Campus & Community

Myhren Gallery exhibit celebrates the art of the psychedelic rock poster

This Wes Wilson poster for a 1967 Jefferson Airplane/ Quicksilver Messenger Service concert is among the pieces on display in the "Visual Trips" exhibit. Collection of Teresa and Paul Harbaugh

This Wes Wilson poster for a 1967 Jefferson Airplane/ Quicksilver Messenger Service concert is among the pieces on display in the “Visual Trips” exhibit. Collection of David Tippit;
photo by William O’Connor

Full of vivid colors, geometric whimsy, classic American iconography and often nearly indecipherable lettering, the San Francisco rock posters of the 1960s were the visual equivalent of the exploratory sounds of bands like the Grateful Dead, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Visual Trips: The Psychedelic Poster Movement in San Francisco,” opening with a reception from 5–8 p.m. Oct. 2 in the University of Denver’s Vicki Myhren Gallery, takes a closer look at the phenomenon, with a selection of items that places the focus more on the poster artists than on the bands or venues their creations advertised. The exhibit features nearly 200 posters and assorted ephemera — including acetates, photographs, original drawings and advertising that mimicked the psychedelic rock poster style.

Current and recently graduated art history master’s students have been involved with the “Visual Trips” exhibition since January. When the loan of psychedelic posters and associated materials was received, a team of three students worked to inventory and catalog more than 700 objects. In the end, just over 200 would be chosen for display in the exhibition. Graduate students and gallery staff worked on all aspects of the exhibition, from gallery prep and installation to wall labels and lighting to reception and programming coordination.

Well-known artists such as Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson are represented in the show, along with lesser-known designers such as Bonnie MacClean, Bob Schnepf, Jim Blashfield and Mari Tepper.

The show’s curator is Scott Montgomery, an associate art professor at DU’s School of Art and Art History. Montgomery — a San Francisco area native, a medieval art scholar and one of academia’s foremost experts on rock posters — sat down in advance of the show’s opening to talk about the exhibit and the importance of the poster movement.


Q: A big part of this show is looking at the 1960s rock poster scene in San Francisco as an art movement. Can you explain that a little more?

A: Until recently, it had not really been addressed as an art movement per se. It’s often just been seen as a bunch of hippies making posters. But these are works of art, with common stylistic, iconographic and cultural characteristics. We can use the same academic focus and analysis that we do with Renaissance art or anything else. The same issues are there: patronage, iconography, style, audience, etc. Looking at how [these artists] presented themselves in the ’60s as a group, it all really started falling together that, “No, it’s not hyperbole to argue that this was an art movement.” I wouldn’t say it was a “school,” but there is a common aesthetic and countercultural resonance that binds them together. The exhibit looks at the cultural climate and the artistic processes that shaped this movement. The sheer technical ability of the artists and the visual power of these posters is apparent. For example, we will be showing all of Victor Moscoso’s astounding “four-dimensional” posters under proper lighting conditions for the first time ever.


Q: Where did the iconic rock poster style come from? How was this art form born?

A: [The artists were] looking at op art, for obvious reasons, but art nouveau was the biggest other influence. Partly because there’s a lot of that in San Francisco, but also art nouveau had that languid, sensuous quality that appealed to the senses. Also in 1965 there was, at Berkeley, a very important art nouveau exhibition, and some of these artists went to it. So they got this infusion of op art, they’re interested in art nouveau, and they’re also just cultural omnivores, a bit like pop artists. It was a perfect storm, in the same way we say Renaissance Florence was a perfect storm. It was the conjunction of the events, the patronage, the political climate and the psychedelic countercultural climate.


Q: It’s surprising that so many posters from 40-plus years ago are still around. Was there recognition at the time of their artistic value?

A: There were a series of exhibitions early on. We have a lot of those posters to show that as early as 1966, they were showing these as art. There was a show in ’67 called the Joint Show — pun intended. The Joint Show was five artists: Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson, Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, who became known as the Big Five after the fact. They put themselves forward as leaders of this art movement. Life Magazine even did a feature on posters in 1967.


Q: Were the posters collectible at the time?

A: There’s this great quote from [San Francisco concert promoter] Bill Graham, from his memoirs, where he would go along in a scooter — this was early, early on — and would be putting up posters, and he said he knew he was onto something when he realized there were people following him, and by the time he got to the end of the street, they had taken them all down. There was clearly acknowledgment that they were doing something important. The artists all knew it. It’s just that the history of art hasn’t yet glommed on. I think it’s because it’s graphic art, it’s pop culture, it’s rock ’n’ roll — it’s all the things we put as second fiddle. I would argue that these have had a bigger influence in advertising and aesthetics afterward than much of the stuff we lionize as great contemporary art.


Q: The Denver Art Museum had a major poster exhibit in 2009. Will this be similar?

A: The DAM exhibit was gorgeous. It was huge, beautiful and important. But I liken that exhibit — which I thought they did a brilliant job on — to a fabulous coffee-table book. And I don’t mean that disrespectfully. Frankly, what we needed at that point was a coffee-table book, just getting these posters out there. It wasn’t really interested in didactics; it wasn’t a real teaching exhibition. It was, ‘Look at all this fabulous stuff.’ Now that that has been done so well, we don’t need to do it again. So we got all this unique process material on loan, and I thought, “What we need to do is more of ‘exhibition as essay,’ with a specific academic point.” It’s still going to be eye candy, but it’s going to be studying psychedelic posters as an art movement. I think the DAM show laid it out beautifully, but it wasn’t trying to make academic points. What we’re doing is a nice complement to what they’ve done. We’re not redoing — we’re taking the discussion further.

Visual Trips: The Psychedelic Poster Movement in San Francisco” runs Oct. 3–Nov. 16 in the Vicki Myhren Gallery in the Shwayder Art Building. Gallery hours are noon–5 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday, with extended hours through 7 p.m. on Thursdays. Visit the gallery website for more information.








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