The Death of the Great Poster Trip - Rolling Stone
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The Death of the Great Poster Trip

The show is over; concert posters aren’t the art pieces they used to be

Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, concert poster, Fillmore West

Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane concert poster for Fillmore West show for August 12, 1966.

GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty

They still crank out the posters for dances at the Fillmore, Avalon and Winterland —— the posters don’t really look all that different than they did years ago, but somehow they rarely pack the same excitement anymore.

The writing began appearing on the wall last year, in flowing psychedelic script: exhibits in museums and plush art galleries, critiques in newspapers, color-spreads in Life and a cover on Time Magazine. There were term papers, and this year there will probably be masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations. All this could add up to only one thing: The Great Poster Trip is largely over the hill.

The posters, however original or “artistic,” were mass-produced commercial products, and their decline is largely explainable in terms of classical economic laws: flooding the market (or how many can you fit on your walls) and bad imitations driving out good originals. The whole thing turned into a tourist fad. And from the start, it was a phenomenon containing massive doses of camp, fresh to begin but staling as quickly as TV’s “Batman.”

At the same time, an ironic development seems to be just at its beginning stage. The magazine field is replete with examples of bad imitations driving their models to a higher level of quality, and then being driven there themselves by worse imitations: Today’s “Gent” is tomorrow’s “Playboy” and next month’s “Esquire.” Something of the kind seems to be happening among the originators of the psychedelic poster. Rick Griffin, Kelley, Victor Moscoso and Stanley Mouse are still producing posters, but they are also increasingly involved in original art work. Wes Wilson has virtually abandoned the poster biz for serious painting. Bob Fried had a recent show of paintings at a university art gallery. It’s a little like the topless dancer always longing for that serious dramatic role. The commercial poster-makers are going art.

It was good clean fun while it lasted, though, and significant in a very deep way. I once wrote that psychedelic poster art might be the first revolutionary movement to sneak into art history by way of the society and entertainment pages of the newspaper; the art establishment still had trouble recognizing real pop art in its natural context. The other side of this is that the poster movement itself has served as a backdoor which has gained for art a new audience, approaching art in a new way. To a generation that grew up on fingerpainting and largely dropped-out of school before art appreciation courses had instilled their deadly, monumentalizing religious awe toward art, the posters were a non-intimidating art form full of familiar ingredients —— pop advertising art, culture hero photographs and reminders of Victorian relics in grandma’s attic; they poked fun at the plastic slickness of adult commercial art, the reverential attitude toward fine art, and flaunted the taboos against marijuana and mushrooms. They were an art which everyone could identify and live with, simply by sticking four thumb tacks in the wall. The result is a come-off-it, it-ain’t-got-a-thing-if-it-ain’t-got-that swing attitude which is carrying over as a healthy new standard in approaching more serious art.

Poster-art, for all its exotic references to God’s eyes, Islamic calligraphy, Buddhist mandalas and Indian swatiskas, was basically a combination of two contemporary and highly native trends: pop art and the Victorian revival, including Art Nouveau.

In spirit, psychedelic poster art harks back to developments in Europe and England (and New England) that formed an undercurrent through much of the 19th century, from Blake and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood through the Oxford Movement, the Gothic Revival, and William Morris, to Art Nouveau and its eastern European counterpart, Jugendstil.

These movements combined varying proporations of mysticism, Utopianism, and irrational romanticism in reaction against the Age of Reason, the Industrial Revolution, and the onset of mass production. It was the age which first sharply questioned the idea of progress as it had developed in western civilization since the so-called Renaissance.

Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites sought to re-establish roots in the vitalizing currents of the past —– in medieval simplicity and purity, the mystical union of thought with feeling which existed before alchemy and astrology divided into science and magic. The Transcendentalists –— and in ways the Impressionists –— began western civilization’s first major journey to the East, importing Indian thought and Japanese prints. Morris and his contemporaries fought the assembly line with the kind of design that only the hand could make, the printing press with a revival of calligraphy. Beardsley and the Jugendstil artists countered the analytical hang-ups of the age with a sensously irrational symbolism and in Tolouse-Lautrec, the era created the commercial art poster.

Most of these developments –— reactionary in the terms of their day —— quickly became footnotes to the mainstream of western history, although a return to primitive centers of energy was part of the later appeal of African sculpture and New Guinea masks, and the medieval craftsman’s guild idea was strong among the early German expressionists. Cubism, however, marked the beginning of a long flirtation of art with science, urbanization and industry, and surrealism and expressionism responded with Freud.

The gap between celebration of the machine and the revolt of the individual continued and widened through the years of abstract expressionism, as did the breach between artist and public. Progress, meanwhile, led to the development of plastic and a second world war, to cybernetics and Vietnam. It led also to pop, op, television and LSD, to Marshal McLuhan and a revival of the synthesizing thought of Carl Jung.

Poster art was, for the most part, a kind of revival movement which both reacted against and made use of the new ideas and forms of mainstream fine art. Wes Wilson’s blatnantly stark-naked, heavily-modeled, medusa-haired nudes are three-parts Beardsley and Mucha, but they are also one-part Mel Ramos; the entire Art Nouveau revival owes to pop art the fact that it is again fashionable to look at an art work in terms of the literal images and symbolic meanings that emerge from its disarmingly decorative design; it has overturned the tyranny of pure form which locked Victorian “sentimentality” in the attic for almost half a century.

Kelley’s collage posters are Mac-Luhanesque montages of images whose surrealism is closer to Max-field Parrish than Magritte, and they carry on the spirit of the family albums, the picture scrap books, the pressed flowers, that symbolize the Victorian mania for preserving and collecting everything.

Mouse’s cartoon monsters are half Mad Magazine pop, half a resurrection of the wild illustrational style of early, pre-painting Paul Klee. Moscoso’s posters make use of all the blinding color justapositions developed by op artists. Griffin’s posters are beautifully sophisticated transformations of 19th century advertising art and book illustration styles into a contemporary blend of surrealism and camp (which simply means the pop art of an earlier age.)

Some minor masterpieces have indeed emerged from the poster movement during its brief flowering: almost all of Griffin’s work, several of the Mouse-Kelley productions, some of Bob Fried’s, Bob Seidemann’s photo-posters and all kinds of isolated examples by other people. It may well continue to turn out more, including things from some of the second, third and fourth wave artists.

What’s really happening now, however, seems to represent a deepening –and maturing of the psychedelic vision, an approach to art which is not necessarily more “serious” but is less fun-and-games, and runs parallel to the post-drug phase that has opened in the “hippie” movement, the exodus away from the Haight-Ashbury to Marin County, Mendocino and Big Sur.

Artists like Griffin, Kelley and Mouse may continue to develop and and mature within the poster format; artists like Wilson and Moscoso may or may not come up with some dramatic new statements in more serious forms. But their pre-eminence, I think, is about to yield to a whole new wave of less public, non-commercial artists who have had nothing to do in the posters scene and whose work has just begun to surface in a handful of galleries over the last few months.

One of the most exciting of them is an artist named Robert Comings, who exhibited last month in a new San Francisco gallery. Comings displayed some more or less conventional “psychedelic” paintings and a large batch of graphic work, but the real break-through in his show was a group of found objects transformed into ritualistic artifacts of the kind that you usually see only in the privacy of someone’s pad. These were musical instruments assembled from sunbleached driftwood and Victorian side-tables, a “ritual kit” designed to translate names and numbers into personal chants, an “Om Synthesizer” which consisted of a long rubber hose that resonated against a rusted metal covering to produce the sound of om when held up to one’s ear, like the roar of the ocean in a seashall. Tapes of the artist chanting and performing on teh assemblage-instruments were played while visitors walked through the gallery, and Comings performed there live on Saturday afternoons.

This kind of thing represents a radically different and more profound approach to the life-is-art idea of the old art rock posters; it revives the assemblage tradition which grew up in the late 50’s, but instead of dwelling morbidly on the necrophiliac and Freudian aspects of the Victorian attic, it emphasizes the Victorian sense of reverence for all manner of knick-knacks and things, which is not so different from the Zen idea. And instead of transforming real-life objects into framed art works, its simply shapes them into another kind of object, part ritual, part toy, suggesting that “art” is simply a matter of the purpose to which everyday things are put.

There are bound to be other people working on similar lines. With their coming, psychedelic art outgrows its reactionary adolescence of camp, culture heroes, pot plants, joints and roaches, its association with the urban scene of rock dances and commercial advertising, and its role as an instrument of generation warfare. It begins to give substance to all the surface dabblings in mystical imagery and Oriental forms, and it becomes a truly synthesizing art-life form, which, in theory, it was always supposed to be.

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