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LSD Blotters Pass the Acid Test of Art Collectors

November 03, 1995|DENNIS ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mark McCloud is one of the premier stamp collectors in the United States.

Sometimes he finds the activity to be gut-wrenching, mind expanding and a downright trip.

"Sometimes," says the 40-year-old artist, "you break into your stamp collection and eat 'em. That's the tricky thing with this currency. It's redeemed by eating. And as you spend it you get richer, not poorer."

You see, McCloud's little stamps are laced with LSD.

He is the guru of a new wave of "blotter art" collectors who value the designs on old stamps ("hits") and sheets (not unlike sheets of stamps) of acid. His San Francisco-based collection of 150 stamps and sheets has toured the United States with the help of two National Endowment for the Arts grants he has received in the last 10 years.

" Art is not a big enough word for it," McCloud says. "It's magic."

It may be magic (or not), but now it's worth money--as art. Blotter art is yet another counterculture icon that has found its way into the consciousness of legitimacy--like Jerry Garcia neckties. Collectors are doling out as much as $300 for a piece of blotter art about the size of a paperback book cover, especially if it's signed by such psychedelic luminaries as Timothy Leary or LSD inventor Albert Hofmann.

"There's a collector's market developing," says Jacaeber Kastor, 40, former owner of Psychedelic Solution Gallery in New York. "It's got value as art."

Bay Area author Thomas Lyttle has commissioned six reproductions of classic '70s blotter art that he will have signed by people such as Leary, William Burroughs and Ken Kesey.

"Signing blotter art," Leary says, "I feel like the Pope signing communion wafers."

There will be 250 made of each design. The only difference between these and the originals is that they will be "undipped"--sans LSD. They will go for $250. These signed sheets follow the success of similar art commissioned by Greenpeace and the Albert Hofmann Foundation--signed sheets that were auctioned for charity.

One thing collectors will emphasize--despite McCloud's enthusiasm--is that most of these artworks are either undipped work or the acid that is so old that its psychedelic properties have wilted away.

"You go out on a street corner and you buy a hit, you figure out what a sheet looks like, then you buy a sheet from there," McCloud says of his collection technique. "But now the manufacturers are giving me undipped sheets, so I don't have to go out on a street corner."

Blotter art first appeared sometime in the early '70s--likely 1972, say Lyttle and others. The art appeared as LSD manufacturers went from selling liquid and sugar cube forms of the drug to placing it on perforated paper that looks like a sheet of small stamps. Experts say the LSD makers commissioned the art from graphic artists who had little or nothing to do with the drug-making itself.

"There's this real strong connection with Pop Art," says New York's Kastor. "They're fairly worked out iconographic concepts."

The first designs were indeed iconographic--Mickey Mouse in his "Fantasia" outfit or a spoof of the FBI seal. To this day, that tradition has continued. A popular design depicts Beavis and Butt-head in rock-on mode. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has counted more than 350 designs since blotter art began appearing, although collectors say there are as many as 1,000 designs floating around.

Because the manufacture of LSD is so underground and illegal (the DEA estimates only a handful of people make all of the acid in the world), hardly anyone knows who these anonymous artists are or why they do what they do.

"It adds an element of trust, so that when you take LSD you know the people who made it took an extra step," says Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Assn. for Psychedelic Studies. "The fact that people quite lovingly spent time on these designs suggests to me they're after more than just money."

The DEA counters that sort of talk in a draft report on LSD. "Intriguing paper designs," it says, "make LSD especially attractive to junior high school and high school students."

"There are so many things out there in the popular culture that are giving children the wrong message," says a representative for the anti-drug group DARE America, "messages that are confusing."

One thing's for sure, says Philip Cushway, owner of Artrock gallery in San Francisco: "It's a new American folk art. I think it's going to be more and more collectible."

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