It was a stormy evening on Thursday, April 6, but inside the lobby of the de Young Museum, a warm glow emanated from lava lamps propped on the makeshift bar. Large, flower-adorned peace signs topped a pair of appetizer tables (pita and hummus, couscous salads, goblets of shrimp) while an ambiguous psychedelic tribute band — decked out in bell-bottoms, colorful vests and questionable Afro wigs — swayed on platforms and played bongos in front of a neon-lit wall.
Yes, this was the press preview/donor reception for the museum’s new exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll, on view now through Aug. 20, is the kind of programming every San Francisco institution is apparently required to produce by law (AKA a strong promotion from the city’s tourism bureau) during the summer of 2017. Haven’t you heard? There are concerts, talks, and photo shows. There’s a Magic Bus Experience. There’s an ongoing ’60s fashion boutique at the Neiman Marcus penthouse in Union Square.
And, for an hour or so on Thursday night at the de Young — as the band turned into a team of cutesy, costumed “protesters” who picked up “Make Love Not War” signs and paraded groovily through the party with their bongos at the precise moment every journalist in the room got a push notification announcing the U.S. had just launched missiles into Syria — there was a degree of tone-deafness that bordered on surreal. It was, in fact, the perfect encapsulation of the entire exhibition’s myopia.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: We are not convinced any of this summer’s grand re-telling is necessary. As California natives in our early 30s, we’ve grown up in the persistent shadow of the Summer of Love, a specter of San Francisco in the sixties as sacred text — the prophets Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey and Bill Graham untouchable in their retroactive glory. These people, and this era, are not lacking memorialization: the stories of the Haight-Ashbury, the Human Be-In, the drugs, the free love — they have been told many times, by many people, in books and movies and American history courses.
The way yet another rehashing might justify itself, then, is by adding something new to this fairly recent history. (See BAMPFA’s excellent Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, for example.) Give us an exhibit that offers a clear-eyed critique of what truthfully was a brief social experiment, notes its shortcomings along with its joys. Give us context. At the very least, give us some intellectual honesty: an exploration of what really happened, who it affected, why it ended, and how it shaped the San Francisco (and United States) we currently inhabit.
Perhaps some of this summer’s yet-unopened exhibits will offer this. The Summer of Love Experience at the de Young does not.
What it does provide is a bright, colorful celebration of the aesthetics of the time period, and if you are fascinated by those, as many will be, by all means go see it. Over the long, weaving course of 10 galleries — including one selfie-ready space designed by liquid light show veteran Bill Ham — we get psychedelic rock show posters on top of posters, a giant bedspread once intended for Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, record sleeves, book covers, and pins (so many pins). Somehow overwhelming without diving beneath the surface of the era’s aesthetics, the show seems intent on proving it’s possible to have, at the same time, too much and not enough.
We’ll allow there are interesting artifacts to behold: The collection of nearly 150 posters and handbills from Bay Area music venues anchors the exhibition, and many of them are indeed beautiful. The area devoted to demonstrating the lithographic process by which they were made is also worthwhile; Stanley Mouse, Wes Wilson and their compatriots from this era of poster art deserve all the recognition they’ve received over the past 50 years.
But after reading a short explanation of The San Francisco Sound, one is also left with the feeling that we’re being asked (yet again) to revere this era for the sake of reverence, in the name of pure rose-colored folklore, and in the dullest kind of vacuum. Sure, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane have come to represent not just a musical moment but a tribe, a lifestyle. Can we discuss what came after? What bands they influenced, or even what they stood for? Where can their nonconformist message still be felt in present-day San Francisco, where capitalism run amok has made it difficult if not impossible for artists to survive? Put bluntly: Why are we still talking about this? If it’s for reasons other than to tickle donors and tourists who came of age during this period and will smile fondly at the memories, please show us those.
In the meantime: Right this way, please. We have Jerry Garcia’s hat.
The Summer of Love Experience does devote a considerable amount of floorspace to the era’s clothing designers and trends, a welcome bit of tangibility in an otherwise ephemera-filled exhibition. Mannequins sport customized jeans, maxi peasant dresses and Native American-inspired leather fringe; Birgitta Bjerke’s crocheted work is a standout. Behind this vitrine — drumroll please — we even have the companion piece to Garcia’s Uncle Sam headgear: Janis Joplin’s handbag, intricately embroidered by Linda Gravenites.
But in these textiles, another missed opportunity: The exhibition catalog mentions the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s 1960s campaign to destroy the historically black Fillmore neighborhood — but only in the context of the boon this displacement provided to the city’s thrift stores, and hence, to the hippies fashioning creative costumes from flea market finds. Really. In the exhibition itself, this shameful “urban renewal” in the Fillmore bears no mention. (Also in the catalog but not in the show: the draft-dodging origins of tie-dye at the Haight’s Free Store, explored in Detour’s immersive Haight-Ashbury Walking Tour.)
The final gallery before the exhibition empties into The Summer of Love Experience store tries to sum up the politics of the era in a grab-bag of issues: the Black Panthers, the Pill, Vietnam War protests, draft resistance, sex positivity. If it’s intended to be a summation, a nod to the era’s enduring legacy and a connecting thread to the present, the result is tepid at best — especially with the wall text’s vague rah-rah claim that “fifty years later, government policies resulting from such interventions render a way of life in the West that would have been unimaginable to all but the surest of sixties visionaries.” This final gallery would have benefited from a few more pieces and a lot more breathing room, especially considering the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the characters we’ve been taught to celebrate from this time period in San Francisco’s history — none of whom receive substantial critique in the preceding rooms.
The Panthers, in particular — who had, by the summer of 1967, opened a storefront in Oakland, published their Ten-Point Program, and garnered national attention for entering the California State Assembly carrying guns to protest the Mulford Act — are wholly represented by a handful of Ruth Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones photographs, unless we missed something. The movement was far better represented in the Oakland Museum of California’s sprawling and comprehensive 2016 exhibit.
Back upstairs on Thursday, the party — “anti-war protesters” and all — was just getting going. While attendees drank lime green Midori-and-tequila cocktails labeled “battery acid” to the sounds of “White Rabbit,” we asked one of the sign-carrying protesters if he was, in fact, pulling double duty as part of the band. The be-wigged gentleman, carrying light-up bowling pins, answered, “We’re all in the band called life, man.”
Near the exit, a de Young employee handed us each a bright Gerbera daisy. Then we made our way through the rain and wind to the faux street signs marking the entrance to the building — each one noting an “intersection” of the past and present: hippie and hipster, free love and marriage equality. A strong gust whipped the flowers from our hands right about then, which was fine. There were new notifications on our phones to check. Likely, there was something fresh worth protesting.
‘The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll’ is on view at San Francisco’s de Young Museum through Aug. 20. For tickets and more information, click here.