PRINT January 2005


psychedelic posters

WE ARE IN A LUXURIOUS VILLA somewhere in the Los Angeles hills, the home of Terry Valentine, a rock-music producer of a certain age now involved in a panoply of dubious schemes. Our man stands facing a bathroom mirror, inspecting his teeth. His young mistress, lying in the tub, points at a framed poster for a Santana concert at the Fillmore West that hangs on the wall and, after waxing lyrical over its colors, says, “It must have been a time, huh? A golden moment.” Valentine responds, “Have you ever dreamed about a place you never really recalled being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination. Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. . . . That was the ’60s. No, it wasn’t that either. It was just ’66 and early ’67. That’s all there was.”

This scene from Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999), featuring Peter Fonda as the cool, corrupt protagonist, recently got me thinking about that brief but influential fragment of time we call the psychedelic moment, a period steeped in fantasy, instantly mythologized and marketed. From the fabric of sounds and images that continue to resonate emerges, among other things, a clutch of posters linked to the musical scene of the time, primarily that of San Francisco, home to Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and the Grateful Dead, to name just a few. Art history is confounded by these objects, perhaps because their creators—unlike certain artists of the immediately preceding Beat Generation, such as Wallace Berman or Jay DeFeo—seem so blissfully ignorant of the rhetoric of the avant-garde. Indeed, you would search in vain for any significant trace of psychedelia in scholarly works on the art of the postwar era. Aside from the smattering of interest demonstrated by a few recent exhibitions and catalogues (among them “High Societies: Psychedelic Rock Posters of Haight-Ashbury” at the San Diego Museum of Art in 2001; “Bold as Love: Psychedelic Posters of the ’60s” at Matthew Marks Gallery in 2004; and “Off the Wall: Psychedelic Rock Posters from San Francisco 1966–1969” [to which I contributed a catalogue essay], currently at the Musée de la Publicité in Paris), we must turn to published histories of the poster for proof of their very existence. Even then, a classic of the genre, Josef and Shizuko Müller-Brockmann’s History of the Poster (1971; reissued by Phaidon Press in 2004), ignores them completely.

One of the most surprising features of psychedelic posters is their small size: Few exceeded twenty inches on their longest side. We are dealing with advertisements, yes, but somewhat illicit ones, destined for telephone poles, street lamps, storefronts—any urban exterior on which you might expect to read the words POST NO BILLS. Their chromatic and formal characteristics imply a specific audience, one detached from the standard conventions of the genre. While the vibrant, saturated colors of these images are appealing, they ultimately require a slower mode of reading—one founded more on a sort of empathy, and a taste for the detailed exploration of surfaces, than on the billboard’s imperative of immediate impact.

The distortion of the letter, which at times borders on cryptography, gave rise to a number of remarkable compositions. Take, for example, the poster by Wes Wilson for concerts featuring Association and Quicksilver Messenger Ser vice on July 22 and 23, 1966, at the Fillmore Auditorium: The text of the announcement, in red on a green back- ground, forms a coil of flame whose messages can only be deciphered bit by bit. Or the poster by Victor Moscoso, also calligraphic, for gigs by Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mount Rushmore, and Blue Cheer on June 29 and 30 and July 2 at the Avalon Ballroom, which adds blue to green and red and scatters its text through a nausea-inducing double spiral. Retinal tat- toos such as these relied, of course, on the con- temporaneous popularity of Op art, an exhibition of which called “The Responsive Eye” opened in February 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and traveled to Saint Louis, Seattle, Pasadena, and Baltimore, effectively sealing the movement’s critical fate in the process. In his “Notes on Op Art” of 1966 (first published in The New Art: A Critical Anthology [1996], a collection of essays edited by Gregory Battcock), Lawrence Alloway underscores the degree to which the reception of this (polymorphous) current was extensive and enthusiastic everywhere except the art world. At Yale, Moscoso had been a student of Josef Albers, whose book Interaction of Color was published in 1963, and he strove to redirect its precepts with obvious relish. Psychedelic posters introduced lettering to the play of contrasts proposed by Op, thus heightening the opposition of the figurative and the abstract while blurring the borders of the visible and the legible.

The same sense of hybridity and appropriation is manifest at the iconographic level: The psychedelic posters recycle Indian mandalas as well as Kwakiutl masks. Also thrown into the mix are the great names of painting (Michelangelo, Pieter de Hooch, Ingres), photography (Steichen’s portrait of Gloria Swanson), Art Nouveau, the Vienna Secession, and multiple vernacular forms (Wild West–style posters, children’s books, and food packaging). For concerts on June 24 and 25, 1966, at the Avalon Ballroom, Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse (né Miller)—as if in a readymade and collective self-portrait—took the Algerian Zouave mascot from Zig-Zag cigarette papers. (A line at the bottom of the poster reads: “What you don’t know about copying and duplicating won’t hurt you.”) Rick Griffin, originally from Los Angeles and thus steeped in the surfing, hot rodding, and biking graphic style with which it is associated (Von Dutch, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth), would perfect a syncretism based in gothic grotesque. His poster for the Jimi Hendrix concerts on February 1 and 4, 1968, at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Winterland, with its personal version of the “responsive eye,” is a peerless example. Bonnie MacLean, Lee Conklin, and Randy Tuten were also among the best poster artists of the time, while in the United Kingdom, the output of Martin Sharp, Michael McInnerney, and Michael English and Nigel Waymouth (aka Hapshash and the Coloured Coat) made it clear that the movement extended well beyond the United States.

It is now apparent that these posters were part of a vast synaesthetic enterprise—incorporating long strands of improvised music, light shows, underground comix, and the widespread ingestion of hallucinogens—a type of antiauthoritarian and strongly utopian Wagnerism aimed at abolishing, along with bourgeois convention, the remains of artistic hierarchy. The good doctor Humphrey Osmond (who died last February at the age of eighty-six) probably never imagined that the term “psychedelic” (literally, “mind manifesting”), which he proposed in 1957 to describe the curative effects of certain narcotics, would ultimately and definitively be applied to a groundswell of youthful passion. The word’s bright sound and mysterious air nevertheless resulted in a few small miracles. Whatever the difficulties today of reenacting the psychedelic moment, some of its visual manifestations, like the posters discussed here, doubtless demand consideration in a history of contemporary art, specious distinctions between high and low aside. The growing respect accorded R. Crumb, for example, points in this direction, as do many stylistic features of recent works produced by very different artists. Think, for instance, of the following: Sol LeWitt’s latest wall drawings; Fred Tomaselli’s panels incorporating pills and marijuana leaves; Franz Ackermann’s “Mental Maps”; Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003; multiscreen installations by Pipilotti Rist, including Stir Heart, Rinse Heart, 2004; Jeremy Blake’s videos; the digitally produced backgrounds of Cindy Sherman’s clown photographs of 2003–2004; and of course (always a sure indicator of deep infiltration into the empire of signs) numerous examples of adaptation from the field of graphic design which, as it were, complete the circle of migration. Paradoxically, what is enhanced by all these brands of revival or reuse is the striking transience of the psychedelic “golden moment,” every echo of it making us feel, whatever our age, how much the social and artistic situation must have changed in the meantime. The rest has to do with the way we want to write the history of the present, and take into full account the cultural diversity and complexity that constitute us as subjects.

While flipping through a few books, I came across three objects of contemplation each dedicated, almost simultaneously, to Bob Dylan. The first was a poster from 1967 that also served as a cover for Oz magazine, Mr. Tambourine Man by Martin Sharp, also known as Blowin’ in the Mind, because of the words inscribed on the right lens of Dylan’s glasses. With its tangle of concentric colored circles, it makes clear allusion to the assisted perception that results from the absorption of LSD. The second object was also a poster, but this one decidedly mainstream: the famous 1966 design by Milton Glaser that features, in a manner unmistakably reminiscent of Duchamp’s cutout self-portrait, the singer’s profile, an image of supreme elegance circulated as a poster by the hundreds of thousands through its inclusion in the LP Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. The third object was a painting in oil and beeswax made the same year by Brice Marden, The Dylan Painting (today at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), a long, impenetrable, and determinedly unfinished panel of modulated gray—a unique thing, in every sense of the word. These are three very different elements of the visual culture of the mid-’60s, a parenthetical and nonetheless crucial juncture that left its most fully involved participants with the feeling that “that’s all there was.” But if I think of this period, the place Dylan holds within it, or the most desirable way to write and teach art history now, all three seem equally indispensable.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is a Paris-based art historian and critic.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.