Summer of Love Posters on Show until September 15

Take a deep look inside 1960s posters.

If you’re going to Smith College before September 15, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. By all means, be sure to see the colorful–and I do mean colorful–exhibit “Summer of Love: Psychedelic Posters from the SCMA.” As advertised, it’s a collection of great rock posters, most of which come from the San Francisco Bay area from the 1967 Summer of Love. It features works from acclaimed graphic artists such as Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin, Bonnie MacLean, Peter Max, Victor Moscoso, Stanely Mouse, and Wes Wilson.

You will notice that I used the term graphic artists. Many of the SCMA (Smith College Museum of Art) images are, on the surface, mere advertising props for music concerts, especially those at the Fillmore West or at Family Dog Productions venues. Ahh, but look deeper. Among the many ways in which the history of the 1960s is misremembered is the myriad ways in which the period is stereotyped as one of stoned, vacuous hippies. Only a blind fool would deny that drugs were a big part of the 1960s–and an entire section of the exhibit is devoted to images devoted to the glories and of controlled substances–but to reduce the era to an orgy of wild child trippiness is to miss the day-glo bus on many levels. In a far more profound sense, the 1960s were about new ways of “seeing,” be they chemically induced visions, challenges to the traditional social norms, probing critiques of politics, sonic explorations, or spiritual journeys. Among those individuals that knocked down old walls were African Americans, women, young people, and artists. The imagination of poster artist Victor Moscoso, for instance, was fueled more by Diego Rivera and the Bauhaus movement than by LSD. Look carefully at Wes Wilson’s images and amidst the block letters, the swirling images, and the bright colors you’ll see Art Deco and Art Nouveau. In many respects, 60s poster artists anticipated today’s mash-up culture. In the case of Peter Max, he did so literally by assembling collage images of all manner of things that wouldn’t normally go together, but which magically create a harmonious statement. (You will definitely see Max’s influence on Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam.)

The SCMA show is divided into several major sections: aesthetics, the counterculture, drugs, and music. One side exhibit features a few black light posters, and another is a running video loop of outtakes from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which was the era’s musical signature event–Woodstock’s outsized reputation notwithstanding. (It will also remind you what an amazing band The Byrds were.) The explanatory texts are insightful, though I do have quibbles with curator Aprile Gallant’s incomplete take on the counterculture. The counterculture comes off as too much about LSD and hippies (Ginsburg, the Human Be-In, acid tests) and not enough about politics. (Where are the Diggers? The San Francisco State and UCal Berkeley student protests? The antiwar movement?) To be sure, the Summer of Love had a turn-on vibe, but by the fall the party petered out and other issues rose to prominence. Can we finally get it straight and understand that hippies were a small part of the counterculture, not its essence?  

Still, the SCMA “Summer of Love” show is–if I might–a groovy trip. It’s well worth an impulsive trip to Northampton. Freak out among the colors. Enjoy the music. If you’re of a certain age, take a nostalgia trip. But also take some time to appreciate the fact that you are standing in a room of wondrous art objects that just happen to involve unconventional subjects. One wonders if we shall ever see such likes again. Stand in the middle of the room and try to imagine any of this on a CD cover or an MP3 download.  --Rob Weir

Reminder: This show closes September 15, and then the Age of Aquarius goes back into storage. 

Postscript: More images from this exhibit can be viewed on my Facebook page.

1 comment:

Paul Smith said...

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