The Denver Art Museum has a psychedelic flashback

In the 1960s, the oldest of the baby boomers were coming of age, and they collectively launched the counterculture across America. The unofficial capital of this youth movement was San Francisco, where thousands of hippies descended and turned American culture upside down. They embraced pre-industrial styles of dress, grew out their hair and lived together in groups, and they really got into taking drugs, especially LSD. Music ­— in particular, rock — was often inspired by this psychedelic drug use; it became that society's anthem and led to, among other things, a revolution in graphic design.

It is this final piece of the puzzle that is the topic of a homegrown blockbuster called The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters From the San Francisco Bay Area: 1965-71, now about midway through its run at the Denver Art Museum.

The Psychedelic Experience was put together by Darrin Alfred, the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) assistant curator of graphics at the DAM. The AIGA in Alfred's title is part of R. Craig Miller's legacy. Miller founded the department of Architecture, Design and Graphics at the DAM in 1990, and in 2003 talked the AIGA into donating its massive archives of posters and other graphics material to the museum.

Now at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Miller has founded a similar department there and recently unveiled a major exhibit called European Design Since 1985. It's the companion to a show on American design from the same period that Miller presented at the DAM some years ago and, like its predecessor, breaks new scholarly ground. The European show was mostly put together in Denver and has been billed as a collaboration between the IMA and the DAM, but, oddly enough, it won't be presented here. It's a sad story, and reminiscent of a lack of support for Miller by the DAM when he was here.

Though some people have lashed out at The Psychedelic Experience because they feel it displaced Miller's European Design show, it really wasn't a case of either/or, and having met Alfred, I think he'd have worked well with Miller. In fact, a number of the posters in The Psychedelic Experience have been acquired in Miller's honor.

Interestingly, the posters in The Psychedelic Experience aren't part of the aforementioned AIGA hoard but rather highlight a collection assembled by David and Sheryl Tippit of Boulder, who partially donated them. The Tippits are connoisseurs whose collecting interests vary widely. In the case of the posters, they sought out examples that were in the finest condition available and those that were artist-signed.

The exhibit is ensconced in the Anschutz Gallery, on level two of the DAM's Hamilton Building. This is deliciously ironic, because donor Philip Anschutz, for whom the space is named, is an avowed right-winger and major supporter of conservative Christian causes, positions that are anathema to the spirit of the psychedelic material on view. It's also somewhat inappropriate, because the posters themselves are so small — diminutive, even — and the Anschutz Gallery is enormous, with gigantic walls and sprawling spaces. On the other hand, the space allows Alfred to include 300 works, an enormous number for any exhibit. As big a selection as this is, it's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the Tippit stash, which numbers over 800.

To whittle down the selections, Alfred focused only on those posters done before 1971 and on those by artists based in the Bay Area. This reflects both the primacy of San Francisco in the psychedelic graphics movement and Alfred's own personal experience, since he came from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he was a design curator. It also allowed him to include some Denver-related material, since the short-lived Family Dog concert hall, operated by Chet Helms on West Evans Avenue in the fall of 1967, was promoted with psychedelic posters for groups like Blue Cheer, the Grateful Dead and the Mothers of Invention. After three months of almost constant police harassment, the Family Dog was shut down. Looking at the section devoted to the venue, it made me wonder if there were other clubs in the area that featured psychedelic posters done by local Colorado artists. I'll bet there were.

Alfred uses the show to feature the principal artists involved in the movement and exhibits the work of each in separate sections arranged chronologically. The walls have been hung salon-style in places, meaning clusters of posters were hung two high or in more amorphous arrangements. One of the big surprises for me was their small size. Instead of the large format of more familiar older concert or travel posters, as with the Elvis poster in the entry to the show, these could be attached to light poles or taped to doors and windows.

Specialists in the field have identified a big five, but Alfred disagrees, so he instead included seven stars (one of which is a team) in this exhibit: Lee Conklin, Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley & Stanley Mouse, Bonnie MacLean, Victor Moscoso, David Singer and Wes Wilson. All but Moscoso (more about him in a minute) were self-taught, and it shows: Stylistically, the posters have little, if anything, to do with mainstream graphic currents of the time — again, aside from Moscoso's pieces.

Alfred, who is too young to have any firsthand knowledge of the period, says the artists would go to the library and troll for images. This is how they came across historic illustrations that they copied or responded to. Art nouveau is the most obvious source of the style, as is clearly demonstrated by a poster such as "Girl With Green Hair," by Kelley and Mouse, from 1966. The artists needed to do research to find these kinds of approaches, because at the time, art nouveau was not well known to anyone other than scholars.

And now to Moscoso: As a student at Yale University, he had studied with the great Josef Albers, a master of color theory. When he moved to San Francisco and learned that concert promoters were commissioning posters, Moscoso set up his own studio, the Neon Rose, in 1966. This allowed him, unlike the others, to retain the rights to his work. More than any of the other artists, Moscoso was more intimately connected to the fine-art world, and his pieces may be broadly connected to '60s pop art.

Taking the color theories of Albers, who was a constructivist and not a pop artist, Moscoso was able to set up unbelievable contrasts between the different shades he employed so that they vibrate as we look at them. In some, he created posters that move when subjected to different colored lights, making them literally animated.

Light shows were common features of the concerts being advertised by the posters, and one can only imagine their effect on the drug-addled audience. In the DAM exhibit, there's a small, dark room with its own light show, where some of these Moscoso posters have been hung. One is 1968's "Incredible Poetry," which has a big mouth in the center that seems to open and close as the colored lights flash on it. Another depicts winged women whose wings flap as the lights change. Here's how it works: The lights are in the primaries of red, yellow and blue, with the illusion of movement created because each shade blocks out its related color on the posters.

Despite the obvious subtexts of sex, drugs and rock and roll that are inherent in a show about psychedelia, there's a surprisingly innocent character to the work. The artists had modest goals, and their sincerity comes through with none of the cynical hipsterism so common today. For this reason alone, the show is well worth the price of admission.

The Psychedelic Experience

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia