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Feelings of free love and flower power fueled more than just infectious music. Indeed, long before Richie Havens launched into “High Flyin’ Bird” at Woodstock, Sixties counterculture had given rise to a visual art that was just as subversive and era-defining as the sounds of the time.
Posters, album art and underground magazine illustrations came to define visual arts in the Sixties often through social and political messages. Arnold Skolnick’s poster for the Woodstock Music Festival promised “3 days of peace & music.” Skolnick’s design, which he completed in just four days, initially showed a bird sitting on a flute. “A flute doesn’t really represent folk music,” he said, “so I changed it to a guitar.” A few of the now-iconic posters were hung on local telephone poles to promote the concert, but the majority were actually sold as souvenirs to muddied hippies as they left the site.
The Woodstock poster’s design was, intentionally, a departure from the majority of promotional art at the time, which was heavily influenced by Surrealist and psychedelic work. As the term “psychedelic” implies, many creatives were tapping into their talents with the help of recreational drugs. Artists created images — most characterized by vivid colors (“acid” tones) in swirling shapes and patterns — that mimicked hallucinations induced by drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin and LSD. In the late Sixties, University of California, Irvine, psychiatrist Oscar Janiger administered small doses of LSD to a handful of artists to study the drug’s effect on their work. When historian Carl Hertel analyzed the art from Janiger’s study, he found it was indeed brighter and more abstract than the artists’ sober work, but not necessarily more creative. “After a while, everything psychedelic starts to look alike,” Skolnick quipped, “so I did something a little different for Woodstock.”
Yet, despite a concrete chemical connection, the entire promotional art movement of the Sixties didn’t just pop up from a group of stoners. In fact, quite a few legitimate design industry names were behind the genre’s most recognizable pieces. Consider artist Peter Max, whose work includes the “Cosmic 60s” and 1969 “Love” posters, and who was recently hired as the official artist for the Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl. Perhaps best known for the “I [Heart] NY” logo, graphic designer Milton Glaser was responsible for the poster insert for Bob Dylan’s 1967 “Greatest Hits” album. There, Glaser captured the singer’s rainbow-coiffed silhouette in perfect psychedelic vernacular. “It was inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Self-Portrait in Profile,’” says Glaser of the illustration. “The colorful twist is very much what I was doing at the time.” Add in the significant contributions by Wes Wilson, who developed liquid motion typeface, and Hipgnosis, the London-based firm that designed Led Zeppelin’s Surrealist “Houses of the Holy” and Pink Floyd’s graphic “Dark Side of the Moon” album covers, and it’s obvious: Sixties visual art was more than just the by-product of a few good trips.