Painting Woodstock: A slide show of Psychedelic Art

Slide 1: The Woodstock Poster

If you are trying to reconnect to the groovy swirling sense of peace and love that was the 60s, what better place to turn for inspiration than the psychedelic posters of that era? In creating the poster for Taking Woodstock, designer Andrew Percival of Mojo House remembers how they got back to the Summer of Love: “We immersed ourselves in that world and culture, but at the same time were very sensitive to the geographic specificity of many psychedelic artists. In the end we created an amalgam of styles.” Such merging and marrying of design is, however, true to both the look and spirit of the movement, which borrowed freely from art history, and gave as generously to other design movements.

Slide 2: Art Nouveau and the Shock of the New

One of the most significant antecedents of psychedelic art is Art Nouveau, an expansive decorative movement that swept through Europe and America at the turn of the century. In graphic design, Art Nouveau emphasized curving organic forms and fonts, and was unapologetic for its commercial agenda. In  1894, the Czech-born artist Alphonse Mucha’s poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s play Gismonda provided Art Nouveau with its creative blueprint. Soon Mucha was being commissioned to create not only posters and advertisements, but also jewelry, carpets, wall paper, street signs and such. His 1896 ad for Job cigarettes (left) was picked up and used to promote a 1966 rock concert by Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse (right) in a touching tribute to the Czech master.

Slide 3: M. C. Escher's "Mind-blowing" design

Many other art currents (surrealism, Dada, op art) flowed together to make psychedelic art. But perhaps the one artist who most foreshadowed the “mind-blowing” aesthetic of psychedelic art was M.C. Escher. In the late 30s, the Dutch-born artist began experimenting with designs that challenged traditional representations of perspective and depth, foreground and background. These nature-morphing designs seemed to many in the 60s to capture the trippy sensibility of drug trips. In his 1957 “Mosaic II,” 39 objects (both real and imaginary) switch back and forth as foreground or back to create this jigsaw puzzle illustration.

Slide 4: The first psychedelic poster

The 1965 poster announcing The Charlatans at the Red Dog Saloon in Virgina City, NV, is considered by many to be the first psychedelic poster. The band, a precursor to acid groups like the Grateful Dead, took up a stint at the Red Dog Saloon, a hotspot for pre-hippie counterculture tribes. Taking their cues from the Wild West, band members George Hunter and Michael Ferguson filtered the old western handbill through an acid trip prism. The posters were all over San Francisco by the time Bill Graham and the Family Dog started looking for artists to promote their weekly dances at the Fillmore.

Slide 5: Wes Wilson and the San Francisco scene

Bay area resident Wes Wilson started off studying religion and philosophy before dropping out as part of the Beat generation. By the 1965, he’d become a partner in a printing company, mostly doing grocery sale placards. Then music promoter Bill Graham tapped him to make some posters for the Fillmore, the Bay Area’s premiere performance space for new bands. While his 1966 lithograph for The Mindbenders doesn’t yet exploit his full creative talent, it demonstrates a blue print for essential psychedelic design: morphing fonts, contrary colors, biomorphic forms. Wilson was the first of what came to be known as the Big Five––along with Alton Kelley, Stanley "Mouse" Miller, Rick Griffin, and Victor Moscoso––of the San Francisco scene. 

Slide 6: Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley's hippie design firm

At a nearby studio, Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley were riffing on many of the same ideas as Wilson. Hired to promote concerts for the Fillmore and the Avalon, the team became close to many of the acts, including the Grateful Dead. Mouse––born Stanley Miller––who, while studying at the Art School of The Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit, became interested in hot rod art, and returned to Southern California to create T-shirts and merchandise. But, by the mid-sixties, the San Francisco scene and the drug-influenced style that was developing there pulled him north. Unlike Mouse, Alton Kelley was a self-taught artist who’d come out of the Red Dog Saloon community in Nevada. In San Francisco, this group was renamed the Family Dog and started hosting concerts and dances. In order to create posters, Kelley joined forces with Mouse. The pair’s 1966 poster “Skull and Roses” (which later would be the cover of the Grateful Dead’s 1971 live double album) introduced the banks iconic partying skeleton.

Slide 7: Rick Griffin kicks off the Summer of Love

Before turning to psychedelic design, Rick Griffin had already established himself as a surfer artist and cartoonist for Surfer Magazine. Intrigued by the San Francisco scene, Griffin moved north from Southern California and started creating poster after poster in his Bernal Heights apartment. On the basis of this work, Griffin was picked by the Human Be-In, the event that would kick off the Summer of Love, to design their poster. Like other psychedelic artists, the American West, and especially Indian folklore, played a prominent role in his design aesthetic.

Slide 8: Rick Griffin, Part 2

Griffin was quickly tapped to design posters and album covers by other Bay Area artists. His famous eye-ball design (seen surfing, flying, snaking through posters) became a signature tag for his work.

Slide 9: Victor Moscoso and color theory

Having studied art and design at New York City’s prestigious Cooper Union, Victor Moscoso came to San Francisco to complete a Master’s program at the San Francisco Art Institute. Well versed in art history and design movements, Moscoso found innovative ways to apply his classical education to the design process. Having studied with the color-field painter Josef Albers at Yale, Moscoso adapted his color theories to create new printing methods. Among other things, Moscoso played with juxtaposing particular colors to bring out their vibrating and hallucinatory effects.

Slide 10: Bob Fried finds his inner drug artist

In New York, Bob Fried worked as commercial artist before coming to San Francisco to study at the Art Institute. Befriended by Victor Moscoso, Fried began to dabble both in acid and psychedelic art. He strove to fine tune his design palette to best reflect the strange psychic reorganization of time and space typical of acid trips. In his poster for the Charles Lloyd Quartet at the Avalon, for example, Fried pushed to the limit his fonts’ legibility by turning it into the edging for the fountain leading up to the Taj Mahal.

Slide 11: Gary Grimshaw and the Detroit scene

The Detroit Free Press wrote of their native son Gary Grimshaw, "If he hadn't been the poster artist for the counterculture, he could have been its poster child." Raised in the Motor City, Grimshaw would travel back and forth between Detroit and San Francisco, importing the psychedelic style to promote concerts in Michigan. A Vietnam vet turned political activist, Grimshaw often infused his work with political allusions. His poster for the local band MC5, for example, prominently displays the white panther logo, a left-wing anti-war organization that emerged as a supportive side group to the Black Panthers.

Slide 12: Hapshash and the Coloured Coat - psychedelic London

Michael English and Nigel Waymouth joined creative forces in 1966, moving through a variety of monikers (Cosmic Colors, Jacob and the Coloured Coat) before landing on the name Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. In addition to creating posters and cover art for British bands, the group also put out an album of their own with musician and artist friends. English describes the style as "the bright, brilliant colours of pop flowing organically into the sexual shapes of art nouveau". One of their most famous posters was for Pink Floyd at the UFO (Unlimited Freak Out) club. The bottom announcement CIA v UFO is a jab at the old vs. new society.

Slide 13: Martin Sharp, the London artist

In England, psychedelic art and design also connected with the rock music scene, but tended to be more mod and happening that groovy. Australian designer Martin Sharp made a big splash in London in the sixties, co-writing a song with Eric Clapton, designing album covers, and creating his own artwork. Much of his work appeared on the cover of the underground zine Oz (published both in London and Australia). Among his most famous covers for Oz #7 was a poster of Bob Dylan entitled Mr. Tambourine Man. Printed on gold foil, the picture features lyrics circling about as a design element, echoing psychedelic art’s dynamic use of fonts.

Slide 14: Milton Glaser and New York style

In New York, graphic designer Milton Glaser brought psychedelic design to New York’s commercial ad market. Rather than being stimulated by hallucinatory drugs, Glaser work was often more a reaction to the cool modernism that influenced much of NY design in the 60s. His push/pin studio endorsed the more eclectic and unexpected in graphic design. In 1966, they were commissioned by Columbia Records to create a poster to be included in Dylan’s Greatest Hits. Glaser mixed op art, psychedelic colors and a portrait silhouette technique borrow from Marcel Duchamp to create this iconic Dylan poster.

Slide 15: Peter Max: psychedelic goes commercial

Born in Berlin and raised in China, Israel and Brooklyn, Peter Max emerged in the 60s as the fresh face of graphic illustration. His advertising and book design was singled out for a variety of awards. By the late 60s, Max moved into cosmic style, which was his own personal take on psychedelic art. His airbrushed candy-colored designs soon found their way on a range of products from wall clocks to airplanes. The signature look was summed up in his 1968 “Love” poster.

Slide 16: John Van Hamersveld and the LA scene

Like a few other designers, John Van Hamersveld began his slide into psychedelic imagery through surfing. A founder of Surfing Illustrated magazine, Van Hamersveld eventually was asked to design the poster for the 1966 surf doc Endless Summer, and created an image that would be iconic for surf and sixties culture. From surf culture, Van Hamersveld extended psychedelic design in Los Angeles with such works as his 1968 poster for Jimi Hendrix’s Pinnacle concert.

Slide 17: Mati Klarwein, the global artist

Mati Klarwein’s own life was as multi-faceted as his psychedelic designs. Born in Hamburg, he moved to Palestine during World War II, before moving to Paris, and traveling extensively through India, Tibet and North Africa. Tapping into non-Western iconography, Klarwein juxtaposed a range of cultural artifacts to create his own dream-like universe. His 1961 Annunciation painting gained international renown when it was used as the cover of Santana’s Abraxas album. For many, Klarwein’s work was organically psychedelic. LSD-guru Timothy Leary once told him after looking at his paintings that he "didn't need psychedelics."

Slide 18: Gilbert Shelton and trippy comix

While much psychedelic art was focused on rock posters and albums, some artists translated the movement’s look and feel into comix books. Texas-born Gilbert Shelton traveled to New York and Cleveland (home of American Greeting Card Company and fellow comic artist Robert Crumb), all the time developing his comix style, but finding little commercial success. Back in Austin, Shelton started designing Vulcan Gas Company concert posters, based on the work coming out of San Francisco. So taken with the psychedelic style was Shelton that he eventually moved to San Francisco, where ironically his comix career took off. Some of his more memorable characters were The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, featured on his infamous DOPE poster.

Slide 19: Blotter art, the real psychedelic art
If psychedelic art was the child of graphic design and drug culture, a more literal marriage occurred with blotter art. In the 1970s, LSD – which was often issued as blotter tabs (squared absorbent paper dosed with a drip of d-lysergic acid) – created its own art form. As manufacturers refined their particular brands, they labeled them by printing original graphics onto the blotter paper. Mark McCloud, who has dedicated himself to collecting and archiving these unique artifacts, sees blotter art as “examples of true American folk art, like whittling," The Sorcerer’s Apprentice series was issued in 1977, and like many others suggested something both childlike and magical in its subject.
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