While the bright new greens of spring are a welcome reminder that life is renewed every year, it’s really the summer that brings a full-on assault of color and a maturing of that renewed life in ways that infuse our perception with something like magic. Over the centuries, humans have managed to invent ways of injecting all manner of intense visual stimuli into our surroundings, and to conscript these into the service of communication, promotion and even revolution—at least in the grand visions of the artists, musicians, poets and other free thinkers of our times.
When one thinks of times and places where such efforts converged to create orgasmic spasms of creative culture, San Francisco in the summer of 1967 stands out as a crucible of artistic reinvention and innovation. Some of the finer fruits of that buzzing artistic gestation period are currently on view at the Smith College Museum of Art. In its ongoing exhibition Summer of Love: Psychedelic Posters from SCMA, the museum has gathered more than 70 examples of what was a revolution in perception and a grass-roots chronicle of times both turbulent and experimental.
The era’s poster artists joined the glut of other “alternative” and “underground comix” artists that flooded into the Bay Area in the mid-to-late ’60s, along with musicians, poets, politicos and an army of rebellious youth. Creators like Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson and Alton Kelley cut their teeth in this new medium. A few, like Moscoso, who wielded academic cred from schools like Yale and Cooper Union, drew on more schooling and pedigree than the casual observer might imagine.
According to Aprile Gallant, the museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs, many of these artists looked to more than just drug-induced visions or Frank Zappa songs for inspiration in creating their own visual architectures:
“You see the poster artists liberally borrowing from other sources; there’s a lot of Gothic imagery, stuff from Art Deco and Art Nouveau… there’s an interesting instance of the skull and roses image that’s come to be so associated with the Grateful Dead that comes directly from an illustration that was done in 1900.”
Employed initially as promotional tools for music performances by West Coast groups like Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Byrds and the Grateful Dead, the electric images and typography, often inspired by consciousness-expanding drugs, advertised shows at places like the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. The medium’s fire was fueled by commercially driven concert promoters like Bill Graham and The Family Dog, for whom it served as a perfect tool for getting the word out to people who had “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” of more mainstream culture and forms of communication. It could also be produced on a relatively modest budget. Still, even Graham, perhaps the incidental godfather of the alt-art revolution in San Francisco, occasionally managed to irk its creators—and trigger some subtle redress.
“[In the] last poster Wes Wilson did for the Fillmore,” says Gallant, the artist and the promoter “had gotten into a contract dispute over the royalties for the posters.”
Graham, who had initially agreed to share royalties from the posters—which had become increasingly popular tools in his promotional toolbox—reneged on his agreement, angering the artist. The discriminating eye can detect within the image a swastika-like character and a snake with a big dollar sign in its mouth, a hint of sneaky visual revenge.
“He honored his commitment,” Gallant says of Wilson’s contract-fulfilling final poster, “but got a little dig in there at the end.”
Of course, even if progenitors of the movement like Wilson were able to maintain some counter-cultural snark in their products, it wasn’t long before the mainstream began to absorb their influence. Some of the more popular poster artists like Griffin were soon set to work on magazine covers for publications like Rolling Stone and record jackets for many of the bands whose shows they’d helped to promote.
Both Griffin and Moscoso were drafted into the corps of underground comix artists working at Print Mint (from which the bulk of the posters in the Smith collection was acquired), joining other gritty antiheroes of that medium like Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), Robert Crumb (Zap Comix, Mr. Natural) and painter and Juxtapoz magazine founder Robert Williams.
Psychedelic lettering and the use of brilliant, dazzling color quickly became a branded visual genre—in the clothing of the 1970s, for instance—and have since gone on to sell Americans everything from Sesame Street to Play-Doh. Computer fonts have been synthesized from the original, hand-drawn typography and the use of “3D” illustration and design has become an inextricable element of modern perception, making its way into books, toys, film and even television as technology caught up with the vision of these hyper-chromatic pioneers.
The museum has one small section dedicated to prototyope black-light posters, a phenomenon that exploded in the mid-’70s in its own wave of promotion and symbols of allegiance to mega-bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult.
The communicative aspect of the medium has also been translated into visual campaigns focused on snaring the public’s attention for projects, causes or simply art for art’s sake through Internet phenomena like Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr. It continues in flyers and handbills, still the go-to tools of the low-budget promoter or struggling musician.
The current design of “memes,” so prevalent in the universe of modern social media, may well have originated at least as much in the individually crafted posters of this time as the super-funded boardrooms of Mad Men’s Madison Avenue; the all-consuming beast that is the advertising industry wasted no time in absorbing the movement’s messaging efficacies.
The ground-level visibility of poster saturation has continued as well, through the efforts of other modern visual provocateurs who offer takes on Orwellian omnipresence (Shepard Fairey) or absurdist/high concept cultural commentary (Banksy). One could make the argument that the best-crafted versions of contemporary graffiti owe just as much to the posters of the Summer of Love as to Adidas or hip-hop.
This summer, SCMA offers Valley folk a rare opportunity to free their own imaginations, grab some polarized sunglasses and wander up to Smith to blow their minds in the same way a wandering hippie might have at Haight-Ashbury at the height of that love- and culture-filled summer.•
June 14-Sept. 15, Smith College Museum of Art, Elm Street at Bedford Terrace, Northampton, (413) 585-2760. For more in-depth exhibit information, visit www.smith.edu/artmuseum/On-View/Upcoming/Summer-of-Love2.