Psychedelic Art Essay

In 1964, former Harvard research psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (before the latter went to India and came back as Ram Dass), along with Harvard grad student Ralph Metzner, adapted the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead to a thoroughly modern purpose: as a road map for people tripping on psychoactive substances. Beginning in 1960, the men had conducted psychological experiments with psychedelics at Harvard, working under rigorous scientific conditions with subjects ranging from divinity students to incarcerated prisoners, and also exploring the drugs for personal use. Two years later Harvard fired Leary (for not showing up to class) and Alpert (for allegedly giving an undergrad psilocybin in a private apartment). Undeterred, they took their experiments off-campus, going on to garner so much publicity they had to turn away droves of volunteers who wanted to participate.

Aldous Huxley, who had been on the founding board of the Harvard experiments, suggested they adapt the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a guide for trippers; in its centuries-old spiritual instructions for navigating the states of consciousness leading up to and following physical death, it offered a surprisingly usable model. Leary, Alpert, and Metzner called their version The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and it was in print for years, eventually becoming a Penguin Modern Classic, right alongside the works of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and John Steinbeck.

The linking of a venerable Eastern religious text and hippie hallucinogenic drug use encapsulates a dirty little open secret of the American counterculture: “A significant portion of those drawn to Buddhism and other Eastern traditions in the 1960s (including the present writer) were influenced in their choice of religious orientation by experiences induced by psychoactive substances such as cannabis and LSD,” writes the eminent Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor in his foreword to Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics (Synergetic Press, 2015). The intersections between the two — and the attendant doctrinal, ethical, and mystical issues those intersections raise — are explored in Zig Zag Zen, a newly expanded edition of an anthology of essays, interviews, and artwork that was first published by Chronicle Books in 2002.

Edited by TricycleMagazine contributing editor Allan Badiner and with art curated by the visionary painter Alex Grey, this second edition is shrewdly timed. Eastern practices like yoga and meditation, introduced to mainstream American culture in the ’60s, now form the basis of a multibillion-dollar industry, and the Dalai Lama is a pop-cultural icon with 12.2 million Twitter followers. Scientific experiments on the medicinal and therapeutic uses of psychoactive substances are currently on the rise. Among Westerners, so is personal exploration of hallucinogenic plant medicines from indigenous shamanic cultures, like the Amazonian ayahuasca vine, the Andean San Pedro cactus, and the African shrub iboga. Imagery from psycho-spiritual realms can be found in rave culture, in the burgeoning music festival scene, and throughout Burning Man. Most of these trends are touched on to varying degrees in Zig Zag Zen, in new essays that augment the original pieces, penned by such heavyweights as Huston Smith, Joan Halifax Roshi, Jack Kornfield, Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen, and Terence McKenna.

To someone (including the present writer) who practices both Buddhist meditation and sacramental (not recreational) use of ayahuasca, the historical connection between ’60s psychedelic drug use and the rise of American Buddhism makes intuitive sense. The consciousness techniques I’ve honed through longtime meditation practice and years of yoga are my secure foundation when I take an inner journey during an ayahuasca ceremony. For the painter Alex Grey, this connection first arose through the visuals induced by psychedelics. “It was only after I had taken LSD,” he writes in Zig Zag Zen, “that the thangka paintings of Tibet and Nepal began to make sense, with their glowing beings surrounded by rainbow light and horrific many-headed, multi-limbed deities surrounded by patterned flames. My pursuit of the meaning of those images then began in earnest, with study of Buddhist scripture and my becoming familiar with the art’s unusual perspective on existence.”

In Zig Zag Zen, Grey has curated a collection of images that only begins to suggest the enormous variety of both Buddhist and psychedelic experience, as well as some of the links between the two. The new edition has 40 artworks in a variety of media (up from the original 30), by artists ranging from Odilon Redon, Mark Rothko, and Francesco Clemente to Mariko Mori, Randal Roberts, and Android Jones. “Some of the artists appearing in this volume have never done drugs, and some of these artists have probably never meditated,” Grey explains (immediately making me want to know who has and hasn’t done which, but he says no more). What ties the images together, to Grey’s curatorial eye, is something he calls “Vajravision”:

The vajra is a spiritual tool, a thunderbolt scepter owned by the Hindu god Indra. It was adopted by the Buddhist sages as a symbol of the diamond-like clarity and brilliance of the mind’s true nature, and has come to stand for a special class of Buddhist teachings [the Vajrayana] … A dependable way to introduce one’s self to the brightly colored and minutely articulated visionary inner worlds, to “see” with Vajravision, is through an entheogenic or psychedelic experience.

Zig Zag Zen is boosterish throughout on the concept of psychedelics as a spiritual technology; here, for example, is Grey on the contemporary use of hallucinogens: “Psychedelics are ancient sacramental tools for bringing humanity into alignment with higher wisdom. For many people [today] psychedelics are the reset button for a meaningful life. It was that way for me.”

The language might seem over-the-top, but public interest in the subject is certainly present. Last July Synergetic Press teamed up with Evolver Learning Lab to offer a three-week “Buddhism and Psychedelics” interactive video class live from New York’s Rubin Museum, hosted by Badiner and featuring Grey and his artist wife, Allyson, for the first class. The series sold out so quickly that a repeat session was immediately added. Perhaps we are, as Grey writes, “in the time of a worldwide sacramental psychedelic revolution.” Given the depth of growth I myself have had on this path, I can only hope this is so.

Overall, Zig Zag Zen presents a wealth of intelligent perspectives on Buddhism and psychedelics, and Grey’s selection of artworks gives a welcome glimpse of inner human experiences for which verbal descriptions invariably fall short. It does leave me wanting more on the art side — more images, and even an additional essay or two giving art-historical context to the works. For that, we’ll have to wait for the third edition. If interest in the transformative power of sacred psychedelic use keeps rising, there’s sure to be one.

Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelicsis now available from Synergetic Press.

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See also: LSD art

Psychedelic art is any art or visual displays inspired by psychedelic experiences and hallucinations known to follow the ingestion of psychoactive drugs such as LSD and psilocybin. The word "psychedelic" (coined by British psychologist Humphry Osmond) means "mind manifesting". By that definition, all artistic efforts to depict the inner world of the psyche may be considered "psychedelic". In common parlance "psychedelic art" refers above all to the art movement of the late 1960s counterculture. Psychedelic visual arts were a counterpart to psychedelic rock music. Concert posters, album covers, liquid light shows, liquid light art, murals, comic books, underground newspapers and more reflected not only the kaleidoscopically swirling colour patterns of LSD hallucinations, but also revolutionary political, social and spiritual sentiments inspired by insights derived from these psychedelic states of consciousness.


  • Fantastic, metaphysical and surrealistic subject matter
  • Kaleidoscopic, fractal or paisley patterns
  • Bright and/or highly contrasting colors
  • Extreme depth of detail or stylization of detail. Also so called Horror vacui style.
  • Morphing of objects and/or themes and sometimes collage
  • Phosphenes, spirals, concentric circles, diffraction patterns, and other entoptic motifs
  • Repetition of motifs
  • Innovative typography and hand-lettering, including warping and transposition of positive and negative spaces


Psychedelic art is informed by the notion that altered states of consciousness produced by psychedelic drugs are a source of artistic inspiration. The psychedelic art movement is similar to the surrealist movement in that it prescribes a mechanism for obtaining inspiration. Whereas the mechanism for surrealism is the observance of dreams, a psychedelic artist turns to drug induced hallucinations. Both movements have strong ties to important developments in science. Whereas the surrealist was fascinated by Freud's theory of the unconscious, the psychedelic artist has been literally "turned on" by Albert Hofmann's discovery of LSD.

The early examples of "psychedelic art" are literary rather than visual, although there are some examples in the Surrealist art movement, such as Remedios Varo and André Masson. It should also be noted that these came from writers involved in the Surrealist movement. Antonin Artaud writes of his peyote experience in Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara (1937). Henri Michaux wrote Misérable Miracle (1956), to describe his experiments with mescaline and also hashish.

Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) remain definitive statements on the psychedelic experience.

Albert Hofmann and his colleagues at Sandoz Laboratories were convinced immediately after its discovery in 1943 of the power and promise of LSD. For two decades following its discovery LSD was marketed by Sandoz as an important drug for psychological and neurological research. Hofmann saw the drug's potential for poets and artists as well, and took great interest in the German writer Ernst Jünger's psychedelic experiments.

Early artistic experimentation with LSD was conducted in a clinical context by Los Angeles–based psychiatrist Oscar Janiger. Janiger asked a group of 50 different artists to each do a painting from life of a subject of the artist's choosing. They were subsequently asked to do the same painting while under the influence of LSD. The two paintings were compared by Janiger and also the artist. The artists almost unanimously reported LSD to be an enhancement to their creativity.

Ultimately it seems that psychedelics would be most warmly embraced by the American counterculture. Beatnik poets Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs became fascinated by psychedelic drugs as early as the 1950s as evidenced by The Yage Letters (1963). The Beatniks recognized the role of psychedelics as sacred inebriants in Native American religious ritual, and also had an understanding of the philosophy of the surrealist and symbolist poets who called for a "complete disorientation of the senses" (to paraphrase Arthur Rimbaud). They knew that altered states of consciousness played a role in Eastern Mysticism. They were hip to psychedelics as psychiatric medicine. LSD was the perfect catalyst to electrify the eclectic mix of ideas assembled by the Beats into a cathartic, mass-distributed panacea for the soul of the succeeding generation.

In 1960s counterculture[edit]

Leading proponents of the 1960s psychedelic art movement were San Francisco poster artists such as: Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Bonnie MacLean, Stanley Mouse & Alton Kelley, and Wes Wilson. Their psychedelic rock concert posters were inspired by Art Nouveau, Victoriana, Dada, and Pop Art. The "Fillmore Posters" were among the most notable of the time. Richly saturated colors in glaring contrast, elaborately ornate lettering, strongly symmetrical composition, collage elements, rubber-like distortions, and bizarre iconography are all hallmarks of the San Francisco psychedelic poster art style. The style flourished from about 1966 to 1972. Their work was immediately influential to vinyl record album cover art, and indeed all of the aforementioned artists also created album covers.

Although San Francisco remained the hub of psychedelic art into the early 1970s, the style also developed internationally: British artist Bridget Riley became famous for her op-art paintings of psychedelic patterns creating optical illusions. Mati Klarwein created psychedelic masterpieces for Miles Davis' Jazz-Rock fusion albums, and also for Carlos Santana Latin Rock. Pink Floyd worked extensively with London-based designers, Hipgnosis to create graphics to support the concepts in their albums. Willem de Ridder created cover art for Van Morrison. Los Angeles area artists such as John Van Hamersveld, Warren Dayton and Art Bevacqua and New York artists Peter Max and Milton Glaser all produced posters for concerts or social commentary (such as the anti-war movement) that were highly collected during this time. Life Magazine's cover and lead article for the September 1, 1967 issue at the height of the Summer of Love focused on the explosion of psychedelic art on posters and the artists as leaders in the hippie counterculture community.

Psychedelic light-shows were a new art-form developed for rock concerts. Using oil and dye in an emulsion that was set between large convex lenses upon overhead projectors the lightshow artists created bubbling liquid visuals that pulsed in rhythm to the music. This was mixed with slideshows and film loops to create an improvisational motion picture art form to give visual representation to the improvisational jams of the rock bands and create a completely "trippy" atmosphere for the audience. The Brotherhood of Light were responsible for many of the light-shows in San Francisco psychedelic rock concerts.

Out of the psychedelic counterculture also arose a new genre of comic books: underground comix. "Zap Comix" was among the original underground comics, and featured the work of Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, and Robert Williams among others. Underground Comix were ribald, intensely satirical, and seemed to pursue weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Gilbert Shelton created perhaps the most enduring of underground cartoon characters, "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers", whose drugged out exploits held a hilarious mirror up to the hippy lifestyle of the 1960s.

Psychedelic art was also applied to the LSD itself. LSD began to be put on blotter paper in the early 1970s and this gave rise to a specialized art form of decorating the blotter paper. Often the blotter paper was decorated with tiny insignia on each perforated square tab, but by the 1990s this had progressed to complete four color designs often involving an entire page of 900 or more tabs. Mark McCloud is a recognized authority on the history of LSD blotter art.

In corporate advertising[edit]

By the late 1960s, the commercial potential of psychedelic art had become hard to ignore. General Electric, for instance, promoted clocks with designs by New York artist Peter Max. A caption explains that each of Max's clocks "transposes time into multi-fantasy colors."[1] In this and many other corporate advertisements of the late 1960s featuring psychedelic themes, the psychedelic product was often kept at arm's length from the corporate image: while advertisements may have reflected the swirls and colors of an LSD trip, the black-and-white company logo maintained a healthy visual distance. Several companies, however, more explicitly associated themselves with psychedelica: CBS, Neiman Marcus, and NBC all featured thoroughly psychedelic advertisements between 1968 and 1969.[2] In 1968, Campbell's soup ran a poster promotion that promised to "Turn your wall souper-delic!"[3]

The early years of the 1970s saw advertisers using psychedelic art to sell a limitless array of consumer goods. Hair products, cars, cigarettes, and even pantyhose became colorful acts of pseudo-rebellion.[4] The Chelsea National Bank commissioned a psychedelic landscape by Peter Max, and neon green, pink, and blue monkeys inhabited advertisements for a zoo.[5] A fantasy land of colorful, swirling, psychedelic bubbles provided the perfect backdrop for a Clearasil ad.[6] As Brian Wells explains, "The psychedelic movement has, through the work of artists, designers, and writers, achieved an astonishing degree of cultural diffusion… but, though a great deal of diffusion has taken place, so, too, has a great deal of dilution and distortion."[7] Even the term "psychedelic" itself underwent a semantic shift, and soon came to mean "anything in youth culture which is colorful, or unusual, or fashionable."[8] Puns using the concept of "tripping" abounded: as an advertisement for London Britches declared, their product was "great on trips!"[9] By the mid-1970s, the psychedelic art movement had been largely co-opted by mainstream commercial forces, incorporated into the very system of capitalism that the hippies had struggled so hard to change.

Other utilizations[edit]

Examples of other utilizations for psychedelic art are tapestry, curtains and stickers,[10] clothing,[11] canvas and other printed artefacts[12] and furniture.[13]

Digital age[edit]

See also: Cyberdelic and Algorithmic art

Computer art has allowed for an even greater and more profuse expression of psychedelic vision. Fractal generating software gives an accurate depiction of psychedelic hallucinatory patterns, but even more importantly 2D and 3D graphics software allow for unparalleled freedom of image manipulation. Much of the graphics software seems to permit a direct translation of the psychedelic vision. The "digital revolution" was indeed heralded early on as the "New LSD" by none other than Timothy Leary.[14][15]

The rave movement of the 1990s was a psychedelic renaissance fueled by the advent of newly available digital technologies. The rave movement developed a new graphic art style partially influenced by 1960s psychedelic poster art, but also strongly influenced by graffiti art, and by 1970s advertising art, yet clearly defined by what digital art and computer graphics software and home computers had to offer at the time of creation. Conversely, the convolutional neural networkDeepDream finds and enhance patterns in images purely via algorithmic pareidolia.

Concurrent to the rave movement, and in key respects integral to it, are the development of new mind-altering drugs, most notably, MDMA (Ecstasy). Ecstasy, like LSD, has had a tangible influence on culture and aesthetics, particularly the aesthetics of rave culture. But MDMA is (arguably) not a real psychedelic, but is described by psychologists as an entactogen. Development of new psychedelics such as 2C-B and related compounds (developed primarily by chemist Alexander Shulgin) are truly psychedelic, and these novel psychedelics are fertile ground for artistic exploration since many of the new psychedelics possess their own unique properties that will affect the artist's vision accordingly.

Even as fashions have changed, and art and culture movements have come and gone, certain artists have steadfastly devoted themselves to psychedelia. Well-known examples are Amanda Sage, Alex Grey, and Robert Venosa. These artists have developed unique and distinct styles that while containing elements that are "psychedelic", are clearly artistic expressions that transcend simple categorization. While it is not necessary to use psychedelics to arrive at such a stage of artistic development, serious psychedelic artists are demonstrating that there is tangible technique to obtaining visions, and that technique is the creative use of psychedelic drugs.

Psychedelic artists[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^Heimann, Jim. 60s All American Ads. Cologne: Taschen, 2002. pg. 523
  2. ^Herdeg, Walter. 68/69 Graphics Annual. Zürich: The Graphics Press, 1968. pgs. 45, 75, 248
  3. ^Heimann, Jim. 60s All American Ads. Cologne: Taschen, 2002. pg. 798
  4. ^Heimann, Jim. 70s All American Ads. Cologne: Taschen, 2004. pgs. 443, 102, 76, 85, 484.
  5. ^Herdeg, Walter. 71/72 Graphics Annual. Zürich: The Graphics Press, 1971. pgs. 39, 49.
  6. ^Herdeg, Walter. 71/72 Graphics Annual. Zürich: The Graphics Press, 1971. pg. 78.
  7. ^Wells, Brian. Psychedelic Drugs. New York: Jason Aronson, 1974. pg. 19
  8. ^Wells, Brian. Psychedelic Drugs. New York: Jason Aronson, 1974. pgs. 19-20
  9. ^Heimann, Jim. 70s All-American Ads. Cologne: Taschen, 2004. pg. 523
  10. ^"Hippie tapestries and cool wall hangings". Retrieved 2016-08-07. 
  11. ^"Rave Clothing, Festival Outfits and Crazy Shirts! – RaveNectar". 2016-06-23. Retrieved 2016-08-07. 
  12. ^"Art – Ed's Amazing Liquid Light". Retrieved 2016-08-07. 
  13. ^Martinko, Katherine (2011-07-01). "Pre-loved Fabrics Made Into Psychedelic Furniture: Design By Leftovers". Retrieved 2016-08-07. 
  14. ^Leary, Timothy; Horowitz, Michael; Marshall, Vicky (1994). Chaos and Cyber Culture. Ronin Publishing. ISBN 0-914171-77-1. 
  15. ^Ruthofer, Arno (1997). "Think for Yourself; Question Authority". Archived from the original on 2007-11-12. Retrieved 2007-02-02. 
  16. ^Abramson, Seth (30 January 2013). "November 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews". The Huffington Post.
  17. ^"Occupied Spaces by Brad Johannsen". 2015-01-09. Retrieved 2016-09-19. 
  18. ^"Wayne Nowack - Artists". Allan Stone Projects. Retrieved 2016-08-07. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

A swirling psychedelic pattern
Cover of the San Francisco Oracle, Volume 1 No.5, January 1967.

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