This is another excerpt from my recent book, Dreams Unreal: The Genesis of the Psychedelic Rock Poster.
Much is made of the Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, and other turn-of-the-century references in the psychedelic posters. These are certainly to be found in abundance, but they may make for some of the least favorable comparisons: the psychedelic imitations rarely surpass the originals. Looking across the period’s total spectrum, however, one sees ready references to nearly every other previous and contemporaneous art style, period, genre, and type, many often folded together in a single poster. Classicism, Realism, Romanticism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Futurism, Deco, Op, Pop, Mod, or sci-fi: name a style and it’s in there, somewhere. Psychedelia is properly defined by its contumacious heterogeneity. Artists developed individual styles, of course, but they often pushed beyond them and played off each other to expand the field again and again. There is a kind of unsustainable intensity to it all: both the art and the period generally.
This intensity is especially palpable in the paradox of the posters’ tense relationship with legibility and functionality. Some of the poster artists had only a modicum of formal art training, if any, and disobedience was standard operating procedure for those who did. Almost from the start the designs resembled a competition to see who could push the format the farthest before meaning totally collapsed. Victor Moscoso once said of his art: “The goal of my posters was, ideally, if somebody was across the street, they’d see the vibrating colors and say, what’s that? They’d cross the street and spend a half hour or a week trying to read it. It was a game, and I wasn’t the only guy doing this” (Rudick 2015). In 1966 Wes Wilson pioneered what became a ubiquitous, liquefied lava-lamp style, rapidly moving on to create some of the most innovative and difficult-to-decipher fonts (plate 42). Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso worked seamlessly together on a unique poster for a Denver Dog show featuring Chuck Berry (plate 43). The ornate written characters that dominate the design are compelling and lucid; they just don’t convey any known written language. The pagan godlike face depicted in the middle of the poster is not Berry’s, as one might expect, but Griffin’s, rendered by Moscoso. These were clearly not advertising agents out to please corporate clients. They were a band of creative dissidents in a war against expectations and “good taste.”
Concert posters leading up to the mid-60s were essentially undifferentiated from disposable posters for boxing, classical music, political rallies, avant-garde happenings, or church services. Bold, simple, readable type, with maybe an image or two, for temporal events not considered likely to permanently register. Color was optional and spare. This stereotypically modern emphasis on simplicity and clarity had only dominated graphic design for a relatively short period, historically speaking. It was not only a response to certain technological practicalities but also to utopian aspirations of the European left, in places like Germany’s Bauhaus (closed by Hitler in 1933) and during the early years of Soviet Bolshevism (1917 to roughly 1930). Eccentricity, embellishment, and individuality were deemed bourgeois or decadent, impediments to the equal, ready, distinctly top-down distribution of information, resources, and regard. For the more transcendentally minded, simplicity was spiritually sanitizing; for formalists, it was of more purely aesthetic value. In any case, modern design was concerned with essential truths.
Contrast this with elite graphic art in Europe from as far back as medieval illuminated manuscripts, to the posters of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, or Alfred Roller before World War I. Or take virtually any premodern literate culture around the world: Arabic- speaking, or the varied East Asian societies who based their literary expressions on classical Chinese. While an individual scribe may not always be personally credited for their contribution, in complex culture, high value (social and financial) was always placed upon the beautiful deployment of the written word and crafted image, in ways that surpass mere functionality. Calligraphy should have the right feeling. An illuminated Bible must elevate God, and possibly the reputation of the patron of the text. A circus poster should irresistibly entice with the promise of thrills, chills, and spills. These principles were practically anathema to modern American poster art. That is, until the psychedelic ’60s.
Beginning as early as The Seed, the most obvious quality of the early Family Dog and Bill Graham posters is that they are all hand drawn. This is a deceptively simple distinction. German Marxist philosopher and art historian Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) influentially argued that the aura of the individual work of art had been irrevocably corrupted in the modern “Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Yet young acidheads in San Francisco laboriously rendered difficult, exuberantly mystical works of art, channeled to elevate and promote sacramental rituals replete with ecstatic music, dance, and theater. The resulting relic was widely disseminated thanks to mechanical reproduction (as album covers, posters, etc.), which provided a potentially global audience a sort of contact high – an experience of communion with millions of like minds. With apologies to Herr Benjamin, that is quite an aura.