Without ever taking themselves seriously but in constant opposition to the consumer society, they have deeply influenced American Pop Art since 1966. Make way for the delirious and furiously creations of the “Big 5”, a group of hallucinated designers who will establish the graphic charter of the Haight-Ashbury hippie movement.
For some, the hippie years evoke the paws of eph ‘, the floral shirts or Woodstock. For others, they embody one of the major social and political protests of the twentieth century, sexual liberation as a bonus. But few remember that the San Francisco of the Sixties, cradle of hippie culture, was also the ground of graphic experiments of unparalleled originality and one of the most notable landmarks of American Pop art.
LSD is not for nothing. Because without this hallucinogenic synthetic substance, the psychedelic movement (from the Greek psyche soul and daleos visible) would probably not have seen the light of day. No more than these rock groups which swarmed at the time on the west coast of the United States, true spokespersons and the main means of claiming the hippie community.
Frisco, freaks & LSD
In San Francisco, they perform in two must-see venues: the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. Psychedelic high masses are celebrated there several times a week, associating crazy rock music, frenzied consumption of substances, and light shows that multiply the effects of it.
It is in this delirious atmosphere that psychedelic art develops. Bill Graham and Chet Helms, the two big promoters of shows of the moment, finance several hundred posters to announce the concerts of The Charlatans, Greateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Velvet Underground and other Pink Floyd.
Du Velvet Underground à Pink Floyd
Placed in the streets of San Francisco, they appear like so many manifestos of the counter-culture, their soft and undulating arabesques, their colors as intense as they are exuberant, and their lettering in almost illegible liquid forms functioning as an encrypted propaganda against conformism. of American society of the 60’s.
Among the ten major artists who conceive and draw them, five of them have entered the legend under the name of “Big 5”.
Art Nouveau & Optical Art
There’s Wes Wilson (1937-2020), a horticultural graduate, whose first poster titled Are We next figure an American flag adorned with a swastika: condemnation without appeal of the growing involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War; Victor Moscovo (born 1936), the only one to have benefited from an artistic training, who declared that the creation of psyche posters had forced him to forget everything he had learned in art school on conventional graphics – he is also the first of the “Big 5” to see his works exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Another major figure: Rick Griffin (1944-1991), Californian surf enthusiast, author of underground comics and memorable record covers, as well as the duo of Alton Kelley (1940-2008) and Stanley Mouse (born in 1940), one brilliant designer, the other virtuoso designer, whose work together was compared to the work of the brilliant French poster designer Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The Big 5
The psychedelic experience resulting from taking LSD and the light effects of the lights show are their main sources of inspiration. But they also draw on the theories of color and the optical art of Josef Albers, painter and teacher at the Bauhaus, as well as in Art Nouveau or the poster artists of the Viennese secessionist movement (Gustav Klimt, Alfred Roller and Koloman Moser).
Sometimes, they go so far as to appropriate certain motifs from the posters of the Czech Alfons Mucha or the French Jules Chéret. And certain art historians detect in their drawings the influence of the European surrealist movement which, in the Sixties, is the object in the United States of numerous publications and remarkable exhibitions.
Either way, the overflowing creativity of this awesome quintet has brought to the graphic arts something new, unheard of, a new vision of the world. So much so that after them, American art will not be quite the same.