NEW YORK – The 1960s were a heady time in rock ’n’ roll and the music scene. Long before the Internet, the best advertising for concerts was the poster. And while posters were produced on both coasts of the United States, a hotbed of the poster-making — and music — was San Francisco.
“From 1966 to 1971, an unprecedented quantity of extraordinary graphic art was produced in the San Francisco Bay Area,” according to the San Francisco International Airport Museum’s 2014-15 exhibition, “When Art Rocked: San Francisco Music Posters 1966 to 1971.” There was high demand for posters, flyers and handbills (usually smaller versions of posters that were handed out) for rock concerts coming to San Francisco.
“The two main patrons of this proliferation of posters were Bill Graham, who promoted concerts at the Fillmore; and Chet Helms, leader of an organization called the Family Dog, which produced concerts at the Avalon Ballroom,” according to a museum press release on the exhibition. Both venues were in San Francisco. Bill Graham posters are marked in numbered series with the initials BG for the legendary promoter. Fillmore East (formerly located in Manhattan) posters have the initial FE and Family Dog posters are in FD – # series.
Scott Mussell, an Americana specialist at Hake’s Americana & Collectibles in York, Pennsylvania, explained how concert poster design evolved in the 1960s. “Before — and even during — the ’60s, posters utilized bold text and pictures of the artists that was like posters advertising boxing events, thus called ‘boxing-style’ posters. As the cultural revolution took hold, Chet Helms and Bill Graham saw the value of visual art as a way of promoting their concerts. Once the train was rolling there was no stopping it.”
The look of 1960s concert posters is quite distinctive. Artists took the blocky lettering made famous during the Art Nouveau era by Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and modernized them, adding psychedelic colors. Some, like Rick Griffin, appropriated California’s hot-rod car culture for his poster designs.
Topping a who’s who of ’60s poster designers is Wes Wilson. “Wilson is the godfather of this art. His most notable contemporaries in the Bay Area are Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse (who worked together), Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Bonnie MacLean, Lee Conklin and others that came along later,” said Mussell. “Other important artists include Gary Grimshaw (Detroit, Grande Ballroom), Dail Beeghly (Maryland Area only did a few posters but they are among the most sought of the era). David Byrd was the artist for the Fillmore East in New York City, the East Coast Bill Graham venture. Byrd is best known for FE-7 a Jimi Hendrix poster that is among the most outstanding of the era,” he said.
Wilson blazed the trail for artists who would follow in his footsteps creating psychedelic art. “It was Wilson who designed the original logo for the Family Dog and who did the posters for the brief series of Family Dog shows at the Fillmore Auditorium, and then for the first series of Family Dog shows at the Avalon Ballroom,” according to ClassicPosters.com.
“Soon he was doing that work plus doing the posters for Bill Graham’s shows at the Fillmore. After several months, Wilson stopped producing for the Family Dog venue and concentrated almost exclusively on posters for Bill Graham’s Fillmore events. He cites that with Chet Helms and the Avalon Ballroom, he was often given a theme around which he was asked to improvise, while with Bill Graham and the Fillmore, he was given complete freedom to design whatever he wanted. Wilson enjoyed the added artistic freedom.”
Wilson’s style involved decorating all the white space on a poster, making letters fluid and flowing. That “became the standard that most artists followed in order to put ‘psychedelic’ in the art. The first clear example of this — and a key piece in Wilson’s history — was the poster BG-18, done for a show with the Association at the Fillmore Auditorium. Set in a background of green is a swirling flame-form of red letters. With this poster came a new concept in the art of that time — perhaps the first truly ‘psychedelic’ poster,” according to ClassicPosters.com.
“Jimi Hendrix and the Flying Eyeball are images indelibly linked in the psychedelic poster art of the late Rick Griffin,” according to Wolfgangs.com. “Griffin discovered The Eyeball, in a much more benign form, in the 1950s auto detailing art of California pinstriper Von Dutch and reworked it over time to become the winged, bloodshot figure parting a ring of fire with serpent-like tentacles. The highlighted lettering, vivid color and complicated imagery reflect Griffin’s attention to details and the influence of Indian lore on his work.”
Griffin’s 1969 “Hawaiian Aoxomoxoa” poster for a planned Grateful Dead show is among the rare ’60s rock posters. Griffin, who also created the cover art for the palindromic-titled Aoxomoxoa album for the Dead, combined in this work surfing imagery (he was already well known in the surfing subculture) with some of his signature design elements such as a winged skull with hearts. The concert was abruptly canceled so most of the existing posters were destroyed. Griffin was able to save some, which he reportedly brought back to California.
Byrd is also famous in this genre. “David’s work is firmly entrenched as part of our visual culture. Who does not recognize his famous ‘Follies’ poster (the original is owned by the Smithsonian) or the Jimi Hendrix Experience poster, ranked by Billboard as the eighth best rock concert poster of all time,” according to the Rock Poster Society’s website.
Victor Moscoso’s posters nearly vibrate with color, an effect created by pairing colors from opposite ends of the color wheel with each one having an equal light value and intensity, such as red and green. “Because there is no break between the colors, your eye does not know which one to focus on as the colors ‘compete,’” according to VictorMoscoso.com.
Among the most collectible posters are early posters in the FD and BG series, Acid Test posters, and one-off shows featuring iconic ’60s artists from around the country, Mussell said. Avalon Ballroom or the Fillmore posters seem equally matched as to desirability. “The early Family Dog (Avalon) posters tend to command more than early Fillmore pieces but the true icons from each series FD-26 and BG-105 are on about equal footing.”
Tips for buying?
“Knowledge is everything, read everything you can. This is especially important with the FD and BG series as there are multiple printings of many of the images that have drastically different values. Doing this homework will help you figure out what you like and the historical importance of these pieces of art,” Mussell said.
When calculating a poster’s value, rarity is usually king but the performer who’s depicted adds a certain gravitas. “When it comes to the very early FD and BG series posters it’s more about the extremely low survival rate — so the bands are less important. Beyond that, the band/singer is the most important aspect followed by the art and rarity/demand.”
Of course, given that buying art is so highly personal, it all comes down to what strikes one’s fancy as judging art is all in the eye of the beholder — whether it’s for The Doors, Cream or Janis Joplin.