image of Carlo McCormick standing in front of flower shop
Photo by Zach Sokol

Writer Carlo McCormick Brought New York City’s Psychedelic Art Scene to the World

In the 1980s NYC art scene, art critic Carlo McCormick championed psychedelic artists, defying mainstream norms and the War on Drugs.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated February 23, 2024

“Art writing doesn’t pay,” Carlo McCormick says. “If it did, we might be sitting somewhere nice for a coffee.” In front of us, a pigeon pecks at some garbage. McCormick laughs. “Not sitting on a park bench by the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.” 

It’s a cloudless Saturday morning in SoHo. Car horns blare past us in an otherwise sleepy park, a triangle divet of grass sandwiched between Broome and Watts streets of Downtown New York City. McCormick, who grew up between New York City and Connecticut, has lived downtown since he was a teenager. “I moved to the East Village by 1980. It was a really rough, crazy neighborhood back then,” he says, as we watch two young pilates Moms navigate their strollers around a small puddle on the sidewalk. 

McCormick is a well-known New York City arts and culture critic and nightlife fixture of the memorialized downtown arts scene of the ‘80s. “I came up when it was still a golden age of journalism,” McCormick says, looking at me sitting earnestly with my notepad. There’s an apologetic look in his eyes. He’s written for Artforum, Art News, Spin, VICE, and was an editor at PAPER Magazine from its first day in 1984 to when founders Kim Hastreiter and David Hershkovits sold the publication in 2017.

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image of Carlo McCormick standing in front of of Village Exotics sign
Photo by Zach Sokol

McCormick was one of the few art writers of the ‘80s who wasn’t afraid to talk openly about drug culture and his personal relationship with psychedelics. His fearlessness, especially at the height of the Drug War, gave him an innately dissenting voice that endeared him to the psychedelic community. Alex Grey, a world-renowned psychedelic artist, one of the few to penetrate the mainstream, tells DoubleBlind that “Carlo was the first and only critic courageous enough to discuss the personal, spiritual, and political impact of psychedelics on art and culture.”

“I wasn’t reading press releases or saying, ‘Oh, I saw this on TikTok, so that must be what’s going on,’” McCormick says. “It was much more organic and much more community-based. As a writer, [I was] engaging in our culture and literally getting fucked up with [artistic geniuses] and having them tell me what they’re up to.” 

His writing helped document the transgressive creativity of the ‘80s in New York City. The era, McCormick explains, was uniquely vernacular and catalyzed by the deep urban tensions of the time, including Reagan’s anti-tax policies, Drug War policing, the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, a rising wealth disparity that elbowed people into the suburbs, and the loft laws that legalized the residency of Soho’s abandoned industrial spaces. 

images of Carlo McCormick
Photos by Zach Sokol

With all of this as a political backdrop, artists were hungry to provoke social change, and they used their work to challenge society and institutional art practices. They also inspired a culture of escapism, rebellion, and introspection, and used drugs and alcohol as gasoline to propel their rabid creativity. The growing use of psychedelics among artists caused art to take on existential and spiritual dimensions in ways it previously hadn’t.   

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McCormick loved writing but it did not pay the bills, so he got a steady gig working in clubs. “I worked in nightlife, which was really lucrative for me. I was one of the assholes behind the velvet rope who looked at your shoes and decided if you could come in.” 

The money McCormick made working at venues gave him the same freedom as “a trust fund kid” to pursue writing seriously, all while rubbing shoulders with the leading instigators of the downtown art scene and granting them entry into some of the city’s most exclusive clubs. 

“I’m going to sound like a grumpy old man, but all the different types of people in one place talking to each other—that happened in clubs much more than other spots,” McCormick says. “And the dance floor was a radical extension of that democracy. If you had the right club, you had a real mix: racial, gender, sexuality.” 

Working in clubs is how McCormick discovered culture, particularly the kind that existed in opposition to institutional New York. “It’s how I met the generation of artists [I wrote about]. Like Martin Wong or David Monroe, Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring,” McCormick says. “This was all given to me, and in an [organic] way.” 

But McCormick was on a mission to find art that fed a less direct, less didactic, and more meandering and mindful path. He says that “looking for this weird strain in culture” is how he came upon Alex Gray, Allyson Gray, and Fred Tomaselli—psychedelic artists whose work only existed at the fringe of the era’s art movement.

“He wrote my first ever art review for ARTFORUM,” Grey tells DoubleBlind in an email. “He was able to richly articulate the depth and meaning of my work, and the work of many other artists.”

McCormick covered psychedelic art which was characterized by colorful, intricate, and fantastical qualities, often incorporating fractals, mandalas, and anatomic x-rays. It stood in stark visual opposition to other art movements that thrived in New York City’s art market at the time.

READ: How to Learn Portuguese While Drinking Ayahuasca

image of Carlo McCormick standing in front of flower shop
Photo by Zach Sokol

“Often what I like as a critic doesn’t sync with the art market,” McCormick explains. “Partly because of my weirdness, my politics, and maybe because I’m just a contrarian sort of person who doesn’t like industries, I’ve always liked really vernacular forms that aren’t fine art or highbrow shit.”

Though McCormick never adopted the hegemonic voice of his critic peers, he acknowledges that he was always “proximate to the mainstream,” thanks to the magazines he wrote for. It’s how he was able to wedge psychedelic art into the discourse. “I’ve always been humored, shall we say, because I was writing for all the art magazines, I was able to support all these artists who I thought had totally changed culture.”

But McCormick and his art community were also creating culture. According to lore, they hosted events that provided psychedelic party favors to attendees. “Bands played for free. People showed movies for free. I gave away LSD for free. And it was free to get in,” McCormick says. “Wendy Wild was doing all these mushroom parties with her band Pulsallama and I was doing LSD parties,” McCormick says. “She was called the Mushroom Queen. I was called the Acid Prince.”  

This era wasn’t characterized by swirling messages of peace and love, mind you. “This was in the ‘80s,” McCormick says, “when heroin and coke ruled; it was not a particularly psychedelic time.”

But the psychedelic art scene became a countercultural movement in the city, even if the motivation was more hedonistic than political. “When artists shamelessly and radically [participate in] joy and pleasure, a lot of people are going to have a problem with it,” McCormick says. “And to talk about [pleasure and joy] is to talk about things that are more sensuous, disorienting, and joyful than people think there’s supposed to be in high culture.”

image of Carlo McCormick smoking a cannabis pipe
Photos by Zach Sokol

Psychedelic art emerged from the late 1960s as one of the love children of counterculture art, and attempted to portray, question, and illuminate the inner world of the psyche through graphic depictions. But more importantly, the psychedelic art world provided a home for people looking for more in art, culture, and community. 

It also gave artists the liberty to depict their relationships with drugs, and portray the therapeutic or spiritual insights they retained from their excursions into the kaleidoscopic ether. Keith Haring credits the invention of his wild, uninhibited style to LSD trips he had when he was a teenager. These vivid, indulgent designs invoke a kind of “optical pleasure, almost like a hysteria, something that would subsume you through your visual senses,” McCormick says. “A lot of art doesn’t do that. [Psychedelic art] gives us all a license to experience, think about [and feel] those things.”

The brevity of psychedelic optimism, curtailed perhaps by our government’s formidable War on Drugs, was replaced by a reduction of its vibrant aesthetic. After the Summer of Love, the swirly and groovy psychedelic designs could only be found on rock posters. Co-opted by crass commercialism, psychedelia became trite and washed. 

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“Culture is inherently co-optive, and they don’t want to get caught with their pants down when all of a sudden a really cool artist [becomes popular],” McCormick says. The sad reality is that this never quite happened with psychedelic artists. “We fought a good fight and we lost,” McCormick says.

The dearth of recognized psychedelic artists highlights the fact that the movement has been purged from art history, likely because it doesn’t neatly fit within the institutional confines of development from Pop to Minimal to Conceptual.

image of Carlo McCormick laying on couch
Photo by Zach Sokol

But the ethos of the psychedelic community that birthed the aesthetic of psychedelia is still ever-present in the fringes of the art world, with Alex and Allyson Grey, Victor-Jesus Escobedo, Jake Holschuh, Android Jones, and David Normal continuing the tradition of incorporating psychedelics into their creative practices. 

“There are still artists I championed years later. Alex Gray, for instance, he’s got a legion of fans and a relatively functional self-sustaining working model to continue his life and his life’s work and maybe still have it exist after him. That’s remarkable,” McCormick says. “But I don’t see [his art] in the Met. We’re going to have to have a huge change in our culture before that stuff comes back in.”

Today, McCormick is still working in New York’s art world. He recently curated a graffiti and street art show called Wild Style at Jeffrey Deitch gallery on Wooster street. It was time pegged to the seminal hip-hop film’s 40th anniversary. Explosive wall murals, graffiti tags, and larger-than-life sculptures animate the traditional, white-painted exhibition space with a fierce, colorful intensity. While it’s fundamentally cool that he’s still creating spaces in which guerilla art is celebrated, it’s a stark reminder of how sterile New York City has become. 

When it comes to psychedelics, it’s easy to sense McCormick’s irritation about how the movement has progressed.“The laws are finally changing because it’s an industry now and people can monetize it.”

images of Carlo McCormick
Photos by Zach Sokol

He’s not wrong. In the past few years, Oregon and Colorado have legalized the facilitation and use of psilocybin mushrooms in therapy settings, while MDMA, or “molly,” is up for FDA approval. LSD is also enduring a public image facelift, as everyone from Silicon Valley programmers to shiny workout influencers boast about the creative potency of microdosing. 

“It was really different being pro-drugs when people looked at me like I was a pedophile [for being an advocate]. I mean, we were really public enemy number one,” McCormick says. “And now it’s really easy to coast and be this groovy professor of psychedelia. I love that this town stinks of weed.”

McCormick reminds us that psychedelics are more than a mental health treatment. They are more than a rave drug, or a pre-workout supplement, or an Adderall substitute for techies. They’re seeds of creativity that fuel the building blocks of culture, and their impact on art and history cannot be overstated.

Psychedelic art is “not an artifact,” McCormick says. “A lot of it is weird and it kind of gets forgotten by history, but it’s a living thing that’s part of a greater lineage—not a nostalgia for the ’60s or ’80s.”

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