Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES ——Despite living in the Bay Area during the psychedelic haze of the 1960s, Dr. James Gunn never really liked the Grateful Dead.
He didn’t go to many concerts. But he was captivated by the wildly colorful posters advertising it and other bands that promoters pinned to walls and telephone poles when he was attending the University of California at Berkeley.
Gunn managed to collect 300 posters from 1966-1970 touting bands, including the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, Country Joe and the Fish, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doors, The Who and many more who played before, during and after the 1967 Human Be-in in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park ushering in the Summer of Love. He has donated the collection to the Albuquerque Museum, making it the second largest regional repository of the artwork, behind the Denver Art Museum.
“Dreams Unreal: The Genesis of the Psychedelic Rock Poster,” opening on Saturday, Jan. 11, at the Albuquerque Museum, showcases about 150 posters from Gunn’s collection in all of its trippy, hallucinogenic glory. Gunn was an 18-year-old art major when he first noticed concert handbills and posters hung and handed out on the streets for free. He collected about a dozen of the dizzying, color-clashing images but soon lost them to an absconding roommate
“It was the classic free speech time,” said Gunn, now 71, as he relaxed in Truth or Consequences’ Black Cat Books and Coffee. The shop is the kind of place where you can hear poetry and get your tarot cards read. The counterculture still lingers in Gunn’s grey ponytail, white walrus mustache, soul patch and golden bumblebee jasper pendant.
Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Gunn said he chose Berkeley as “a way to spend time in the Bay Area, to go to concerts and (smoke) marijuana.
“I haven’t smoked marijuana in years,” he added sheepishly.
Even with prices as low as $6-$7 to see acts such as the Dead and The Doors, Gunn was a poor college student who mostly chose the free events, such as promoter Bill Graham’s legendary New Year’s Eve concerts, heralding acts like the Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
The posters’ hard-to-decipher graphics, bold colors and images lifted from Art Nouveau and Greek mythology beguiled Gunn.
In the early 1980s, after completing medical school at Canada’s University of Calgary (to avoid the Vietnam War), he returned to San Francisco for a conference and stumbled upon a shop selling the posters he remembered so fondly.
“I looked in and there were posters all over the walls,” he said. “This guy used to store all the posters for the Fillmore (West) and the Avalon Ballroom. I bought him out.”
He figures he paid from $2,000-$3,000 for the cache. A quick Internet search revealed a $75,000 price tag for a single original Grateful Dead poster in his collection.
“They’re all beautiful posters,” Gunn said. “It was just part of my Berkeley experience. You had to work to read them. It was a social milieu nobody’d ever seen. I told people someday these are going to be as valuable as (posters by the French post-Impressionist) Toulouse Lautrec.”
Gunn settled in TorC after spending 19 years helming a family practice in Grants, then working for the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility. He downsized and placed the bulk of the posters in storage. Eventually, worried about dog hairs and rat damage, he offered them to the Albuquerque Museum.
Art history has no place for psychedelic art, Albuquerque Museum director Andrew Connors writes in the exhibition’s accompanying book by guest curator Titus O’Brien. Now, nearly a half century old, they convey a fresh vocabulary and strong visual vitality, he says.
“I love them,” Gunn said.”They’re my favorite possession. I don’t find it hard to let things go. It’s just part of life.
“I’m sure I could have sold them at auction and made a lot of money. But they’re in Albuquerque now.”