When you leave "Ode to a Hippie," a "site-specific environment" by Virgil Marti in the Wadsworth's Matrix Gallery, you are at a loss. What, exactly, is a hippie? Where's the ode? Who moved my cheese?
These and other questions flutter in the air behind you, largely because the exhibition comes with no explanatory text beyond names of works and their various media. Even then, it's an amazing mash-up of genres and techniques — Marti is skilled in painting, sewing, and sculpting. A "wood" throne, for example, is actually made of cement that resembles wood, and the "Golden Bough" is a gold-leaf-plated seat that you could never sit in or on. Nearby, a copy of John Keats' life mask, made from the original cast of 1816, sits near Keats' 1821 death mask, a copy of which Marti found in the Wadsworth collection. The life mask is placed atop a velvet- and rabbit-fur-lined ottoman, like a brooch inside a huge jewelry box. Another piece of interesting but unfunctional furniture, called "Cold Pastoral," stands nearby. Five glistening, silver-plated urethane "looking glasses," given names like "Life, Death, and Immortality," are tinted in gaudy shades of pink and blue, as though you've stumbled into a mausoleum devoted to Liberace. All in all, on first pass through, "Ode to a Hippie" is a bit of a cold pastoral.
In order to "get at" (his words) what Marti has in mind with this installation, it helps (no, it's essential) that you view a six–minute video afterwards. It's a good video, professionally made with a nifty soundtrack ("Cemetery Gates" by the Smiths plays throughout) and Marti himself is articulate about his art. Only then do you learn 10 things about "Ode to a Hippie":
1) the hippie for whom this ode is offered is artist Paul Thek (1933-1988); 2) Marti also thinks of the poet John Keats (1795-1821) as a sort of ur-hippie (in the video, he says, "In a way he was a hippie…he had trained for medicine but then chucked it all to be a poet."); 3) Keats is best known for his "Ode on a Grecian Urn"; 4) "Ode to a Hippie" is intended as a reliquary (Thek, who used death and life masks in his art, specialized in this sort of work); 5) The Smiths' "Cemetery Gates" makes perfect sense, as it's the name of Marti's handsome window installation at the front of the Matrix and in the song Morrissey sings, "Keats and Yeats are on your side / [While] Wilde is on mine"; 6) the crushed-velvet ottoman on which Keats head rests is meant to evoke images of "rock stars" who died young, like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison (Marti equates "hippie" with "rock star", apparently, yet the beer-drinking, lizard-obsessed Morrison was far from being a hippie); 7) Patricia Hickson, the Wadsworth's contemporary art curator, said, "Marti seamlessly intertwines Romanticism and the Hippie Movement through the tragic figures of John Keats and Paul Thek. The two artists longed for immortality through their work, but died too young to believe that their artistic contributions would have longevity."; 8) Marti says some provocative things in the video, such as, "Ideas of what constitutes nature change"; 9) If you go back through the gallery after watching the video, you get a better feel for what Marti is doing; 10) The fact that you want to give it one more try is a testament to the artist's ability to provoke you. In that sense, Marti has succeeded.
For a different ode to a different sort of proto-hippie, head two galleries further along to "Media Rewind 1963." This small but potent installation juxtaposes elements of that seminal year, such as the Beatles' first album (you can listen to it on headphones), the space race, tumultuous civil rights struggles and the "I Have a Dream" speech into a tapestry that does not so much comfort you as challenge you to rethink history. With the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s powerful wake-up call to America still ringing in our ears, "Media Rewind 1963" is not only timely, it forces us to ponder a bitter truth, one that seems remarkable now, but back then was just part of our evolving national drama. That is, less than three months after King's speech — truly one of the high-water marks in American history — one of the lowest points in the nation's history was reached: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.
This dark side of 1963 is represented by "Retroactive," a stunning wall-sized oil and silkscreen by Robert Rauschenberg that bathes JFK's face in a blue scrim, surrounded by the jarring flotsam of the recent past that now seemed to be falling into a million pieces. All that promise — the race to the moon, the hoped-for stand-down in Vietnam (which had not yet heated up into a full-scale war), the idealism of young people inspired by the handsome "first couple," the sunny optimism of the Fab Four, etc. — wiped out in a few seconds. If you stand in the center of "Media Rewind 1963," you may find yourself wondering what could have been after 1963 had the bullets not ripped through the president's body. You may also find yourself, as I did, wondering about other, similar moments since then, such as the tainted election of 2000, the failure to heed the intelligence that could have prevented 9/11, the rush into Iraq, the failure to do anything about climate change, and so on. What will such a gallery show called "Media Rewind 2013" look like in 50 years? Or will we be so immersed in the virtual reality of Google Glass we won't even care?
Augmenting the Rauschenberg work are Andy Warhol's silk screens "Triple Silver Disaster" (three views of an electric chair) and "Early Colored Jackie" (Jackie Kennedy at her loveliest); as well as Cady Noland's "Bluewald," a silk screen of Lee Harvey Oswald at the moment he was shot by mobster Jack Ruby, thus launching a thousand conspiracy theories. At the end of the exhibition, visitors are asked to write down "what you remember" from 1963. The comments are hung on hooks for all to read; most detail what each visitor was doing when they learned that Kennedy had been shot. Some are quite touching.
Think of it as a time capsule embroidered with great art. Or a warning from the past.
Ode to a Hippie
By Virgil Marti, Matrix 167. Through Jan. 5, 2014.
Media Rewind 1963
Through December 2013. Both at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford, (860) 278-2670, thewadsworth.org
Andy Warhol painting of Jackie O., silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas; part of the Media Rewind 1963 exhibit at the Wadsworth.
Robert Rauschenberg, 'Retroactive I', 1964. Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas.
Cody Noland's "Bluewald."
All images courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum