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William Blake and the Age of Aquarius

September 23-March 11, 2018
Main Gallery
William Blake, “Ancient of Days,” frontispiece for Europe a prophecy,1794, relief etching. The Rosenbach, Philadelphia. Photographer: Jonathan Donovan

In the summer of 1967, more than 100,000 young people streamed into the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, as well as Greenwich Village in New York and Old Town in Chicago, to celebrate peace, love, and music. Many of the artists, poets and musicians associated with the “Summer of Love” embraced the work of British visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827) and used it as a compass to drive their own political and personal evolutions. Opened at the Block Museum in the fall of 2017, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius explores the impact of British visionary poet and artist William Blake on a broad range of American artists in the post-World War II period. This exhibition is the first to consider how Blake’s art and ideas were absorbed and filtered through American visual artists from the end of World War II through the 1960s. Blake became for many a model of non-conformity and self-expression, and was seen as an artist who engaged in social and political resistance in his time. 

William Blake and the Age of Aquarius considers parallels between Blake’s time and mid-twentieth-century America, touching on such issues as political repression, social transformation, and struggles for civil rights. Blake’s protests against the conventions of his day were inspirational for many young Americans disillusioned by perceived cultural tendencies of social uniformity, materialism and consumerism, racial and gender discrimination, and environmental degradation. This generation sought in Blake a model of independence, imagination, and resistance to authority. The exhibition features American artists for whom Blake was an important inspiration and includes more than 130 paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, films, and posters, as well as original Blake prints and illuminated books from collections throughout the United States.

Blake's Diverse Influence

Blake's art, poetry and political ideas had unique currency in postwar America, unifying artists working across various media. The exhibition brings together artists who used Blake’s lyrics as titles, experimented with printing techniques and innovative combinations of image and text and cited Blake's worldview in letters, diaries and essays. Artists and musicians as diverse as Diane Arbus, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Robert Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Stanley William Hayter, Jimi Hendrix, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Maurice Sendak, The Doors and The Fugs are featured, united by the influence of Blake on their work. An early section of the exhibition focuses on artists working in the mid-1940s who discovered Blake's unique voice in such poems as "The Tyger" and “The Shepherd” and drew inspiration for their own work from his ideas. These will include Sam Francis, Stanley William Hayter, Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock, Charles Seliger, Robert Smithson and Clyfford Still among others.  Another exhibition theme focuses on Beat culture and the role of radical poet Allen Ginsberg in promoting Blake to fellow poets and writers. It examines Blake as a model for the artist as outsider and brings together works by Helen Adam, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Robert Frank and Jess. A final section inspired by Blake’s famous phrase “the Doors of Perception” traces the wider circulation of Blake’s art and imagery and how it permeated popular culture as the alternative movements of the 1960s came to full fruition.  Including classic concert posters and music this section examines Blake’s influence on artists and musicians who embraced psychedelia and Timothy Leary’s call to “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”

Credits

The exhibition is curated by Northwestern Professor of Art History Stephen F. Eisenman in consultation with Corinne Granof, Curator of Academic Programs, Block Museum of Art. It will be on view at the Block Museum from September 23, 2017-March 11, 2018.  The exhibition is supported in part by the Terra Foundation for America Art, the National Endowment for the Arts, Robert Lehman Foundation, Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, and The Alumnae of Northwestern University.  The related publication is made possible in part by a gift from Elizabeth and Todd Warnock to the Department of Art History at Northwestern University.  
Sip Sop

Sip Sop [detail]

Charles Seliger, from Illustrations to the songs from “William Blake’s Island in the Moon,” 1945, White ink on black ink on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Michael Rosenfeld
The Doors

The Doors, The Miller Blues Band, Daily Flash, June 1–4, 1967, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco [detail]

Victor Moscoso, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries. © 1967, 1984, 1994 Rhino Entertainment Company. Used with permission. All rights reserved. www.familydog.com
Inward Eye

Inward Eye #2 [detail]

Richard Anuszkiewicz, from the portfolio Inward Eye, 1970, serigraph. Courtesy of Swope Art Museum © Richard Anuszkiewicz/Licensed by VAGA, New York/NY VAGA
Damn Braces

Damn Braces [detail]

Sam Francis, 1960, color lithograph. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Sam Francis Foundation, California. © 2016 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photographer: John R. Glembin
1946 PH-69

1946 PH-69 [detail]

Clyfford Still, 1946, oil on canvas. © 2017 City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Chicago Seed

Cover of the Chicago Seed, vol. 1, no. 9, 1967 [detail]

Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries
The Tiger's Eye

Painting for cover of The Tiger’s Eye, issues #5-8

John Stephan, c. 1948, oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, courtesy of John J. Stephan
Jess Collins

Untitled (Gift for Jerome and Diane Rothenberg) [detail]

Jess, 1959, two-sided collage, mounted on board. Collection of Frances Beatty and Allen Adler © Jess Collins Trust, used by permission.
In the Land of the Harpy

from In the Land of the Harpy, collage 10 [detail]

Helen Adam, 1964, collage. Estate of Helen Adam © the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, used with permission
A Prophecy

A Prophecy, Plate 9, "In Thunders Ends the Voice...." [detail]

William Blake, 1793, Color-printed relief etching in blue with pen and black ink and watercolor, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Ancient of Days

“Ancient of Days,” frontispiece for Europe a prophecy" [detail]

William Blake, 1794, relief etching. The Rosenbach, Philadelphia. Photographer: Jonathan Donovan
The Number of the Beast is 666

The Number of the Beast is 666 [detail]

William Blake, c. 1805, pen and ink and watercolor. The Rosenbach, Philadelphia. Photographer: Jonathan Donovan
Songs of Innocence and Experience

Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 2, Innocence Title Page (Bentley 3) [detail]

William Blake, 1789, Relief etching printed in green with pen and ink and watercolor, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
The Tyger

"The Tyger," from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, plate 42

William Blake, 1794, color-printed relief etching with watercolor on cream wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
The Ecchoing Green

“The Ecchoing Green,” from Songs of Innocence [detail]

William Blake, 1789, relief etching with hand coloring, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries
The Circle of the Lustful

“The Circle of the Lustful: Paolo and Francesca,” from Dante’s Inferno, canto V,

William Blake, c. 1825–27, engraving. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries