ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The psychedelic poster served as a kind of pulsating visual aria for some of the greatest bands of the ’60s.
From 1965 to 1971, artists created this genre amid the ecstasy of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
“Dreams Unreal: The Genesis of the Psychedelic Rock Poster” opens at the Albuquerque Museum on Saturday, Jan. 11. The 150 or so featured posters are part of a collection of more than 300 donated to the museum by Dr. James Gunn.
Now living in Truth or Consequences, he amassed the collection while attending the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s. The assemblage is one of the most significant in the Southwest, next to the 1,000 posters housed at the Denver Art Museum, curator Titus O’Brien said.
San Francisco was the beating heart of an unprecedented social revolution fueled by youth protest, recreational drugs, the dismantling of social mores and, of course, rock ‘n’ roll. The exhibition includes Rick Griffin’s poster for The Human Be-In, the event that paved the way for 1967’s Summer of Love. Closer to home, the exhibit features a 1970 poster of Jimi Hendrix at Albuquerque’s old Civic Auditorium, as well as the shirt he wore on stage, complete with snapshots.
A group of San Francisco visual artists collaborated with commercial lithographers creating first handbills, then posters to advertise events at places such as the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium. These posters trumpeted musicians and bands, including the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. Psychedelic rock formed the soundtrack of the counterculture.
It all started when the legendary promoter Bill Graham discovered that handbills were quickly lost or tossed.
Most of these posters forgo pictures of the musicians for images lifted from classic art, swirled in a kaleidoscope of text amid splashes of intense colors. These artists broke all the rules of graphic design.
“Graham had the great idea of making them more visually interesting,” said Albuquerque Museum Director Andrew Connors. “The effect of making the text hard to read or wobbly means they’re going to spend more time trying to figure it out. So the designs became more engaging. Then they started being cool.”
The graphic artists Lee Conklin, Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Bonnie Maclean, Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson were influenced by posters from the past that had long been considered out-of-date. They quoted from Japanese prints, Zig-Zag rolling papers, Greek statues, the Pre-Raphaelite painters and Old Testament imagery.
But this wasn’t the work of youthful hippies.
“Many of the artists didn’t like the music,” O’Brien said. “Almost all of them were Korean War veterans. You’re talking about artists who were 30-ish. They were in it for the art, not because they were heads themselves.”
It made for some odd mash-ups.
Bob Schnepf appropriated French printmaker Gustave Dore’s 1866 wood engraving of the tragic Old Testament story “Jephthah’s Daughter Coming to Meet Her Father” to promote the 1967 concerts by The Doors and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.
Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse borrowed from famed 19th century Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha for their “girl with the green hair” image touting a concert by Big Brother and the Holding Company. The artists transformed the elegant portrait into an acidic inversion of a B-movie swamp creature, her hair more tentacles than tresses.
Artist Randy Tuten splashed a photo of the sinking Titanic onto a poster for Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Grateful Dead liked Kelley and Mouse’s skeleton-and-rose-entwined poster image so much that it became a kind of logo surfacing on several of their album covers.
Victor Moscoso transformed an old image of a Native American in a top hat by replacing the eyes with pinwheels for a Big Brother concert. Moscoso arrived in San Francisco with the most training. He studied at New York’s Cooper Union and at Yale University under the Bauhaus legend Josef Albers. The Bauhaus was a German art school that combined crafts and the fine arts until it was closed by the Nazis. Albers had emphatically taught his students never to place complementary colors (red and green, blue and orange) next to each other due to the resulting optical effects. Moscoso made the dizzying results the signature characteristic of his work.
“Whenever we think about this time period, there was this constant celebration of creativity,” Connors said. “These posters don’t necessarily have anything to do with the bands; they’re art(works) themselves.”
By the early 1970s, the psychedelic era was over as styles changed and corporate rock took over football stadiums.
But O’Brien sees a resurgence, with bands such as the White Stripes and the Black Keys commissioning posters from artists. The loosening of marijuana laws and studies of the use of psychedelics to treat depression may also play a role.
O’Brien cited a recent Fox News YouTube promo about marijuana legislation.
“One graphic is straight out of a Wes Wilson type of font,” he said. “If you start looking, you see it all over the place.”