I was really scared I was going to have an acid flashback at the Summer of Love psychedelic poster show at Smith College. But I didn't. But I think a few of the docents did and were. We all know the basic idea of these posters: the neon, the bubbly fonts, the proto-pop-op art, the visualization of sex, drugs & rock n roll. Yet behind the flashy ease of these posters was a manifestation of a much larger collaborative, communal, collected sense of fear and abandon of an era, one that Joan Didion best captures in the White Album when she speaks of the "alchemy of issues" in 60s San Francisco: how a person or moment or action can balloon into a cause, a movement, a way of life- however confusing or drug fueled or symbolic the issue might be.
These posters began as a way to advertise music happenings as bands swarmed the Westcoast like stoned locusts in the 60s and 70s. The underlying idealism of the hippie and psychedelic movement wafted through the air though and led to an artistic movement that encompassed everything from the legalization of marijuana to broadcasting stark anti-war sentiments to sometimes even just the spreading of beat poems (Allen Ginsberg's poster at top). The color and exactitude necessary in executing these prints is far from some lackadaisical stoner's capabilities, many of the artists came from intense schooling following in the art historical footsteps of the Vienna Secessionists resulting in a broad range of styles all sharing a compelling & vivid graphic design streak even if vastly different in composition; extreme drafting backgrounds (like Wilfred Satty at left), modernist folk musings (like Dana W. Johnson directly below), the collaged futuristic pop-copolypse (Peter Max and his marbled pink clouds of a Midget's Dream at bottom). As the exhibit material says, these posters really were a precursor to a
our current state of digital collective conscious "...a kind of visual social media of their time, attracting and linking their main audience: young people in San Francisco," a fact that makes them a very important (hyper) link on the chain of art history.
Seeing these posters made me understand how influential they are to sooooo much contemporary art, their legacy obviously sweeping the digital art field- even in the Smith College Museum of Art, in a gallery below this exhibit, was hidden a Nam June Paik robot compiled of obsolete technology blasting synchronized, trippy, collaged animations- fittingly titled Internet Dweller- a direct connection to the seemingly wavy movement of the still neon paper hung on the walls in the gallery above. Paper Rad and the wonderful word of psych-gifs, experimental film (a thing the exhibit touched upon briefly on a placard that mentioned the North American Ibis Alchemical Company headed by Ben Van Meter [film short at bottom!] - an org responsible for light show installations that moved into filmmaking- that is seen in works of people like Martha Colburn and Assume Vivid Astrofocus), and even the current crafty letter press worshipers & the obsessive digital font creators owe something to these visionary poster pioneers. The historical legacy of these posters makes them a very important artifact- and not just aesthetically. The political ideologies that a lot of these posters directly, and indirectly, stood for is an important message to the new generation of digital neon internet posters (posters in the new sense of the word!): making a picture is lovely but making a message is powerful.