an excerpt from the Monterrey Pop Festival; a film of the Doors during the original mixing session of their debut album; a liquid light show featuring music by the Doors; and a short film called The Psychedelic Experience that was codirected by Timothy Leary. These film clips create a powerful flashback of memories for visitors who are old enough to have experienced the ’60s. And for younger people, the visual images in the films along with the music illustrate how the ’60s were about expanding one’s consciousness not only through drugs, but through art as well.

There is also a captivating short black-and-white film that tells the story about the artist Jay Defeo and her husband Wally Hedrick and how they had to remove her one-ton painting, The Rose,  from their San Francisco apartment because they were being evicted. Set to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain,  the film documents the physical and emotional challenges of moving the painting that took Defeo eight years to complete.

William Blake and the Age of Aquarius  shows how Blake’s protests against political and social conventions during his time were an inspiration for many Americans who felt the need to rebel against conformity, believing personal and social transformation was not merely an abstract concept, but something that can be actualized in their lifetime.

This exhibition will run through March 11. The Block Museum of Art is located on the Northwestern University Campus at 40 Arts Circle Drive in Evanston. Hours: Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday: 10am to 5pm; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: 10am to 8pm. Closed on Mondays. Admission: Free. For more info, call 847.491.4000. (Please note: museum closes for year-end holidays, Friday, December 22, through January 8.)

Tom Wawzenek
Tom Wawzenek
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