The Summer of Love Experience: Visual Arts

NOTE: This is the third installment in a six-part series on The Summer of Love, inspired by The Summer of Love Experience exhibit at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco.

We’ve been down this road before: an unhinged, paranoid president; wars built on lies; emboldened racists and misogynists blaring their hate through mass media into the public forum. Fifty years ago this summer, a new way of confronting institutionalized madness was proposed in San Francisco. And it spread.


Wes Wilson’s Are We Next?

One of the defining moments of San Francisco’s Summer of Love took place two years earlier in Virginia City, Nevada. Bill Ham had been experimenting with light and electricity as an art form for a year when he installed a 4′ x 6′ light mural programmed to operate indefinitely at the Red Dog Saloon. San Francisco’s Charlatan’s were the house band at the Red Dog for this first psychedelic light show. These were no stage lights or spotlights – these were living works of art, paintings in light that reacted to the music and the audience. The audience became part of the canvas.

Experimentation with color, light, and imagery was as important to the summer of love experience as experimentation with words, sounds, sexuality, or drugs. Victor Moscoso noticed that when a friend hung Christmas lights near one of his paintings, the flashing red and blue lights cancelled those colors out in turn on the image, giving the illusion of movement. After that first experience it became a conscious part of his work.

Music and visual art became entwined in ways they never had before. Promoter Chet Helms hired Bill Ham to produce lightshows at the Avalon Ballroom and Bill Graham commissioned artists to create posters advertising shows at The Fillmore Auditorium. The artists rejected the methods of Madison Avenue in favor of promotions that were as creative as the shows they were promoting. These same artists – Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Lee Conklin, as well as underground comix artists like Robert Crumb – were natural choices to create album covers when the bands moved from the stage to the studio.
Alton Kelley’s Skull Fuck

Second only to the degradation of sound quality in the transition from vinyl to CD to streaming is the loss of the visual art in the production of professional music. Gatefold albums presented a surface more than two feet wide and a foot high to use as any artist saw fit. Alton Kelley drew a skeleton wearing a crown of roses for the Grateful Dead. The band wanted to call the album Skull Fuck. Warner Brother rejected the title for some reason and the album is simply named Grateful Dead, though it’s also called Skull and Roses in tribute to its visual art.

The visual complement to recorded music often extended beyond the covers and included posters, booklets, lyric sheets, and other paraphernalia.

As had happened with fashion, the visual artists of the summer of love used hand-me-downs in their creations. Dadaism, surrealism, and pop art melded in a collage with the found art of advertising techniques from earlier generations.

Artwork from the cover of Jefferson Airplane’s 1969 album Volunteers

One from my teenage wall

Posters became more than vehicles for advertising. Teenagers’ bedroom walls were galleries for a new kind of art. Like clothes and music, posters were a sign of communication to like-minded friends, an expression of an emerging culture with values that differed significantly from the dominant American culture of the time. Conformity and incrementalism were rejected in favor of bold, transcendent imagery that spread across the globe overcoming barriers of language in search of new forms of communication.


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