Blue Poles and Doors of Perception

The biggest controversy in Australian Art History, during my lifetime, was the purchase by James Mollison of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles painting for AUD $1.3 million, which was a lot of money in 1973. The public anger it caused contributed to the downfall of the Whitlam Government.

I have read a couple of biographies of Pollock and the man disgusts me. I have a huge collection of art books but never felt the desire to buy one with reproductions of Pollock’s paintings. He was someone I didn’t think I could learn anything from except that art is at its best when it is at its freest. Clement Greenberg, who came to Sydney in 1968 and was responsible for me deciding to go to New York at eighteen, was the champion of Pollock but by the time of Pollock’s death he had shifted his interest to other artists.

Jackson rammed his Oldsmobile 88 convertible into a tree killing himself, a female passenger Edith Metzger, and seriously disfiguring his girlfriend, Ruth Kligmann. Doing this to himself is one thing but also doing it to the women is something unforgiveable.But Jackson could really draw. He loved Picasso for his draftsman ship and his own, early figurative drawings and paintings are exceptional.

The stories about pieces of broken whisky glass being embedded in paint as he splatted paint in a drunken frenzy are very misleading. Jackson was constantly and very consciously drawing every second as he worked over one of his canvases. The drip method simply enabled him to draw faster than with a brush or pencil. The speed allowed him to make decisions from his subconscious without the restriction of a time lag time taken by the relative slowness of hand driven brushstroke. He used alcohol to loosen him up and achieve tunnel vision. The “high” excluded the world outside the canvas.

A four-page story in 1949 Life Magazine described Jackson as the greatest living painter in America and made “Jack the dripper” famous overnight. It was at a time when those running the US wanted to be supreme in every sphere of endeavour including culture. To leave the Old World of Europe behind and be best in everything. Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism were put in the dustbin of the past and Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting the present. Jackson was integral to the post war creation of the US as a superpower. No artist symbolises American art more than Jackson Pollock.

In Jalalabad I do not have the range of materials and paints that are available in Australia and have found myself experimenting with a combination of oils, clear varnishes, and the kind of liquid hardware enamel that Jackson used.

My many years of studying and using Chinese brush techniques have led me combine it with Pollock’s drip technique of drawing and interlacing it with the Divine Geometry of Islamic Mosques, reinforced by the imprints of ancient wooden textile stamps, collected from this region.  The result is a marriage of the three: A) the uniquely American, Pollock approach B) the Islamic non-figurative tradition and C) Chinese discipline. These Jalalabad Yellow House paintings show how the three cultures can be intertwined and make something new and beautiful. I have felt mystically outside the realities of this world while painting them and no need for drugs or alcohol to get me there.


I always wonder how many other people have the same kind of double vision that I have. When I was very young, I asked my sister, Pam, if she saw the things I see and she said “no,” and told my mother who was so worried she took me to head doctors as she thought I might have a brain tumour like the one that killed my cousin, Eric. I did lots of EEGs with electrodes attached to my skull and while doing them I switched on techniques that I can do, to make the visions stronger. I hoped that the EEG’s would show up something special, but they showed nothing abnormal.

When I would get bored in primary school, I would watch the different coloured auras of the other students move and change as they reacted to the lesson. When in High School I was wandering through a bookstore at Roselands Shopping Mall and saw a book with the word MYSTICISM in large print on the cover. It was by Evalyn Underhill, and I purchased a copy. As I read it, I thought “Well that explains everything, I am a mystic.” I studied everything I could find about the lives of the mystics and what they wrote.

The ones that appealed to me the most were the Sufi’s and reading their stories has affected the way I write, including these dispatches from Afghanistan. It is the same as the way the divine geometry of mosque tiles has influenced my art.

As I sit here writing in the Yellow House meeting room it is early morning and the light is low between me and the opposite wall and couch that face me. The air is filled with small moving patterns. They are like a 3D animated version of the new paintings. These Yellow House canvases are multi layered with patterns and so is my everyday vision. At night I cannot experience the full blackness of dark because the absence of sun or electric light only makes the moving patterns become stronger and more luminous. They vary greatly. Sometimes they are like large Paisley-pattern shapes circling around in space like goldfish in a bowl. In my Rainbow Way films I worked out a way of filming light phenomenon similar to what I see, and Hellen coined the name “Lux Mysterium” to describe this.

The new Jalalabad Yellow House paintings come close to duplicating this double vision. I wonder if Pollock had the same problem and was both inspired to express it and troubled by it and his paintings are landscapes of a mystical other reality. Not abstract as Greenberg would want them to be seen but representational, depicting what the majority of people do not see.

There is a duality in my art. Half my art attempts to share this mysterious doorway to “the other side” and the other half is about the very real horrors I witness when exposed of the madness of war.  That is why I called my book Blood Mystic.


The Puppet Theatre room at the original Sydney Yellow House used William Blake’s 1793 book of poems The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as its theme and inspiration. That is how I explained it to anyone who entered. On the wall of the backstage room, I painted the quote “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, until he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

In that time at the Yellow House ,1969-72 everyone was reading the same books and on the top of the list was Aldous Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception, Heaven and Hell, also inspired by Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. And everyone, except me, was experimenting with drugs, especially LSD. They all were chain-smoking pot and would regularly sit in a circle passing a joint around. When I would pass it on, I would get bad “that-is-not-cool” looks. 

Huxley gave a very classy and well-reasoned reason for knocking down the doors of perception. To him it was necessary to experience what was on “the other side,” as a way to self-discovery. 

As a mystic I found a lot of value in reading Huxley, especially his 1945 book The Perennial Philosophy which connected the similarities in the revelations made by mystics through the ages, from different cultures.  Huxley did not have the natural gifts of a mystic to access “the other side” and resorted to using mescaline and later LSD. (In 1973, during the last hours of his life, suffering throat cancer, he wrote a note to his wife to inject him with LSD.  Aldous went out tripping. His departure was the same day JFK was shot on the Dallas motorcade).

The only other Yellow House artist is still living, my friend the photographer Greg Weight, saw a recent photo of me at the Jalalabad Yellow House and commented “You look like an old sage – and probably you always were one.”  Greg was not suggesting I had the wisdom of a sage but that I was always different and made no secret that I was a mystic. I was an oddity at the Yellow House because of my refusal to share drugs or see value in using them to “trip.” People would come off the street and enter my puppet theatre and immediately ask, “Shit man, what were you on?” It irritated the other artists that I could “get there” without a tab of acid. Of all of them, Jumping Jack Flash (David Litvinov) who, I am told, introduced Brett Whitely to heroin at Luna Park, was the most troubled by me. David was older than the rest of us and had an encyclopaedic knowledge but like Huxley could not get outside “the narrow chinks of his cavern” without drugs.

It is incredibly dangerous for artists and musicians to feel the need to use drugs and alcohol to get into that special ecstatic space where the subconscious is free, allowing brilliant performance and painting to flow. The need to take a drug to be “out of it” and exit everyday reality quickly, becomes addictive. My mother was very worried about me ever experimenting with drugs and warned, “Because of your strange mental condition the drugs could really mess you up.” I took her warning very seriously.

The other book everyone was reading was Carlos Castaneda’s 1968 The Teachings of Don Juan. Martin Sharp and Brett Whitley were obsessed by it and kept pressing me to read it, but I found reading, even a paragraph, to be repellent and shunned the book. I could not comprehend why they couldn’t tell it was fake. We had all been conditioned to read Aldous Huxley at school with Brave New World on our syllabus along with George Orwell’s 1984. But the Huxley family had influenced me from a much earlier age. I was slow to learn to read at primary school as I am dyslexic. It was always an embarrassment when asked to read out loud in primary school with the other children laughing at my fumbling difficulties with words and sentences. In the last year of primary school, I caught glandular fever and had to stay at home quarantined for the last three months of term. At Rockdale library my mother found me a book on evolution. I had always been fascinated by dinosaurs. The book was illustrated and written by either Julian Huxley, (Aldus’s scientist brother) or his uncle the supporter of Darwin, Thomas Huxley. The book interested me so keenly I forced myself to learn to read in order to digest it.

The following school year I entered Kogarah High able to read fluently and an enthusiastic evolutionist. Our English teacher, Mr Night, was a Christian Fundamentalist. One day he came into class hunching his back over and swinging his arms and grunting in the manner of an ape. He straightened up and asked the class if they believed that humans came from apes. All the class or 13-year-olds laughed and yelled out “No!” but I stayed silent. Mr Night noticed this and singled me out,  “Gittoes, do you agree with Mr Darwin that we evolved from apes?” and I replied “Yes.”  I was taken away into the corridor and caned. Mr Night was, also, our history teacher and in the end of year exams I was failed in both English and History.

There is something about mystics that “pisses people off,” especially people in authority. They sense the difference from the herd, and it irritates the shit out of them. In too many cases mystics are unaware of what they are and get classified as insane. They are usually diagnosed as schizophrenics and end up in mental asylums or on heavy medications. Intellectuals do not take them seriously and the media ridicule them as nut cases. Aldous Huxley deserves a gold star for being both a respected intellectual and an open supporter of mystics. To admit that I am a mystic has never been a plus. Discrimination against mystics is not discouraged by society. I hope that someday mystics will be given the same consideration as other minority groups victimised over colour, sexual preferences, and religion.  

In from 1968 to 72 I felt that I had been born for the psychedelic age even though I did not take the drugs that the hippies were into.  Every bookshop had shelves full of publications encouraging the journey towards self-knowledge and mystics were hip. It was the golden age of rock and roll with Jim Morrison calling his band The Doors after the Huxley Book and writing Break On Through to the Other Side. The Beatles went to India to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Yogi and Jim Hendrix found the sound to match. Books about the inner journey, like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha were like guide maps to where everyone wanted to go. Unlike my school experience the quest to expand my knowledge of what Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy was share by all my friends.

No art museums in the world, that I know of, show examples of the psychedelic art of that period. They all exhibit good examples of every other phase of visual art culture – Classicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Conceptualism but never the Psychedelic. It is not seen as serious art and is shunned by curators and fine art historians.

They are, universally allergic to it unlike the music of the period which is still celebrated as a golden age. No one finds John Lennon’s Imagine unplayable.

Last week the local Jalalabad artist Khyber, who I collaborated with at the earlier Jalalabad Yellow House, arrived to paint Yellow House Jalalabad in Pashto Arabic on our entrance wall, next to the version I had painted in English with Zabi and Salahuddin. He brought with him a number of small packets of florescent pigment and a can of clear medium to mix it into. His idea was to “go psychedelic” with the colours and style to match images he had seen of our 1969-72 Sydney Yellow House. I did not think this would impress the Taliban when they came through the gate. It took a while to convince Khyber as he made the argument that Afghanistan was once on the hippy trail. Khyber is right, many of my friends travelled to Europe via Afghanistan as part of their quest for enlightenment through the experience of exotic cultures. Their own Western culture was too strait and uncool.  Khyber and the other local Yellow House artists believe that Jalalabad will return to being a tourist magnet and our Yellow House will be an attraction. I won and Khyber reluctantly went back to painting with standard blue, yellow and red enamel colours.

But I could not resist experimenting with Khyber’s fluorescent colours and have painted my first fully psychedelic canvas in over 53 years. I have called it Doors of Perception- Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It took days longer to complete than all my other recent paintings and there were moments when I could not stand looking at it and nearly destroyed it.  But I wrestled with it to the point where I now love it. It hangs inside the entrance door of the Yellow House.  A blast from the past and a reminder that the original Yellow House sprang from the psychedelic age.  Khyber approved.


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