July 2010 Issue
Spirit of the '60s
The Toledo Museum of Art celebrates the psychedelic images of changing times.
The Byrds, Moby Grape, Andrew Staples, Winterland and Fillmore Auditorium 1967, by Wes Wilson
Grateful Dead, Big Mama Mae Thornton, Tim Rose, Fillmore Auditorium, 1966 by Wes Wilson.
The Association, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grass Roots, The Sopwith Camel, Fillmore Auditorium 1966, by Wes Wilson.
Grateful Dead, Otis Rush Chicago Blues Band, Canned Heat Blues Band, Fillmore Auditorium 1967, Wes Wilson.
Jimi Hendrix Experience and Joshua Light Show, Fillmore East 1968, by David Edward Byrd.
Up close, the concert poster seems lighthearted enough: Pop artist Wes Wilson’s colorful advertisement for a July 1966 gig at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, featuring the Association and the Grass Roots, is set amid a neon collage of red, orange and yellow.
But step back five paces and the good vibrations vanish: From a distance, the placidity has turned into angry tongues of flame that look hot enough to leap off the page. No mere billboard, the double-edged image also served as the artist’s adamant protest against the Vietnam War.
This arresting illustration is one of 150 works showcased at the Toledo Museum of Art through Sept. 12 in “The Psychedelic 60s: Posters from the Rock Era.” Organized by the museum, the exhibit features concert and black-light posters on loan from Houston Freeburg, a Memphis, Tennessee, collector whose passion for the symbolic relics has led to his amassing more than 1,250 of them.
“These pieces,” explains Amy Gilman, the museum’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, “are a microcosm of their time. Yes, many were designed to advertise a specific event — but often the text and colors used are clearly more important as an emblematic image rather than a conveyor of information.”
Welcome to the 1960s. Flower-power love and pleas for peace. And the volatile tempo of those times took center stage in concert lineups from coast to coast: At The Fillmore in San Francisco, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors and the Grateful Dead were regulars, while across town, Jefferson Airplane and Canned Heat held court at the Avalon Ballroom. In New York, the Fillmore East was the place to hear the Beach Boys and The Byrds.
As the music played on and the decade played out, posters promoting the shows became as eclectic as the events themselves.
“Our impressions of what the 1960s were and what they looked like have clearly been shaped by the graphic designers’ views,” Gilman says.
Not to mention, she adds, that since many of them were schooled in art or art history, they drew inspiration from those who came before them: A master at appropriating the elegant lines of early-20th-century art nouveau, Wilson created typefaces and elaborate elements that were reminiscent of an earlier day, yet clearly complemented the music and cultural scene of his times. The artist’s 1967 rendering for a performance at the Winterland Arena in San Francisco by Moby Grape is a stellar example of that style.
And shades of painter Salvador Dali’s technique of taking imagery completely out of context during the 1930s emanates from Stanley Mouse’s 1967 poster for a Mothers of Invention concert at The Fillmore. In it, bones, the noonday sun and sunflowers embrace the surrealist technique Dali is renowned for.
It was this homage to art history that fascinated Gilman. Born at the tail end of the ’60s, she’s too young to remember the decade. But the depictions on the posters have always fascinated her.
“They’re very optimistic, but also very challenging,” she explains. “On the surface, they seem to be naïve. But they clearly depict an awareness of what’s going on in the world.”
The curator knew the images she had in mind would be at home in a museum, and set about searching for them. A colleague at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art introduced her to Freeburg. The 56-year-old retired contractor fondly remembers his first posters, purchased at age 14 while on a spring-break school trip to New York.
“The teacher who chaperoned us wasn’t much older than we were, so he pretty much turned us loose,” recalls Freeburg with a chuckle. “We stopped at the Fillmore East, and I bought a slew of Procol Harum and Jimi Hendrix posters. Our class was staying at the Waldorf Astoria. When we got back to the room, we redecorated with black light posters.”
Freeburg has spent the ensuing years scouring websites and attending music conventions, always on the lookout for collectibles. His favorite acquisition — and a focal point of the Toledo show — is “The Hendrix Experience,” a black-light poster in which the rocker’s hair is made of flowers.
“There’s something truly mesmerizing about black-light work,” he says. “With the flip of a switch, you’re in a totally different world.”
As Gilman puts the finishing touches on the exhibit, she reflects on what she hopes visitors will glean from it.
“We have a tendency to think of these years as being less complex than they were — when in fact, they were riddled with strife,” she says. “But through it all, a sense of optimism prevailed.
“And that,” the curator adds, “is something we can use today.”
For more information, call 419/255-8000 or visit toledomuseum.org.