The Road To Psychedelia: The Most American Art Genre Pt. VI

Psychedelic image of an Indian on a horse.


On June 17th 1964, an International Harvester school bus painted with the word “Further” on its front end left San Fransisco, California destined for the New York City World’s Fair. Aboard the bus was a group of writers, musicians and artists armed with a jar full of liquid LSD who called themselves the Merry Pranksters. By the time Further finished its deranged Johnny Appleseed like campaign across America and returned to San Fransisco, the summer was ending and the Psychedelic movement had begun. Within the next three years after Further set sail, over 100,000 hippies would descend on San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood culminating in the now legendary summer of love in 1967. Psychedelia like the other art movements we have talked about in this series was a broad movement. Music, art, film, books and fashion were all part of Psychedelia. Beginning with poster designs by the Berkeley Bonaparte Distribution Agency’s “big five” Psychedelia eventually made its way to advertising campaigns for 7 Up, Ford, Motorola and more. It was a profound cultural moment for Americans and many across the western world.

The Birth Of The Big Five

The Big Five from left to right:
Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse

In 1965 Wes Wilson designed an anti-Vietnam war poster titled “Are We Next?” The poster caught the eye of a local San Fransisco concert promoter named Chet Helms. Helms commissioned Wilson to design a poster for an upcoming performance by Jefferson Airplane with guests Big Brother And The Holding Company at the Fillmore Auditorium. It was the first event hosted by Helm’s production company The Family Dog.

Though this was their first event, The Family Dog would go on to be behind almost all of the iconic San Fransisco rock concerts of the 1960s. Hosting bands like The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Byrds, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters and more. All the posters, handbills and promotional materials were designed by single members of or collaberations between Berkeley Bonaparte Distribution Agency’s big five. These five artists were Stanley “Mouse” Miller, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso and Alton Kelley. The Family Dog would commission a poster from Wilson later the same year for The Beatles legendary live performance at Candlestick Park in San Fransisco. Arguably the most famous rock concert of all time. Below are some of Wilson’s pieces.

Wes Wilson
Wes Wilson


Victor Moscoso was the only one of the big five with traditional training. Moscoso, a native of Spain, studied under Josef Albers at Yale. Moscoso’s pieces use a lot of photo collage and pop art reference which influenced the other designers and artists of the movement. His works for Zap Comix are now some of the more recognized imagery of the late 60’s and his work for Zap continued all the way up to their final issue in 2014. Below is one of his posters for a concert Big Brother And The Holding Company performed at the Avalon Ballroom in 1967. If you think about all the previous influences we have discussed in this series, there are some very clear representations in the piece. Op Art, Pop Art, Art Nouveau and Dadaism are all referenced.

Some of my favorite pieces were produced by the collaboration of Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley. This is the pair that is responsible for The Grateful Dead’s iconic rose haired skeleton mascot. Their poster work was heavy on the Art Nouveau influences and used a lot of fantastic font stretching that was popular throughout the movement. I really like their use of the Art Nouveau era typeface in the Grateful Dead logo. In Typography one of the golden rules is you should not stretch or warp the typeface as someone has spent a lot of time and effort in designing its size and measurements. That was one of the first things thrown out the window in these poster designs as we can see.

Grateful Dead poster
Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley

On The East Coast

At the same time the big five were designing posters for The Family Dog in California, on the other side of the country in New York something similar was going on. Peter Max, a designer who worked mainly in advertising was influenced by the psychedelic movement and began incorporating the style into his work. He gained national attention with his piece “Be In’ which caused thousands of east coast hippies to gather in Manhattan during the summer of love. In the piece we can see influences of Art Nouveau, Surrealism and Op art.

Be In Poster
Peter Max, 1967

Max became somewhat famous from this and went on to be a guest on Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show. This was a breaking point for the movement as it took the visual work going on in the rock and hippie scene and put it in front of the eyes of all Americans. Soon after Max did an ad campaign for 7-Up that is probably the coolest soda commercial in the history of fizzy drinks.

By 1968 ads for almost every publicly engaged consumer based company were getting weird and wild. Below we can see a Levis ad that looks almost indistinguishable from one of the posters promoting a concert at the Fillmore or Avalon two years earlier in San Fransisco. 

Levis ad from 1968
Chelsea Bank Ad By Peter Max. Can you imagine seeing this ad for a bank today?

All Things Must Pass

By 1968 when Psychedelia, peace and love seemed like the unstoppable new culture for America, a series of terrible things brought the movement to a sputtering halt. Two figureheads of the progressive political movement Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated within a two month period. That summer, the DNC installed their own candidate, Herbert Humphrey by snubbing out the progressive candidate Eugene McCarthy and causing riots in Chicago. Humphrey went on to lose every state but his own state of Minnesota to Richard Nixon. This guaranteed a continuation of the war in Vietnam. The following summer Charles Manson allegedly used LSD to brain wash a group of teenagers into going on a murder spree that shocked the world. Like the great art movements that lead to it, Psychedelia receded out of the collective culture due to instability and tragedy. 


Psychedelia took references and influences from all over the world and across centuries of humanity and put them all together to make something that is completely unique. I would say a genre of art that is greater than the sum of its parts. Thats why I think its the most American genre of art. Not only was it started by Americans, it represents the underpinned idea of America. An amalgam of the entire world up to now, made unique and better by its summation. Psychedelia can still be seen referenced all over culture today. While it has never been as popular as it was in the 60’s Psychedelia is in our commercials, games, music and fashion. Hopefully now that you have read this series you can see and appreciate all the art we have touched on that led us here. For now that’s all I got. Thanks for reading. Here is that quote again for good measure.

“It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.” – Hunter S. Thompson 1971

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