Brooklyn Rail, July 24, 2018
At first glance the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) You Say You Want a Revolution: Remembering the 60s offers a familiar picture of that turbulent decade. A send-up of psychedelic art frames the entrance, with the exhibition’s title radiating outwards in playful lettering against a wash of electric orange and purple. Inside, the scene is set by a ten-foot-tall photograph taken by Walter Bredel of the crowd at Woodstock in 1969. It too is printed in that same lush gradient. Illustrations from the San Francisco Oracle (1967), dripping with acid-laced mysticism, are blown up to similar proportions. On the right-hand wall, a poster for a 1967 “Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In” marries caricatures of Native Americans with psychedelic ooze. Lining the exhibition panels are well-worn slogans like “Give Peace a Chance.” Harvard-psychologist-turned-hallucinogen-evangelist Timothy Leary figures prominently, flowers in his hair. In the glass cases, visitors are invited to pore over Tom Wolfe’s scribbles from Haight-Ashbury (which became The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968) and pamphlets on Eastern spirituality. A headphone-equipped music section features a full catalog of the era’s iconic artists, spanning hippie-rock favorites like the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix to soul and blues singers, folk revivalists, and jazz players, too numerous to list here.
Who needs another tribute to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll? Fortunately, You Say You Want a Revolution offers much more than just that. The artwork, photographs, and documents offer a layered look not just at the counterculture in its contradictory forms, but at the underpinnings of the wider political revolt which transformed the United States in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.