The Bay Area of the 1960s is a time and place etched in American history. It had a sound and culture all its own: tie-dye, LSD and the Grateful Dead. Peace, love and flower power. A counter-culture fueled by eastern philosophy and acid rock.
Thanks to the work of cutting-edge graphic artists such as Wes Wilson and others, that moment in time had its own unique look as well — a tapestry of vibrant colors, richly textured images and a chaotic, silly string-like font that was as much optical illusion as advertisement.
It’s a style we now know as psychedelic, and the artwork of this period is celebrated in the Denver Art Museum’s new exhibit, “The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area, 1965-71,” which opens Saturday and runs through July 19.
The exhibit features more than 300 posters promoting Bay Area concerts from that time, from headlining acts like Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Jimi Hendrix to era-defining events like the Trips Festival, the Haight-Ashbury Festival and Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. The names and venues are part of the rock’n’roll pantheon: promoters Bill Graham and Chet Helms and Family Dog Productions, the Fillmore Auditorium, the Avalon Ballroom.
For Paul Epstein, owner of Denver’s Twist and Shout record store, the posters are untainted mementos of a much-mythologized time.
“To me, this is one of the very few physical reminders or physical proofs that the’60s existed in the way that we think it did,” he says. “The music has been co-opted by commercial concerns. These posters are one of the pristine artifacts of the art and culture of the’60s that still exist in their original form that haven’t been tainted by commercial concerns.”
Epstein helped with the exhibit by providing music and video footage from his personal collection, including video from the Fillmore Auditorium. The museum will host a weekly conversation series in May, and Epstein will give a talk on May 20 concerning music and memorabilia and Chet Helms’ time in Denver.
“A lot of posters originated in Denver,” he says. “We had a Family Dog in Denver.”
Other speakers in the series include Harry Tuft, from the Denver Folklore Center, and Darrin Alfred, exhibit curator and assistant curator of graphic design at the DAM. The museum is also offering a series of related art classes in March and April, and on April 24 will kick off the new season of its final-Friday “Untitled” series of events, a gathering of music, art and other surprises that take place the last Friday of the month.
On Saturday, artist Wes Wilson will participate in “The Artists’ Panel Super Session,” which also includes artists Lee Conklin and Stanley Mouse.
In 1964, Wilson was working as a Bay Area printer and graphic artist when he was first asked to design a handbill for a concert.
“I didn’t exactly anticipate it turning into a big deal,” he says from his farm in Missouri.
Wilson describes himself as “kind of a bohemian guy” who studied philosophy and hung out with a lot of writers. With the emergence of musicians like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, “we advanced in music and art,” he says, “and pop all of a sudden became quite intelligent.
“All this stuff just came out of the woodwork,” Wilson says. “It just turned into a busy mix of insightful people looking into the future and thinking it didn’t have to be the way it’s been.”
The rock concerts, dance parties and music festivals — such as the 1966 Trips Festival, for which Wilson designed the handbills — embodied that spirit. Wilson hoped to capture that spirit in his designs.
“The posters had a lot to do with reflecting that,” he says.
At the time, Wilson lived in an apartment where the rent was $28 a month, and at that time, he says, you could drop acid in North Beach and walk all the way to Haight-Ashbury without being hassled.
“We didn’t really realize what a wonderful boon it was to be there at that time,” he says. “People could be as weird as they wanted to be.”
The freedom of the time was reflected in the fluidity of the fonts and the vividness of the colors.
“It’s a unique visual representation of the culture at the time,” Alfred says. “It still lives on and defines that era.”
The layout of the exhibit, he says, evokes the spirit that inspired the art.
“It’s really visually powerful, with the wild colors. Just looking at one artist wall and moving to the next artist wall and seeing how these artists were working through this entire period of time is really interesting,” Alfred says. “Every time someone walks into this space they’re overwhelmed and excited. Visually, it’s something else.”
Enhancing the experience are two light shows, a soundtrack of period music and the video displays, transforming the exhibit into a multimedia event along the lines of the original performances.
“Hopefully all those things will provide context for people who didn’t experience it at the time,” Alfred says.
Scott Montgomery, assistant professor of medieval and renaissance art at the University of Denver, will moderate Saturday’s artist panel. Montgomery grew up in the Bay Area, and he sees these rock posters not as something on the fringe, but as an art form that has been too quickly dismissed or neglected by the art community.
“The visual culture that has developed alongside popular music, it tends to be relegated to studies of popular culture. I got into looking at it as culture,” he says. “I have found this material to be incredibly rich and thoroughly unexplored by my field.”
In addition to moderating the panel, he also contributed some of his own rock posters to the exhibit. Most of the posters DAM acquired from Boulder collector David Tippit.
“The real star here is David Tippit for donating this poster collection that I could only drool over,” Montgomery says.
Tippit began collecting rock posters 25 years ago.
“I just thought that they were interesting artistically,” he says, adding that a lot of people saved the posters because they encapsulated the “feeling about the scene, and people wanted to be part of the scene.”
Tippit, whose impressive photobook collection resides in the University of Colorado’s University Libraries, prefers to stay behind the scenes, and defers the limelight to the artists themselves and also to the DAM for exhibiting the posters.
“The museum is stepping into new areas here, and they deserve some credit for going into different areas, like graphic design, that people haven’t looked at,” he says.
“Not every museum would have done this,” says Montgomery, describing the art world as insular at times and placing too much emphasis on distinguishing between high and low culture. “Graphic design has been relegated a second-class citizen. Rock’n’roll art has not even been given citizenship.”
He hopes this changes thanks to a resurgence of rock poster art and the rise of new media.
“Rock’n’roll has always been as much visual as audio. That’s just an inherent part of the art form,” he says.
Alfred agrees, and he sees the current popularity of poster art as a response to digital media that has diminished the prevalence of artwork and packaging, such as album covers.
“With the advent of digital music and not having album covers to collect, a lot of people are looking for something
tangible to take away from the (live) experience,” he says. “These posters are filling that need.”