Rick Griffin Photograph

The 1960s are remembered for many things, among them a new wave of rock bands centered in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and the psychedelic posters that advertised their concerts.

Vivid colors, innovative lettering, imagery that ranged from the sensuous to the bizarre and an overall visual intensity were the hallmarks of the psychedelic graphic style associated with that exhilarating and tumultuous era.

As the Hippie counterculture gained momentum in northern California, the taste in popular music was beginning to change. Two San Francisco entrepreneurs, Bill Graham and Chet Helms, hired area bands to play local venues and in the process created a new musical forum, the dance concert. Graham and Helms were different in personal style. Graham was organized and paid the bands on time, Helms was laid back and less concerned about ticket sales, but both promoters were serving an audience that eschewed the usual media sources for their news. Graham and Helms hired young artists, many of them members of the counterculture themselves, to design handbills, posters and flyers to get the word out, and the concert poster as an art form was born.

13th Floor Elevators poster

Under the patronage of Graham and Helms, the rock poster developed into a unique, highly creative form. Informal arrangements between promoters Graham and Helms and the artists gave the poster artist more liberty than most commercial enterprises would have permitted. Between 1966 and 1971, roughly 450 poster designs were printed to advertise rock concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom alone. The posters, originally produced in small editions and hung on walls, telephone poles and lampposts, quickly became collectors' items.

Released from the constraints of dictated designs, the Haight-Ashbury artists began to experiment with a style that utilized symbols of the new social movement and lettering that alluded to tripping on LSD and the mystical experiences that followed. These posters, especially the Family Dog and Bill Graham Presents series, soon attracted worldwide attention, and leading artists including Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Bonnie MacLean and Wes Wilson contributed their unique visions of the psychedelic experience. Their work is considered to be some of the most original and significant American art of the twentieth century.

Influences on Poster Art

Eric Burdon & The Animals poster

As a generic term, "psychedelic" refers to any eye-boggling, mind-stretching poster dating from 1965 or later. A few of the poster artists worked while on LSD, but pencil, paper and marijuana were the basic tools of most. The earliest handbills, all made by amateur artists, were black on white or colored stock. Later, the artist's design was transformed into color at the printer's shop. Among the unique qualities of the psychedelic poster was the drawing technique, which had almost disappeared from commercial art. Among the most important influences on the rock poster artists were Art Nouveau, Pop Art and Op Art. A 1965 exhibition at the University Art Gallery on the University of California, Berkeley campus that featured Jugendstil, the German branch of Art Nouveau, deeply affected Wes Wilson, one of the most influential of poster artists. Art Nouveau is evident in Wilson's mastery of pattern and rich design and in the twisting, undulating movement of his images. Other poster artists mimicked the Art Nouveau themes of exotic plants, floating swans and women with flowing veils and hair, too. Symmetrical composition and flat ornamental space became stylish, as did brilliant swirling colors and lyrical interpretations of line and space.

Big Brother and the Holding Company Poster

The Pop Art influence was startling and controversial. Breaking the rules about what constituted fitting material for serious art, it drew its subject matter from the most mundane objects of mass-produced culture and took a detached look at familiar objects to give them new meaning.

Pop Art dealt in complex color interactions to the point where colors and lines actually seemed to vibrate before the eyes. The challenging optical result generated a clash between what the eye recorded and what the brain perceived and was the perfect art form to express a psychedelic, light show experience.

Jim Kweskin Jug Band Poster

Since the posters were released from the need to be purely commercial, they contained frequent references to the Wild West, Victoriana and women. The Wild West influence came from the Charlatans, a band which founded the psychedelic music era with their summer-long jam at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1965. Haight-Ashbury itself, a grand Victorian enclave in shabby-chic decline by the early 60's, was the inspiration for the Victoriana theme, and the recent liberation of women via the pill and free love provided the healthy adoration of the female form in all its glory.

Big Brother and the Holding Company Poster

Another unique aspect of the rock posters was freehand lettering. Wes Wilson, who initiated the technique, approached lettering as he would woodblock printing, in which portions of the printing surface are cut away to obtain the desired form. By outlining the letters and inking in-between them, the letters emerged as white "negative" space. Lettering was often the background for a three-dimensional image, and this lettering method, and the use of flowing, non-uniform shapes, provided a quick and easy way to lay out the lettering in the leftover spaces around the image and fill up the poster. The lettering was often deliberately illegible, but these posters were intended for a very special audience whose sensibilities were also informed by psychedelic experience. Far from resenting the lack of clarity, hippies welcomed the intense visual trips that the posters provided.

Concert posters were intended to be used for only a short time. Wolfgang's Vault, however, attests to the long-lasting power of these graphics. Today, as web site designers seek vibrant graphic images and powerful captions to appeal to mass audiences, the lessons of poster design seem more contemporary than ever.

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Poster Art Evolves

The Red Hot Chili Peppers Poster

The San Francisco dance concert posters inspired a graphic arts movement that has expanded into the era of keyboard and mouse. As popular music evolved in the late 70's and early 80's, so did the poster art that reflected it. Poster artists who learned their trade during this time were influenced by the seminal works of the 60's, but their focus was on the punk, hardcore and grunge rock that fueled the creativity of the day. The Victorian/Edwardian styling of the 60's art gave way to a raw style that featured crude lettering and less vibrant colors.

Bjork Poster

Things came full circle in the late '80s, although the combination of innovation and nascent digital technology carried the creative buzz well into the '90s. Around mid-decade, artists Ron Donovan and Chris Shaw began to produce poster imagery that melded the sensibilities of Fifties pulp-novel illustration and movie design with a vibrant, break-with-reality style. Shaw and Donovan pioneered a screenprint technique that featured Day-Glo colors and metallic overlays and was soon adopted by other artists including Frank Kozik. The return to stronger colors, and metallic inks, created a layered, multi-textured poster that packed an extraordinarily strong visual punch.

With the re-opening of the Fillmore in San Francisco, concert art experienced a rebirth in the early '90s that continues today. Artists like Rex Ray, Harry Rossit, Frank Wiedemann and Chris Shaw continue to produce compelling works that reflect not only the music of the day, but meld the traditions established in the concert art of the '60s with digital artwork and other modern techniques to make their art communicate in new and exciting ways. The 1960s was not only the golden age of the rock poster, it was one of the great periods of poster art, period, and its impact on advertising and graphic design is felt forty years later.

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