Olga Spiegel
Pioneer in Psychedelic Art  

Our Featured Artist

80th Anniversary of Bicycle Day Celebration, April 22nd

Article by Ben Marks

For most of us, our first acid trip is a bright demarcation line in our lives—there’s everything that came before LSD, and everything that came after. For artist Olga Spiegel, that line was drawn in 1964 in Greenwich Village, where the then 22-year-old had moved from London with her then husband and their first child. Based on the scores of psychedelic paintings and drawings Spiegel produced throughout the rest of the 1960s, the impact of psychedelics on the young artist appears to have been profound. But Spiegel’s art as a whole couldn’t be called purely psychedelic. Indeed, her work has benefited greatly from a wide range of influences, particularly the almost alchemical techniques of the Old Masters as practiced by the Fantastic Realists.

What we can say for sure is that psychedelic drugs, from acid to psilocybin, had a catalyzing effect on Spiegel, which is why one of her untitled psychedelic paintings from 1965 has been turned into a limited-edition sheet of blotter art for our upcoming participation in The Discovery Sessions on April 18th and 19th as well as the 80th Anniversary of Bicycle Day Celebration at the Haight Street Art Center on April 22nd.

Once her personal doors of perception had been opened, music played an important role in Spiegel’s growth as an artist. “I was surrounded by a lot of jazz musicians,” she says of her first decade in New York. “We had a big loft on Broadway near Union Square—people came there and jammed. The early psychedelic works were really influenced by that, because I would paint while all these musicians, some of whom were quite famous, played.” Among those who showed up over the years to play with her pianist husband were saxophonists Sam Rivers and Mark Whitecage, clarinetist Perry Robinson, drummer Laurence Cook, and a guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. “Like them, I was improvising,” she says.

Though now associated with New York, Spiegel almost ended up in San Francisco. “My husband had decided that something was happening in San Francisco; he wanted to check it out and live there. So, after a few months in New York, we went out to San Francisco for a very short period, but we were, like, broke, you know? So my husband went back to New York to get some money together and left me behind in San Francisco with a kid, and another one on the way. He eventually sent me some money and I arranged a ride with a guy who was driving to Philadelphia. I gave him some of the money and we started out, but his car broke down and we ended up hitchhiking. Pretty wild, I know, but a lot of truckers gave us rides in their big cabs, and the guy himself was very nice and quite protective of me. When we got to Philadelphia, he bought us tickets to New York.”

Upon her return to New York in 1965, Spiegel settled into a job as a textile designer. “Textile work is very boring compared to painting,” she says, “you’re just filling in patterns. But one day while I was working on my patterns, suddenly everything came alive—all these abstract shapes started looking like something. It just sort of jumped out at me. I think psychedelics had opened up my imagination.” Using textile inks, Spiegel began work on a series of art pieces based on her day-job epiphany. “I made three or four watercolors. I saw all kinds of strange things in those patterns. That was really the beginning of my psychedelic art.”

Scale soon became a factor, as her paintings moved from paper to canvas, some as large as five-by-seven feet. “It was an evolution,” she continues. “As I did larger and larger pieces, I started seeing more things.” In part, what she was seeing was an effect known as pareidolia, in which human faces appear in otherwise inanimate and even abstract compositions. But while Spiegel has investigated the phenomenon of pareidolia throughout her career, her work has never been a mere exercise in composing visual tricks for her viewers. The idea, she says, is to make connections between the various elements in her work as she paints, leading, of course, to connections for those who spend time exploring her dense paintings.

Spiegel’s colors gave her paintings yet another dimension. “I chose colors to create vibrations in my paintings,” she says. “If you use a red and a green at the same intensity, it vibrates. I was fascinated with that.” So were rock-poster artists like Victor Moscoso, but Spiegel wasn’t aware of much beyond the borders of her world. “I was only vaguely familiar with the San Francisco rock-poster artists,” she says. “Between being a mother of young children, painting, and helping to make a living, that was my environment.” In 1970, Spiegel became a single parent, doing all of this and more on her own.

The last painting made during what Spiegel calls her psychedelic period, “Widening Horizon,” was also one her largest, but the size of the canvas is not what makes it pivotal. “I was doing a lot of these colorful, abstract kinds of paintings with lots of geometric shapes,” she says. “But increasingly, figurative elements were starting to appear. I sort of had the sense that something else was coming, a new era. By the time I did that painting, I realized that something was missing in my work.”

Coincidentally, Spiegel was becoming a fan of Austrian artists Ernst Fuchs and Dieter Schwertberger, whose Fantastic Realism paintings had been published in the pages of Avant Garde magazine. That’s where Spiegel first saw their work, and she was floored. “Strangely enough, a friend of mine had started communicating with Fuchs,” she says, “and so when she visited him in Vienna, I went, too.” That was in early 1973. By that summer, with her kids in the care of their father, Spiegel had returned to Vienna to study with Fuchs and learn an Old Masters technique called Mischtechnik, in which egg tempera and oils were combined to give both the abstract shapes Spiegel had been working with, as well as the nascent figures that were clamoring for her attention, greater dimension and realism.

Over the course of her career, Spiegel used Mischtechnik regularly, but she also experimented with other techniques, including channeling Jackson Pollock to create splattery, multi-hued backgrounds for her Crystal Cities series of the 1980s. At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum was her photography—Spiegel was a freelance photographer for OMNI magazine for more than a dozen years. In her Seascapes series comprising almost 20 paintings, Spiegel took photographs of waves and clouds on the beaches of Anguilla, an island just north of Saint Martin near the Virgin Islands. Often her camera was pointed straight into the sun, bucking an essential rule of conventional photography. “The camera recorded the very bright light,” she says, “but everything else around it was dark. The paintings became these dark landscapes. They weren’t at all about color,” she adds. “The challenge was to get the tonality right.”

These days, alien spacescapes and the spirits that inhabit them appear frequently in her work, resulting in a kind of cosmic psychedelia that at once brings her story full circle and sends it hurtling into uncharted realms. Sometimes she employs computer software to help her realize her visions, sometimes brushes are enough. The key, she says, is not to overthink things too much. “I don’t premeditate my paintings,” she says. “They sort of happen. As a matter of fact, I often paint with the TV on, to keep my monkey, as I call it, occupied so that the subconscious can come through. In a way, the paintings paint themselves.” 


Bicycle Day Bundle featuring Olga Spiegel

Preorder today and receive official 80th Anniversary Bicycle Day Poster, Limited edition blotter and Limited edition art print all signed by artist for $95 and help us celebrate female pioneers in psychedelic art!