West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977

West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977

by Elissa Auther

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In the heady and hallucinogenic days of the 1960s and ’70s, a diverse range of artists and creative individuals based in the American West—from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest—broke the barriers between art and lifestyle and embraced the new, hybrid sensibilities of the countercultural movement. Often created through

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In the heady and hallucinogenic days of the 1960s and ’70s, a diverse range of artists and creative individuals based in the American West—from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest—broke the barriers between art and lifestyle and embraced the new, hybrid sensibilities of the countercultural movement. Often created through radically collaborative artistic practices, such works as Paolo Soleri’s earth homes, the hand-built architecture of the Drop City and Libre communes, Yolanda López’s political posters, the multisensory movement workshops of Anna and Lawrence Halprin, and the immersive light shows and video-based work by the Ant Farm and Optic Nerve collectives were intended to generate new life patterns that pointed toward social and political emancipation.

In West of Center, Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner bring together a prominent group of scholars to elaborate the historical and artistic significance of these counterculture projects within the broader narrative of postwar American art, which skews heavily toward New York’s avant-garde art scene. This west of center countercultural movement has typically been associated with psychedelic art, but the contributors to this book understand this as only one dimension of the larger, artistically oriented, socially based phenomenon. At the same time, they reveal the disciplinary, geographic, and theoretical biases and assumptions that have led to the dismissal of countercultural practices in the history of art and visual culture, and they detail how this form of cultural and political activity found its place in the West.

A companion to an exhibition originating at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, this book illuminates how, in the western United States, the counterculture’s unique integration of art practices, political action, and collaborative life activities serves as a linchpin connecting postwar and contemporary artistic endeavors.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
One of a number of recent publications on West Coast art, this book examines various expressions of the 1960s and '70s counterculture, from happenings and communes to political posters and protests. As editors Auther (contemporary art, Univ. of Colorado, Colorado Springs; String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art) and Lerner (director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver) explain, this volume seeks to invest the counterculture with a renewed significance. Decades of abuse—accusations from the left of political escapism and from the right of moral degeneracy—have reduced it in the minds of many to empty cliché. Moreover, despite a current artistic interest in the experiential and the interdisciplinary, countercultural art has received little scholarly attention. In response, many of the book's contributors seek to forge new links between this moment and the present day. For example, curator and writer Erin Elder places the Drop City commune in relation to contemporary participatory, project-based art, while other writers question received notions about anarchistic, countercultural politics. VERDICT A well-conceived and thought-provoking essay collection, highly recommended for any enthusiast or scholar of American art of the 1960s.—Jonathan Patkowski, CUNY Graduate Ctr.
From the Publisher

"West of Center is an overview of the rich and complicated countercultural moment when different artistic practices shared a belief in and dedication to alternative methods and materials. From Drop City to Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s workshops, from Paolo Soleri to Newton and Helen Harrison’s ecological projects, this volume makes connections across disciplines and describes multi-faceted influences on the art of today." —Chip Lord, Founder and partner with Ant Farm, 1968 - 1978

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University of Minnesota Press
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West of Center

Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977

By Elissa Auther, Adam Lerner

University of Minnesota Press

Copyright © 2012 Regents of the University of Minnesota
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4529-3307-8



Erin Elder

Just north of Trinidad, Colorado, near the exit for El Moro, is a long flat expanse of tumbleweeds and dirt, leftover snow patches, and barbed wire tangles. Between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and a chain of flat-topped mesas is an emptiness, a deep breath of silence on the Colorado–New Mexico border. Every trace of Drop City has been swept clean. The total lack of ruins, signage, or lingering communards make it difficult to locate exactly where, from 1965 to 1973, there stood a vibrant community experiment that invested in applying art to every aspect of daily life and that sparked a movement of commune building that came to define the American counterculture.

Drop City was founded on dreams of "building a civilization from scratch," and a shared desire to "do something more than hang a painting, to create a kind of input." Over the course of eight years and on an arid six-acre goat pasture, Drop City produced a miscellany of structures, sculptures, paintings, experimental films, performances, and a type of art called "Droppings." Built by hand with scrounged materials, Drop City was not only a place to make art, but — through a creative reinvestment in daily activities — it was a place to be art (Figure 1.1). As it became a counterculture way station, thousands of young people flocked to southern Colorado to learn about new architectural forms, to spin out on psychedelics in an otherworldly setting, to leave their jobs and families in exchange for proverbial free love, free drugs, and free rent. Drop City was the pioneering front of the hip commune movement of the sixties and through shared technology, space, and praxis, "turned on" a new generation of commune builders.

Communalism is an essential component of American rural life, a tradition that has seen a variety of cycles, styles, and core values since the seventeenth century. Although communes have never been part of the dominant paradigm, it's nothing new to the United States. Drop City was simply at the forefront of the most explosive manifestation of communitarian idealism that, between 1965 and 1975, produced "at least 2,000" rural communes and attracted upwards of a million young people. American communal history turned a major corner with the establishment of Drop City. Commune scholar Tim Miller writes:

Drop City brought together most of the themes that had been developing in other recent communities — anarchy, pacifism, sexual freedom, rural isolation, interest in drugs, art — and wrapped them flamboyantly into a commune not quite like any that had gone before. Drop City thus represents the point at which a new type of commune building had definitively arrived.

Not only was Drop City one of the first open-land, anarchic communes, but also it was the first to stake a claim on the American Southwest as an outpost for a burgeoning counterculture. Drop City established a way of life that combined colorful dissent with do-it-yourself technology, shared physical labor, and outrageous homes built from trash, and this set of enacted principles, in many ways, became the vernacular for the southwestern commune movement. When Timothy Leary toured the Southwest in 1967, he referred to the communes collectively as "drop cities"; others have described Drop City as "the first capital of the outlaw nation." Drop City was clearly the precedent for hundreds of thousands of disgruntled youth who aimed to create a new communal existence beyond the margins of straight society.

In the end Drop City was rumored to host a methamphetamine factory, a vicious round of hepatitis, and possibly even a murder. Drop City was shut down in 1973 by the local health department; the remaining inhabitants were evicted and the land was sold to finance other projects. This brand of kaleidoscopic ruin was not an uncommon ending for the rash of communes that broke out across the Southwest and may account for the ways in which their legacy has been ignored or oversimplified.

As one commune builder has said, "the counterculture occupies a historical niche somewhere between a pernicious social virus and an amusing Halloween costume." While several recent attempts have been made to redress these generalizing trends by unpacking the sixties' contributions to civil rights, the environmental movement, sexual and religious freedoms, health food and agrarian practices, and the cultivation of the American Left, there remains a void in scholarship around the communes of the Southwest. I aim to address some small corner of this void by looking at Drop City as the vanguard of a significant commune building movement. With special interest in temporary spaces for alternative cultural production, this paper examines how notions of consciousness expansion, the network, and the southwestern landscape came to bear on the conceptual and physical manifestation of Drop City and its neighbor communes.

What interests me most about Drop City is how an expansive perspective on art, trash, and everyday life created a particular kind of space that in turn influenced a burgeoning of cultural alternatives. Drop City was both intentional and experimental; grounded by the realities of human survival, it was wildly improvisational in its address of those basic needs. As half-baked as it may have been, the notion of the Dropping gave this artists' collective a reason and a context to create a vibrant alternative to the society they sought to resist. Unlike some other communes art was the impetus and the frame that allowed the Droppers to risk everything they had in a long-term, communal experiment. As Dropper Bill Voyd said in 1969, "The only thing that will allow each of us to create his or her Utopia is praxis."

In this essay I analyze the Droppings as a particular frame of reference that motivated the Droppers in what I call an expanded practice. I touch on various aspects of scrounging as it pertained to Dropper architecture, lifestyle, and their patchwork of ideological underpinnings. Later, I introduce notions of expansive building exemplified by the Droppers' relationship to development, the network, and the American Southwest. Clark Richert, one of Drop City's founding members, has said, "We really saw ourselves as artists and we saw Drop City as an on-going work of art." Statements such as this invite a deeper consideration of commune building as art practice and the commune as a cultural form. Although there is not space here for an in-depth argument, I would like to suggest that, given the number of southwestern communes built between 1965 and 1975, this might be regarded as a legitimate art movement with significant influence on contemporary art practice.


Clark Richert and JoAnn and Gene Bernofsky were close friends in Lawrence, Kansas, in the early 1960s. Richert and JoAnn met in art class at the University of Kansas, and when she left for a nine-month trip to San Francisco, Gene moved into Richert's second-story loft overlooking what they called a "bourgeois" thoroughfare — Massachusetts Street — in downtown Lawrence. Here is where Droppings, or Drop Art, was born.

During their studies and on return trips to New York, Richert and the Bernofskys encountered the avant-garde practices of such artists as Allan Kaprow, John Cage, and others who taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Through such encounters, they understood Happenings as spontaneous, bizarre, interactive, open-outcome events that were affecting audiences not only in New York and Europe, but also in Lawrence. They shared Kaprow's conviction that the Happening, as a new art form, "couldn't be confused with paintings, poetry, architecture, music, dance or plays. As residues of a European past, these old forms of art had lost their artness ... by overexposure and empty worship. Happenings are fresh. "In support of this desire for fresh forms, Richert and Gene Bernofsky created their own mutation of Happenings called Droppings.

One time they dropped painted pebbles out of their loft window onto passersby below, watching the reaction from their second-story vantage. Another time, they connected an iron and ironing board to a downtown parking meter. On the sidewalk in front of a "bourgeois" hotel, they left an immense breakfast on an elaborately set table, free for anyone to sit and eat. They "dropped" art into an unwitting situation, intending to reframe reality through sudden disruption. Droppings were a form of playful entertainment but were also grounded in a formal art intention to actively disregard distinctions between art, perception, and daily activity.

It seems that early Droppings were little events, largely unpublicized, and often unnoticed. They were primarily a means of testing the artists' working methods and also the abilities of the public to respond to a given situation. The situations were part intentional construction, part volatile investigation. They were at once uncertain and assertive, pointless and poignant. The Droppers sought to create sudden opportunities for momentary changes in perception, but often their work went unobserved and was unwittingly woven into the banal fabric of everyday life. Given their disgust with a complacent and privileged mainstream, Droppings were a humorous way to play off of the "shittiness" of this offensive population. Sometimes audiences "got it," and other times the Dropping fell flat in a puny splatter. Those who interacted with or reacted to the Droppings transformed the work. For those who embraced these bizarre experiments with equally unpredictable responses, the Dropping became something else — it became a medium, a kind fertilizer transformed by the creation of a momentary community.

The Droppers had a love-hate relationship with the New York art world and despised the object-driven market that dominated it in the early 1960s. Yet New York was erupting with new art strategies that evoked participation, chaos, and a general breakdown of the assumed order of things. Exposed to concepts of "unarting," the Droppers joined a movement to dematerialize art by "taking the art out of art, which in practical terms meant discarding art's characteristics. ... leaving art is the art. But you must have it to leave it." This notion of leaving art in order to expand its potential for engaging daily life is key to understanding the shift from Droppings to Drop City.


While developing a context for their art-and-living project, the Droppers played with ideas of how to expand their experience of Drop Art, how to literally inhabit it. Based on everything they knew to be true of Droppings, it was possible to become the Dropping through a collective commitment to living with alternative and undefined situations. Like a Dropping, Drop City would be intentional but unscripted — a spontaneous experiment with open-ended outcomes. In retrospect Gene Bernofsky recalls, "We wanted to enter into the Dropping, become the Dropping. We were dropping ourselves onto this land to see what we would do with it."

At Drop City art making would certainly make up a large part of everyday life, but the making of a place, and the habitation of that place — these would comprise this expanded Dropping. The place would be a refuge from suburban life and a studio for art production. It would be a situation around which to create community, but most important, it would be an intentional experiment with the unknown.

The Droppers approached every bit of life as if it could be art. Work could be art. Food could be art. Trash could be art. Becoming the Dropping threw everything into question, and as a result everything could be viewed, critiqued, created, destroyed, or remade. In his seminal work The Critique of Everyday Life, French sociologist Henri Lefebvre discusses how the ambiguous realms of art bring everyday life into view as "a question of discovering what must and can change and be transformed in people's lives. ... It is a question of stating critically how people live or how badly they live, or how they do not live at all." Similarly, the Droppers believed that art could be the ends and means for a reconsideration of the daily life that mainstream culture had all but taken for granted.

In becoming the Dropping a certain totality was levied on the lifestyle, architecture, and atmosphere at Drop City. Like others of twentieth-century utopian art movements, the Droppers "aim not just at the integration of art and life, but of all human activities. They have a critique of social separation and a concept of totality." The Droppers would override specialization, transcending the boundaries of an oppressive, compartmentalizing dominant paradigm by learning to build and participate on every level of their new society. Nothing escaped the realm of art practice. Diet, fashion, relationships, decisions, and time: all were on the drawing board. As Dropper Bill Voyd wrote, "The works of art we envisage are total, vast."

The Dropping was a context for thinking about a total artwork that encompassed every element of daily life. Through this expansive notion of the Dropping, they were able, as Kaprow advocated, to "unart" art — yet they were able to take it much further than Kaprow would have imagined possible. At Drop City lifestyle was cultivated as art; acting out an alternative reality was in fact the project at hand. But why not simply create a new way of living; why frame it as a Dropping? In building a civilization from scratch, did it matter if distinctions relating to art and performance got lost along the way, and how did this art frame give meaning to what the Droppers were doing?

The Droppers were not alone in their framing or naming of such expansive practice; they had contemporaries who likewise aimed to remake society through similar types of discursive lenses. As an extension of their theater background, the San Francisco Diggers served free food in public parks, opened a number of free stores, and created numerous happenings, parades, and performances. Their work was contextualized by the Free Frame of Reference, often symbolized by empty yellow wooden frames and the declaration "It's Free Because It's Yours." During many Digger events, the public was asked to step through a large golden frame, a gesture that invited a "free perspective; a point of view one could assemble oneself." While the Free Frame of Reference was unnecessary to the project of revolutionizing urban life in San Francisco, it was a tool that invited art-like intentionality and criticality from both the Diggers and their community.

Less of a public construction, Bonnie Sherk employed the Life-Frame as a way of positioning her performances and the Crossroads Community Farm as something between art and life, something both avant-garde and perplexing. For Sherk, the Life-Frame was a means of "expand[ing] the concept of art to include, and even be life" but also of using real situations to push the limits of established art conventions. The point is not whether the notion of the Dropping makes Drop City art; rather, it's remarkable how the Dropping (like the Free Frame of Reference and the Life-Frame) was a discursive mechanism that launched this collective of artists into critically and aesthetically engaged countercultural activities.


The image of the lens is also illustrative of how film technology was changing notions of consciousness at Drop City and far beyond. Gene Bernofsky was a filmmaker and his 16mm Kodak Ciné camera was constantly rolling. He talks about the camera as a tool, comparing its function to that of a hammer or saw; the camera was used to "build a film." The camera was communal property; anyone could use it. Filmmaking was a spontaneous activity, something to do in the moment, something to do every day. Through the cinematic practices of focusing, cropping, and editing, film was another way that art became a means to look, imagine, and construct differently. The films were not documentaries or dramas; they were not necessarily made to be viewed and oftentimes were combined with lights, music, motion, and other elements in which the film was just one small part of a multisensory experience. These expanded Droppings were part of the midsixties movement that amplified the legacy of Happenings on a festival scale, creating what were known as Be-Ins or Love-Ins.

Drop City was one of the many places where film was produced collectively for wholly new and expansive means. Media was becoming more accessible to amateurs; for instance, the Sony Portapak was introduced in 1967 and was the first individually operated video camera. As a result of such emergent film technologies, miles and miles of footage were being shot in the sixties. The camera kept rolling, capturing and framing every moment as art, paving the way toward what experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage has described as "moving visual thinking." In his 1970 book Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood discusses the impact of the electronic media age on this new generation: "When we say expanded cinema, we actually mean expanded consciousness. ... [It] isn't a movie at all: like life it's a process of becoming, man's ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes."


Excerpted from West of Center by Elissa Auther, Adam Lerner. Copyright © 2012 Regents of the University of Minnesota. Excerpted by permission of University of Minnesota Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Elissa Auther is associate professor of contemporary art at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She is the author of String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art (Minnesota, 2010).

Adam Lerner is director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and chief animator in the Department of Fabrications.

Lucy R. Lippard is an internationally known writer, activist, and curator. She is the author of eighteen books on contemporary art and has written art criticism for Art in America, The Village Voice, and Z Magazine, among other publications.

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