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Essay, Therese Heyman, Curator
Posters Communicate -Invite Action
Posters communicate, invite action, build consensus. Fred Spear's 1915 drawing of a drowning mother and child was directly adapted from a tabloid newspaper account of the fate of the Lusitania, the civilian passenger ship sunk by a German U-boat in the North Sea. "On the Cunard wharf lies a mother with a three-month old child clasped tightly in her arms. Her face wears a half smile. Her baby's head rests against her breast. No one has tried to separate them."4

The poster translates this news report into an evocative image, pulling the audience into the event. At the same moment, by pointing to the tragedy, the poster elicits an urgent response. Motherhood, loss of life, and revenge suggest a single action: "Enlist."


Why Posters Were Made
William H. Bradley, one of the most influential postermakers of that decade, commented on his work in a letter:
My first decorative poster was done for Harper & Brothers for their April Magazine, l893. It was done only as an experiment and [it] was some long time before I heard of Lautrec or Steinlen as poster designers. . . . Later on, Richard Harding asked me to make a poster for his book Our English Cousins and showed me about a dozen French posters which were the first I had ever seen. I think the American Poster has opened a new school whose aim is simplicity and good composition. One can see its effect in all directions, especially in the daily papers.5

Bradley, a trained printer and engraver, started his own firm in Springfield, Massachusetts, in l895, producing such books as Bradley: His Chap-Book, and many fine composed works, including posters for local firms. Most were safely acceptable products such as bicycles, but Narcoti-Cure seems suspect. Here the familiar style of children's book illustration makes a disturbing contrast to the nature of the chemical company's promise. Bradley's commercial posters reflect his success in using fine art to forward business objectives.6 The tension between the fine art of design and the commercial needs of advertising, between the artist and the client, continues to challenge postermakers.


Rock n Roll
While there seemed to be general agreement on how to make posters effective, a revolution was heralded in the designs by a small group of young, untutored California postermakers in the 1960s. Some of the most brilliant American posters have challenged the often-cited rule of poster graphics—that the text be legible. Wes Wilson, who gave form to the psychedelic-rock poster movement, reconfigured type to conform with abstract shapes and blocks of color. He developed what he called an easy-to-see but also mysterious form of lettering that immediately attracted attention.7 These word-forms became a new visual language that served as metaphor for a new freedom among youth who flocked to the San Francisco Bay Area in search of a developing music and the accompanying lifestyle. Wilson recalled:

When I started doing posters, especially the posters in color . . . I think I selected my colors from my visual experience with LSD, along with what I'd learned as a printer. . . . Posters to me represented real departure points. I like the idea of filling up space, and I like to do my work freehand—no ruler and stuff.8

Yet his rock posters owed much to a European past. The style that Wilson made quintessentially American had been inspired by a catalogue for the November 1965 Jugendstil and Expressionism exhibit at the University of California at Berkeley, which included Vienna Secessionist lettering. Wilson said, "I was able to adapt it on almost all my posters from that point on."9

In their transition to promoting so-called psychedelic music, rock posters became American symbols, even as they continued to incorporate European elements. These posters were finally accepted and prized through the intervention of a masterful promoter, the European-born but later avidly American producer Bill Graham, who in the mid-1960s organized a series of now-legendary dance and rock-music concerts. He found the postermakers that he encouraged and eventually made famous in Haight Ashbury, quite by accident. Though always working on tight schedules, Wes Wilson, Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, and Victor Moscoso managed to come up with original, striking, and intriguing images—from voluptuous women to cowboy paraphernalia—creating a visual vocabulary of unfailing inventiveness that made their increasingly sought-after posters uniquely effective.

In the mix of design and marketing, Graham remembers negotiating with his artists to get what he needed—information about the "when and where" of the events. Wilson and the other postermakers remember frustrating meetings with Graham where the battle lines between art and information were drawn. Graham would eventually get his way by shouting: "Don't get me to the point where you'll have total freedom, and then there'll be an asterisk somewhere pointing to the bottom, where there'll be an explanation of what's actually playing!"10

Though Bill Graham was sensitive to the power of Wes Wilson's work, he found it hard to keep his own opinions out of the discussions. As Graham said in an interview: "I'm not qualified, I'm not an artist, but I think there's always room for improvement. . . . There's room for the strengthening of a poster by means of better color combinations and more of a practical usage of words."11 At the beginning Graham's authority had to be clearly established, and it took a long time to impress his position on the artists.

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4. See Walton Rawls, Wake Up, America! World War I and the American Poster (New York: Abbeville Press, 1979), p. 81. The quote is taken from a long, informative consideration of the beginnings of World War I and its posters, related to their historical context with anecdotes, news reports, and letters. [Back to Top]

5. David W. Kiehl, American Art Posters of the 1890s in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including the Leonard A. Lauder Collection (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987), p. 13. [Back to Top]

6. See Roberta Waddell Wong, American Posters of the Nineties (Boston: Boston Public Library, 1974). [Back to Top]

7. As described by Walter Medeiros in San Francisco Rock Poster Art (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1976), pp. 5–7. [Back to Top]

8. Paul D. Grushkin, The Art of Rock (New York, Abbeville Press, Inc., 1987), p. 72. [Back to Top]

9. Ibid. [Back to Top]

10. Grushkin, p. 73. [Back to Top]

11. Notes from a personal interview the author conducted in 1968 with Graham in San Francisco, around the corner from the Fillmore Auditorium. [Back to Top]

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