Monday, May 11, 2009
Even just ascending the stairs to the second floor gallery of the Denver Art Museum, The Psychedelic Experience exhibition washes over you. The music that was the impetus behind the groundbreaking artwork waiting behind the gallery’s double doors emanates out into the hall and down the staircase. It pulsates and screams and recalls a time that seems unreal to those of us who did not live through it (and is probably hazy at best for those who did). The place was the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The time is the late 1960’s: American youth were calling for love not war and, at the behest of Timothy Leary, had turned on, tuned in and dropped out. The music that they tuned in was the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin, playing live and loud at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom.
To spread the word about these weekly rock concerts, promoters Bill Graham and Chet Helms brought in a group of young artists who would forever change the way we looked at advertising.
While earlier rock concert posters were merely functional (an Elvis poster hangs at the entrance to the gallery for the sake of comparison), the posters that would follow are irrefutably works of art. All of the pertinent information is still there: who, what, when, where, and occasionally why. Yet there is more there. The letters bend and twist to create new shapes. The eye must travel in circles sometimes to ascertain the artists on the bill, if it can be done at all.
The purpose of the posters is ostensibly to convey information, but at the same time (and perhaps to even greater effect) the art embodies the undulating rhythms of the music, the blinding color of the accompanying light show, and even the psychedelic trip that would be enjoyed with one’s illicit substance of choice during the concert.
Artists like Lee Conklin would eventually create lettering with such artistry that the names of the band and the venue would be nearly impossible to discern.
Everybody knew where. They didn’t need to know who. The important factor was what. And “what” was a mind-bending, anti-establishment, free love, mystical and musical experience.
The show is laid out chronologically for the most part, and by starting to the right, one can view the evolution of the psychedelic rock poster from the whimsical, curved balloon letters of Wes Wilson to the politically-charged and ironic collages of David Singer.
There is a meticulous quality to the posters. Though Wes Wilson was only paid $100 per poster by Bill Graham, one can almost see a dedication and eye for detail that mirrors Toulouse-Lautrec in his printing of the posters for the Moulin Rouge.
Rather than merely typesetters, the creators of these posters were visual artists – many with formal training. It shows.
Whether using the Gestalt principle of closure to create a dancing flower child out of the Grateful Dead’s name or creating the illusion of motion by slightly off-setting contrasting colors, these posters are both a visual feast and an id est show of artistic principles.
Then again, Yale-trained and Spanish-born poster artist Victor Moscosco is quoted on a sign near several of his works as saying, “Everything I learned in school, I reversed.”
This was an era of rebellion, after all.
On the subject of the era, the exhibit includes an adjacent facsimile recreation of a hip, hippie, urban apartment from the era, complete with tie-dye on the walls and “Laugh-In” on the tube. With a continued eye toward the interactive, the apartment includes a do-it-yourself psychedelic light show, art tables where the show-inspired can take a shot at creating a psychedelic concert poster, and a music listening station that changes tracks as you flip through a crate of “albums.”
The exhibit itself is also accompanied by video concert footage, music, and an example of just the kind of trippy moving backdrop that might have shown behind Fleetwood Mac at the Avalon all those years ago in a video presentation created by artist Glen McKay
As the title of the exhibition points out, this show is a full-sensory experience.
This is a temporary exhibit that ends July 19, so I suggest that you get your tickets sooner rather than later.