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Kinetica™ 4 Catalog, 2002

Media Art in the 60s: The Abstract, The Spiritual and The Psychedelic

Larry Cuba

Our last KINETICA™, number 3 in the series, featured works from the 1950s, the era of Jazz and the Beats. It was only logical that KINETICA™ 4 take a look at the 60s, a time of intense experimentation with psychedelic drugs, psychedelic imagery, a flowering of interest in Eastern religions and mysticism, and a widespread adoption of film and video as a means of personal expression.

Psychedelic drugs and psychoactive plants induced altered states of consciousness characterized, in part, by visual hallucinations, intensified perceptions of the world, and synesthesia, the crossover of perceptual modalities, “seeing sounds” and “hearing colors,” for example.

These altered states paralleled, and were often perceived as, mystical experiences which naturally led to an interest in Eastern philosophy and religion. The visions were also a stimulus to creativity and resulted in an explosion of so-called “psychedelic art.” Since the psychedelic character of art can be found in a wide range of art movements (surrealism, abstraction, etc.), it is more accurate to refer to a psychedelic “sensibility” rather than “movement.”

The aim of this art may be to reproduce a particular psychedelic experience, to attempt to induce a psychedelic vision in the viewer, or to provide a stimulus or focal point for a psychedelic experience. In this last context we can see a clear connection between psychedelic art and mysticism. The Mandala and the Yantra, abstract drawings and symbols of cosmic structure, often produce certain psychic effects when used in meditation practice.

The 60s was a particularly intense time of experimentation and activity, fueled by a new youth culture that placed a higher value on experience than possession, that preferred personal creativity to consumption, and that sought the spiritual rather than the material.

But this period was not completely isolated. It was neither the beginning nor the end of the connection between the spiritual and the abstract image in art. In the catalog to the 1985 exhibition, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985, Maurice Tuchman wrote,
[This exhibition] demonstrates that the genesis and development of abstract art were inextricably tied to spiritual ideas current in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An astonishingly high proportion of visual artists working in the past one hundred years have been involved with these ideas and belief systems, and their art reflects a desire to express spiritual, utopian, or metaphysical ideals that cannot be expressed in traditional pictorial terms.

In the kinetic arts, the psychedelic sensibility was expressed in experimental film and video, and light shows performed to accompany live music concerts. And here, too, the spiritual element is evident.

In the medium of abstract film animation, there is a continuous thread of this spiritual impulse from the 20s to the 70s beginning with Oskar Fischinger in Germany. Fischinger's immigration to the US influenced the "California School" of the 40s and 50s, which included Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, and James Whitney, and continued the tradition throughout the 60s and 70s.

Live performance of music visuals is experiencing a renaissance today, with the proliferation of inexpensive computers and real time software (such as Onadime, Touch, Jitter, and BlissPaint). VJs, who perform at raves, in clubs and rock concerts, acknowledge the 60s light shows as their roots, but the first realization of a 'color music' that can be played in concert like auditory music can actually be traced back to 1730!

The Jesuit priest, Louis-Bertrand Castel, believed there was a mystical connection between the notes of the musical scale and the colors of the rainbow. So that people could experience this connection directly, he built an instrument that would actually play colors, an “Ocular Harpsichord.” Here at the very genesis of color music, we find a spiritual foundation.

Castel’s color organ was followed by a long procession of instruments, including Wallace Rimington’s color organ, Mary Hallock Greenewalt’s Sarabet, Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux, Charles Dockum’s Mobilcolor Projector, and Oskar Fischinger’s Lumigraph.

In the 1950s, Jordan Belson's famed Vortex Concerts (with avant-garde composer, Henry Jacobs), held at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco's Golden Gate park, set the stage for the concert light shows that arose in that city less than a decade later.

These rock concerts of the 60s became the venue for hundreds of ensembles of light artists to perform their visuals to music — groups such as Rainbow Jam, Glenn McKay’s Headlights, and The Single Wing Turquoise Bird. At the same time, multi-media artists were creating immersive psychedelic environments, like Jackie Cassen and Rudi Stern’s Theater of Light, and Gerd Stern’s group USCO.

Unfortunately, few film records of these performances or installations exist and those that do, hardly do justice to the original. However, The iotaCenter has two such rare films and is presenting them in KINETICA™ 4 to suggest the flavor, at least, of these live works (The Lumigraph performance and the Single Wing Turquoise Bird light show).

The 60s was also a time of emerging electronic technologies for art — computer animation and video synthesis, in particular — and works employing these techniques are well represented in KINETICA™ 4. Computer animation, developed in research labs for practical technical applications, was being commandeered for film art by John Whitney, Sr., Stan Vanderbeek and Lillian Schwartz. At the same time, video synthesizers were being developed in the workshops of individual inventors for the express purpose of creating video art. These included the Sandin Image processor, the Beck Direct, Rutt-Etra, and Paik-Abe Video Synthesizers.

All of these tools have been important in enlarging the artist's palette and expanding possibilities for experimentation and expression, but does technology define a genre of art? Since any technology can be employed for a wide range of genres (fiction, narrative, non-narrative, experimental, etc.),The iotaCenter distinguishes its KINETICA™s by intention and content rather than technique.

This is the unifying factor of KINETICA™ — the art of abstraction and movement, the visual analog of auditory music. The historical program of Kinetica™ 3 focused on the hip subculture of the 50s, while Kinetica™ 4 features the art form’s explosion into the zeitgeist of the 60s — spiritual quest and psychedelic experience. The contemporary programs in both attest to the art form’s continued vibrancy throughout the rest of the 20th century and up to the present time, when it is experiencing a new burst of energy from a new generation.

Cuba, Larry. "Media Art in the 60s: The Abstract, The Spiritual and The Psychedelic." Kinetica™ 4 Catalog 2002.
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