These posters, the first popular commercial art form to allow artists nearly unfettered freedom of expression, are all products of the San Francisco psychedelic eruption of the late 60s. In 1966, 15,000 hippies lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco; one year later, the streets housed 75,000. For five years Haight-Ashbury was Mecca for the love generation, a time and place which stamped America's most populous generation with its most recognizable identity: Hippies.
The psychedelic poster was the calling card of the counterculture. Innovations included pulsating colors, printing to the edge of the paper, complex graphic details and repeated patterns, and often illegible wood block lettering. Techniques were borrowed principally from Pop and Op art (the art du jour), surrealism and Art Nouveau. At other times, the sources of inspiration appeared boundless, and sometimes random: cowboy costumes and American Indian iconography, classical sculptures, liquid pigment in motion, comic books. A grab bag of happy resources as plentiful as Owsley acid at Fillmore Auditorium. Eye candy for the chemically initiated.
Wes Wilson is the artist who most emphatically recalls my visual recognition of this era. Few of us were actually there, but the media helped spread word of the West Coast blossoming and reproductions of these artists' works crept eastward. The tom-tom echoes from the Age of Aquarius came late to us in Winston-Salem, but they came.
Wilson is often credited with starting the big block negative space lettering trick, the one that is hell to read and even irritated his employer, music promoter extraordinaire Bill Graham. Graham groused but continued to grant Wilson his freedom, a reflection of the independence granted artists at the time.
In Wilson's poster "The Sound," advertising a Jefferson Airplane concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco, hieroglyphic streams of chunky orange lettering float across a mustard yellow ground. Pertinent information concerning what, when, where and how much (usually about $2.50) is available to the initiated, those with the time and desire to translate the script to English. In the center of the poster is a full frontal nude woman, head slung back and arms gently waving aloft, dancing in the free form rock concert groove motion, a dance move printed indelibly in the mind of every member of the Woodstock generation.
My early affection for Wes Wilson's work, and many of the artists here, has something to do with the nudes. His drawings of curvaceous, undulating women were high art to any 16-year-old middle-class eye. His figures combine a lyrical line with comic book pop zip. They were different in tone and concept for the time. The renderings illustrated women as meditative, spiritual and sensuous -- more Earth Mother/Goddess than Bunny. Still an object of desire, but simply a plaything? No more. Wes' new image helped us distance ourselves from graphic images admired by our fathers. We were sensitive, respectful and adoring. Dad was just smutty.
All the works in this exhibit are titled by the musical acts they advertise. The names of the bands alone are enough to peel back the years to the late 60s -- Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Co., Canned Heat, The Velvet Underground. My favorite poster is one advertising a show featuring The Kinks, Elton John, Ballin' Jack and Juicy Lucy, Fillmore West, November 5-8, 1970, by David Singer. This show is for we boomers who were lucky enough to trip, stumble through, and survive a cultural time unmatched in any age. It was the first time a generation realized the euphoria of privilege without responsibility, a time of rebellion, excess and lurched-after innocence. The love generation sprang from the vast leisure class of children loosed in the garden unchaperoned. The trip was financed by the affluence of parents we chastised for paying for the trip. What better way to extend adolescence?
This show is also for second generation Lollapaloozers, spawns of the dubious union of freedom and affluence. These latter day Woodstock wannabes deserve a little history lesson on their roots, and the signposts are right here. It's also for the boomers who didn't take part in the counterculture, who may have in fact hated that the world they'd been taught to expect was being turned upside down; they get another glance at what they missed. Lastly, this show is for the boomers' parents, who didn't live the age, but survived and financed it. The chills they get from this show may be cold.
I have two beefs about this show: The images are too small and the music is too soft. All the work here is original, most of it in the form of handbills, advertisements passed out on the streets, in restaurants and nightclubs. These psychedelic artists used complex graphics in their work and produced the work in large scale (poster size, about 18x30 inches). Much is lost in reducing this work to church bulletin size. It gets tamer. Bummer.
Same with the background music. "InaGaddaDaVida" needs to rattle ribs. Here, songs are whispered through a boomless box perched on a partition over in a corner. If anyone is going to "Goddamn the pusher man," don't do it at 3.5 decibels.
Though these images deserve to be seen in the size they were created, it's likely few original posters (printed on larger, flimsier stock than the handbills) survived the era. Artifact conservation was not a hippie strong suit. Still, ask the librarian if we can turn up the music.
The library is offering a Groovy Film Series Monday nights in November, each with a different take on the swinging 60s. For information, call 704-336-6217.