William Blake, The Number of the Beast Is 666, c. 1805 Credit: Jonathan Donovan

In 1948, college student Allen Ginsberg was masturbating while reading William Blake in his apartment when he heard the English mystic, born 190 years earlier, whisper to his mind a few burning lines of poetry: “For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life,” read one line. Ginsberg sensed the spiritual-erotic encounter was an epiphany—”I’ve seen God!” he yelled from his fire escape in Harlem, and realized he would deliver Blake’s same message of free love to his own generation. It would be another seven years before Ginsberg wrote in his towering poem “Howl”: “Holy, Holy, Holy . . . Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! Everywhere is holy! The madman is holy as you my soul are holy . . . Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” Blake’s words were lighting fires across time.

Blake was also receiving messages from God and from angels, which he transcribed into his art and poetry. This game of supernatural telephone is the basis for an exceptional new exhibition at Northwestern University’s Block Museum. “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius,” which features 150 artworks, is the first show to consider how the Romantic-era English poet and printmaker spoke into nearly everyone’s ear during the mid-to-late 1960s, inspiring some of the important artistic output of the decade’s counterculture movement, including Ginsberg’s poetry, and lyrics by the Doors, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix.

How did the long-dead poet, known for his Biblical illustrations and a poem about a tiger, become the prophet of a cultural revolution more than 100 years after his death? The exhibit and its catalog make an elegant case for Blake’s antiauthoritarianism, abolitionism, love of freedom and animals and plants, his protofeminism, his sexual libertinism, not to mention his hallucinatory drawings that could blow the best surrealists out of the water.

It was the Age of Enlightenment. The philosophy of the day was grounded in logic and rationalism, but the English monarchy was threatened by developing democracies in France and America. Blake rejected his art-school training and made most of his artworks at home with his wife’s assistance. One of his only reviewers, in the Examiner, called him “an unfortunate lunatic.” There was widespread censorship and repression under King George III’s rule, and Blake was obsessed with the American Revolution and the freedoms it represented. Blake was unpopular, an outsider, almost tried for treason (he kicked the king’s soldier off his property), and died mostly unknown and poor.

What survived of Blake was his wild imagination, and major figures like Walt Whitman noticed. By the 1960s, posters of Blake’s nude figures blossoming out of rainbows were hung on dorm-room walls around the country. Such imagery wasn’t just about decorating or fashion or even entertainment—Blake was an activist who believed humans could achieve social and political liberty by loosening the mind.

Blake pops up in nearly every corner of 60s culture. Jimi Hendrix lived a block away from Blake’s onetime home in London (23 Brook Street in Mayfair). “Are you experienced?” he famously asked, an homage to Blake’s illustrated collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience. “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite,” wrote Blake in the 1793 book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The phrase should be familiar to anyone who has read Aldous Huxley, dabbled in psychedelics, or listened to the Doors. While at university, young student Jim Morrison even wrote a class paper on Blake.

Within the Block Museum’s exhibition, Blake’s connection to 60s counterculture fabulously plays out within a trip-out chamber especially constructed for the show. Visitors are invited to lounge in the dark on a beanbag chair, put on some headphones, listen to a soundtrack that includes the Doors and Ravi Shankar, and watch a liquid light show and film called The Psychedelic Experience (1965), codirected by Timothy Leary. The effect is transporting, even without drugs. In fact, that’s the message: a cocktail of art and poetry can elevate your mind and spirit; LSD and mescaline were merely chemical shortcuts to enlightenment. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” wrote Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It’s key not to think of hallucination as mere hedonism and escape, but as engagement and imagination of a better world. Blake’s revival came at a dark moment in U.S. history, between McCarthyism sweeping away homosexuals and communists and Vietnam war protests reaching a fever pitch. Wielding Blake as a cultural weapon meant one had the power to ask, What is the political dimension of the imagination?

The high point of this saturated exhibit is its discovery of unexpected connections between Blake and midcentury visual arts. There are rarely seen paintings by Robert Smithson (best known for Spiral Jetty), abstract artworks by Clyfford Still and Agnes Martin, and a gorgeous canvas titled Song of Innocence, made in 1957 by Jay DeFeo. DeFeo is a San Francisco painter best known for her monolithic work The Rose (1958-’66), which is wholly indebted to Blake’s print Albion Rose—DeFeo was present at Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl” (the Whitney Museum couldn’t lend to the Block because its accretion of oil paint weighs almost a ton).

Curated by Northwestern art history professor Stephen Eisenman, “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius” is a meditation on the nature of influence, a fraught concept in art, music, poetry, cinema, and nearly every creative endeavor. How much should an artist be inspired by his or her influences, and how much should he or she alter them? Can viewers really consider anything truly new and innovative if artists are always looking to past masters? These questions nag at the heart of art appreciation, because of the myth that art’s appeal is its drive toward originality. This exhibit, more than just making a strong case for Blake’s revival, is a study of the role of artistic inheritance. During a time like the 1960s, it seemed as if so much art was exciting because it was new; we can now understand that such power is contingent on making sense of the past.  v