The Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco was “ground zero” for the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. The so-called psychedelic subculture that emerged in the Haight explored new possibilities in art and living that stemmed from a desire to remake American culture. The artistic endeavors of this community, be it poetry, theater, dance or music, were expressed in weekly “concerts” held in two primary venues. The first was infamous promoter and entrepreneur Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium and the other was the Avalon Ballroom operated by a small commune called The Family Dog.
Concert posters used to promote these shows were as unconventional as the performances themselves. They were more than just advertisements; these posters were “totemic expressions of the collective consciousness.” The Haight’s psychedelic posters were inspired by a fusion of Art Nouveau swirls and Optical Art geometry. Together these elements intentionally but playfully overwhelmed the informational content. Decoding a poster’s material required the viewer to suspend conventional methods of processing in order to discover the full extent of the message within.
This particular poster in the Cooper-Hewitt collection was designed by Lee Conklin for a 1968 concert featuring performances by Canned Heat, Gordon Lightfoot and Cold Blood. The central textual motif seems to billow out of an urn at the bottom of the image in a mushroom-like shape. This mushroom cloud of words is surrounded by a border of interconnected figures, faces, breasts and swirls.
The small group of graphic artists that produced these psychedelic concert posters was very much engaged in the developing field of optics and the science behind how the brain processes both information and color. The point of their posters was not to announce information. Instead, concert posters emerging from The Haight engaged the viewer in the experience and essence of the community that created them. Today these posters remain one of the most visible representations and embodiments of the Bay Area scene during the 1960s.