Psychedelic Poster Art

By Eric King

General comments:

In August, 1965 I arrived in Berkeley to pursue a Ph. D. in Medieval English. I had read about the Free Speech Movement and been drawn to Berkeley by the prospect of freedom of academic inquiry. As I was finishing my M. A., the local disciples of a rather amusingly demented guru whispered his alluring siren call in my ear, "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out." I attended one of the early concerts at the Avalon Ballroom in a appropriately stoned state and met a very attractive young woman who took me back to her apartment and made love with me in an uninhibited fashion beyond anything I could have imagined. I awoke the next morning with the realization that this was a lot more fun than translating obscure passages in Beowulf. I spent the next several years at the greatest party since the fall of the Roman Empire.

If the party had any focus, it was at the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms. Today, thirty years after the beginning of the two main series of San Francisco psychedelic rock concert posters, the Bill Graham Presents series and the Family Dog Presents series, people are in a bizarre state of denial concerning the role drugs played in the creation of this art. Collectors, dealers and even one or two or the artists themselves seem to be pretending that if they looked up the word "psychedelic" in Webster's, they would find the definition to be, "a breed of pussycat." The reason for this is simple. From the outset the art establishment has contemptuously sought to dismiss this major art form as the drug-crazed ravings of sex-obsessed dirty hippies, and according to this group the farther away from people's minds this drug connection can be dragged, the more likely it is that this art will finally be accepted by the art establishment. Reality check time, fellows and gals. The art establishment loathed us in 1966, and their loathing continues unabated today. Until they have passed from the scene, their attitude will prevail. Even if we did convince them that "psychedelic" meant "pussycat," there would still be the problem in their eyes of sex-obsessed dirty hippies.

Nowhere has this been more true than in San Francisco itself, the very home of psychedelic rock concert poster art. Here is a supposedly cash strapped city which has found the enormous sums of money necessary to fill its museums with New York art, deconstructionist atrocities which demonstrate no technical mastery of any medium, occasionally interesting Asian vases and a few lesser European Old masters which were not gobbled up long ago by European or East Coast museums because they were just that, "lesser" European Old Masters. This same city from the mayors and supervisors on down to the graphics acquisition staffs over two dozen years has systematically refused to appropriate what was once only a few thousand dollars to insure that a set of original printings of the greatest original art ever to arise in San Francisco stayed in San Francisco. Why? Because "psychedelic" does not and never will mean "pussycat." These posters were by, for and about drugs.

This is not an essay advocating drug usage. Even if we were naive enough back then to listen to Bobby singing, "Everybody must get stoned," we are not that naive now. We have seen the hollow-eyed wraiths, the casualties of the psychedelic revolution, some of whom still populate our streets, and know the downside to drug abuse. More than one of the great psychedelic poster artists experienced drug related problems and one almost trashed his entire life, but for better or worse out of the cauldron of naivete and confusion came brilliant art of often crystal clarity.

If anyone would doubt the power of psychoactive drugs to influence artistic creativity, he or she need only study the works of Hieronymous Bosch before and after he was initiated into the cult which had managed to find some means of neutralizing the toxins in the rye fungus known as ergot from which LSD was eventually derived. Because we live in a country which has thrown a quarter of a trillion dollars down a rat hole known as the "War on Drugs" which has harmed us more than the drugs ever did, and they did us no little damage, we are no longer willing to discuss how the goal of psychedelic rock concert poster art was to "stone" the beholder briefly, to create on paper the visual effects of hallucinogenic drugs. Furthermore the concerts themselves, music, light shows etc. were all intended to enhance the psychedelic experience. It should be noted just as clearly that although the environment which made these posters and concerts possible could not have existed without the widespread, indiscriminate use of mind altering substances,the destruction of this environment inevitably resulted from the same widespread, indiscriminate use of these substances.

With only one exception all the significant artists of both the Bill Graham and Family Dog series sought to experience this state of drug-induced altered consciousness and then to capture on paper what that experience was for them. A very important part of the brilliance of their art lies in their success in bringing back images from that other world and capturing them so that they could be shared, communicated to others, many of whom now all these years later, have never participated in this drug experience, because that is what art is all about, communication of experience. The main differences between the art of these two series arise from the simple fact that different artists predominated at each ballroom, and the psychedelic experience, inherently individualized, was different for each of them.


Although Wes Wilson did the earliest posters for the Family Dog, he did not really hit his creative stride until later, and his best work was done for Bill Graham. The main artists for the Family Dog were Mouse and Kelley of Mouse Studios, Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. What characterized the work of Mouse and Kelley was the use of one powerful, central image taken from the mass culture. Typically this image was drastically altered to show how a person under the influence of drugs, any mind altering drugs, would see something, anything, he or she had seen all his or her life, in an entirely new way. The most extreme and perhaps the best example of this is FD-110, the use of what may well be one of the two or three most important mass culture images in American history, the Statue of Liberty. Garishly done in black silhouette against a red backdrop with the brilliant touch of the addition of a tiny white tear on Miss Liberty's cheek as a comment on the Vietnam War, this remains one of the greatest true combinations of the psychedelic and the political.

For Victor Moscoso the psychedelic experience was bound up in vibration of color. None of the artists used color with such electric results as Victor, and since this distortion and "fighting" of color was one of the most powerful aspects of psychedelic experience, it may well be that for this alone Victor captured the physical, visual experience of being "stoned" better than anyone else. One can gaze at images such as FD-53 after having done no psychoactive substances in twenty years and still fall into at least the visual aspects of the drug experience.

Rick Griffin was a religious mystic, and for him the psychedelic experience was a religious one. His art for the Family Dog was filled with images which arose in his own internal mystical experience. Unlike his Bill Graham images, these were rooted in the beauty of creation, Michaelangelo's Sistine Adam in FD-52 and his own wonderfully biophilic "The Source" FD-101.

Two more Family Dog artists who captured, and were significantly part of, The Family Dog spirit were Bob Schnepf and San Andreas Fault both of whom created their own styles in an area not too far distant from that of Mouse and Kelley and Moscoso. Todd Hunter (San Andreas Fault) made excellent use of the Chaplin image in FD-111, and Bob Schnepf created what is often judged one of Psychedelia's ten best, FD-122, which also was one of the best of those involving visual puns on group names, an idea which was popular for a while. One of the main reasons the establishment has so much difficulty recognizing the greatness of psychedelic art is that many of its best examples are, like FD-122, just too bizarre for them to accept.


If there was anything which terrified the doyens of the dominant paradigm more than widespread recreational drug use in the sixties, it was widespread recreational sex. Writing about psychedelic rock concert poster art without discussing the predominant roles of sex and drugs is like writing seriously about Michaelangelo without mentioning the Roman Catholic church. It might be possible, but it certainly would be hypocritical. If there was any artist who was more blatantly erotic than Victor Moscoso it was Wes Wilson. All of these artists embraced sensuality, but none with the unceasing immersion of Wes Wilson. This probably made the father of psychedelic rock concert poster art the most subversive of them all, but he was not merely subversive, he was revolutionary. All it takes is a quick look at the delicate, fragile "femme" ideal of pin-up art from the forties and fifties by such American painters as Moran and Elvgren to see the radical change Wilson represented. Here were big, powerful, muscular looking women dancing in wild abandon, not cutesy, defenseless, little women who stood on the sidelines watching men. In this sense Wilson was way ahead of the feminist movement. If there is a more empowered woman than the one in BG-29, "The Sound", I have not had the good fortune to meet her. We would all be lucky if now as she approaches fifty we elected her to the Senate, grown to maturity and with a realistic understanding of the ideals she represented, she would make a lot better president than several we have had.

As the years have passed I have come to be more and more convinced that the only reason the big five (Wilson, Mouse, Kelley, Moscoso and Griffin) was not the big six was that Bonnie MacLean was a woman. Even the hip of 1967 were not ready to take the "No girls allowed" sign off the door of the psychedelic poster artist's club treehouse. Bonnie was not just graphically as gifted as the others. Like the others her imagination drew from the mass culture and recreated its famous images, for example, BG-64 the art school advertisement tour de force, and she created sexually attractive psychedelic men and women (BG-89 and 90) which were as beautiful and dynamic as the others. Her sense of color also was excellent.

The work Rick Griffin did for Bill Graham is very different from that which he did for the Family Dog. BG-105, perhaps the most famous image of the era, is apocalyptic in nature, anything but gentle and nutritive the way his Family Dog images are. This is his vision of the Old Testament "jealous and angry god," and any trivialization of the image, failure to recognize its real nature, is an insult to his memory. BG-136, "The Heart Torch," represents part of Griffin's psychedelic adaptation of arcane Masonic symbology which fascinated him for years the way pop culture images enchanted Mouse and Kelley.

Lee Conklin was the first of the second wave of psychedelic artists. Unfortunately he did no work at all for the Family Dog. His eerie, surrealistic impressions of the psychedelic experience rendered in a phenomenal detail recognizable only in the original drawings led to a clear understanding that when you were stoned nothing was what it appeared to be. It may make sense at the time but later it will rarely be coherent. Nothing typifies this duality more than the striking bizarreness of BG-101, the embracing torsos whose heads are replaced by clasped hands. Are we being told a true union folds us together like intertwined fingers? Are we being told not to ask too many questions about the meaning of art? Or are we merely being told to ignore the interpretations of psychedelia done years later by an auto mechanic?

The last major Bill Graham artist was David Singer. Where Griffin was a mystic with roots in organized fundamentalist religion, Singer was a mystic who absorbed a multitude of religious and mystical traditions and synthesized a dream vision built on the juxtaposition of multiple images in collage (Kelley's brilliant personal collages notwithstanding, the other major artists tended to use one image per poster). Just as in the LSD experience different images floated before the beholder/participant so did David seek to capture his own usually gentle version of the acid state. One needs only to imagine movement in the elements of such images as those in the lower BG-180's to see that David took some wonderful trips. He also was the first, in BG-205, certainly one of the best anti-drug pieces of serious art, to caution us that drugs could become the tail that wagged the dog, could swallow a person whole and spit them out one of the walking dead which still fill our streets today.

Two less famous but nevertheless noteworthy artists round out the Fillmore pantheon. First is the late Greg Irons who was a cartoonist with a delightful sense of humor. No one captured the essence of Chuck Berry (Rolling Stone's true king of the rock and rollers) better than Greg did in BG-193. His depiction of Berry flying through the air over a city grinning his enigmatic grin as his characteristic wingtips point due North and South recalls for me better than anything else the electricity Berry brought on stage at his peak in New York in the late 1950's. Norman Orr's Christmas/birthday card to Jesus, BG-262, showed a love of god equalled only by his love of the flesh shown in "The Nymphet", BG-273 & 4. If there was anything that typified the psychedelic era more than this duality, the lust for the spiritual and the lust for the fleshly, no one has suggested to me what it was. All the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll of the era grew out of the explosion generated by this duality.

Copyright Eric King 1996

Comments to: therose7@earthlink.net.

Return to Eric King's Main Page.