Letterforms Study Group—Fourth session 2 February 2023: Psychedelic Posters

The fourth Letterforms Study Group session was held on February 2, 2023 at Jack Rennert’s Gallery in Manhattan, one of the world’s leading poster dealers. The attendees were Marcos Baer, Patricia Belen, Patricia Childers, Greg D’Onofrio, Sam Henri-Gold, Earl Kallemeyn, Scott Santoro, Alex Tochilovsky, Beth Tondreau, and Carmile Zaino.

The fourth Letterforms Study Group session at Jack Rennert’s Gallery. From left to right: Marcos Baer, Earl Kallemeyn, Scott Santoro Sam Henri-Gold, Greg D’Onofrio, Patricia Belen, Paul Shaw, Patricia Childers, and Carmile Zaino. Not pictured: Beth Tondreau and Alex Tochilovsky. Photograph by Beth Tondreau.

Marcos taking notes on the posters while Sam and Carmile discuss The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk by Paul Grushkin (New York: AbbevillePress, 1987), one of the essential reference books for studying 1960s psychedelic posters.

The gallery was in between auctions and was offering for sale a collection of 280 posters created for Bill Graham Productions and Family Dog Productions, the leading concert promotors in San Francisco during the heyday of the 1960s counterculture.

The collection was eye-opening. Sixteen of the posters were in black-and-white! And most of those were set in type, rather than hand-lettered. They also tended to be horizontal. And there were outstanding posters by lesser-known names such as Bob Fried (1937–1975), William Henry, Tad Hunter (who designed under the name San Andreas Fault), John H. Myers (b. 1945), and Bob Schnepf (b. 1937). (Information online about some of these lesser-known designers is unfortunately minimal or non-existent.) However, most of the posters were by the so-called Big Five—Wes Wilson (1937–2020), Victor Moscoso (b. 1936), Stanley Mouse (b. 1940), Alton Kelley (1940–2008), and Rick Griffin (1944–1991)—along with Lee Conklin (b. 1941), Bonnie MacLean (1939–2020), and David Singer (b. 1941).

The focus of the study session was the lettering (and type) in the posters and not the music groups (which spanned an amazingly wide range of genres: from the Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield Sam and Dave to Howlin’ Wolf and Mance Lipscomb to Flatt & Scruggs to Count Basie and Cecil Taylor). But we also talked about some of the illustrations (especially those by Lee Conklin) and photographs in the posters, as well as the production methods involved.

Paul and Patricia examining the figure/ground imagery in a poster by Lee Conklin. Photograph by Beth Tondreau.

Alex Tochilovsky points out some type-influenced lettering in a poster to Patricia and Carmile.

Comments on the Lettering of Some of the Posters
The defining lettering of the Bill Graham and Family Dog concert posters is the chunky, packed, sinuous letters derived from the work of Vienna Secession artist Alfred Roller (1864–1935) that Wes Wilson pioneered and other artists subsequently adopted. [1] The first such poster seems to be one designed in August 1966 for a concert headlined by the 13th Floor Elevator (with a photograph of Grace Slick of the Great Society). It took Wilson several months to fine tune the style. By early 1967 he had hit his stride as the poster for Otis Rush, the Grateful Dead, and The Canned Heat Blues Band attests. [2]

13th Floor Elevator, Great Society, and Sopwith Camel at the Fillmore Auditorium August 26–27, 1966 poster (BG25). Design by Wes Wilson; photograph by Herb Greene.

Otis Rush and His Chicago Blues Band, Grateful Dead, and The Canned Heat Blues Band at the Fillmore Auditorium February 24-26, 1967 poster (BG51). Design by Wes Wilson.

Lee Conklin’s lettering varied a lot with much of it looking at first glance moth-eaten. But upon closer examination the raggedness of his letters is revealed to be due to treating their contours as simultaneously the silhouettes of human bodies, faces, hands, feet, birds, etc. This is especially evident in his posters for the June 1968 Summer Series starring The Chambers Brothers et al and the one for the Yardbirds, Cecil Taylor, and It’s a Beautiful Day (BG121). Some of Conklin’s posters are a visual acid trip. Look for the distorted faces in the one for Procol Harum, Santana, and Salloom Sinclair (BG143). [3]

The Chambers Brothers, Beautiful Day, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sly and the Family Stone at the Fillmore Auditorium June 18–23, 1968 poster (BG125). Design by Lee Conklin.

Procol Harum, Santana, and Salloom Sinclair at the Fillmore West October 31–November 2, 1968 (BG143). Design by Lee Conklin.

A surprising amount of lettering by the Bill Graham/Family Dog artists was derived from 19th century wood types, primarily French Clarendon and other reverse-weight slab serifs. [4] These typefaces lent themselves perfectly to a fascination with figure/ground relationships. Victor Moscoso was the leader in this area, but some notable designs were also created by Bill Henry, Bob Fried, and even Alton Kelley. In several of his designs, Moscoso curved and distorted the lettering which, when coupled with his use of contrasting colors, made deciphering the texts even more difficult. [5] Henry’s poster (FD106) for a Youngbloods-headlined concert employs four layers of repeating Egyptian and Tuscan letters in hot pink, orange, purple and teal to create a vibrating effect.

In 1859 the wood type manufacturer William H. Page offered a back-slanted bottom-heavy script. An 1876 version by Tubbs & Co. was revived in the 1967 as a photolettering typeface by Visual Graphics Corporation (VGC) who named it Smoke. Perhaps because its name was one of many terms for marijuana, Smoke became popular as a model for lettering in a number of psychedelic posters. One example is Bob Fried’s poster (FD83) for Charlatans and Buddy Guy where the Smoke-style lettering has been curved to make the text appear like a series of gently rolling hills.

Youngbloods, The Other Half, and Mad River at Avalon Ballroom, September 15–17, 1967 poster (FD81). Design by Victor Moscoso; photograph by Paul Kagan.

Youngbloods, Mount Rushmore, and Phoenix at Avalon Ballroom, February 16, 1968 poster (FD106). Design by Bill Henry.

Big Brother ane [sic] the Holding Company, and Crazy World of Arthur Brown at Fillmore June 13, 1967 and Winterland June 14-15, 1967 poster (BG124). Design by Bob Fried.

Jefferson Airplane and Other Half at Denver Dog, November 7–8, 1967 poster (FDD9). Design by Alton Kelley.

Miller Blues band, Mother Earth, and Bukka White at Avalon Ballroom, September 1-3, 1967 poster (FD78). Design by Mouse Studios (Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley).

Charlatans and Buddy Guy at Avalon Ballroom, September 22–24, 1967 poster (FD83). Design by Bob Fried.

Some of the Bill Graham/Family Dog posters use lettering copied from or influenced by 20th century typefaces such as Futura Black, Gallia, and E13B. [6] Bonnie MacLean’s 1967 poster for Sam & Dave et al breaks away from the clichéd look of the psychedelic posters with lettering that references Paul Renner’s Futura Black typeface.

Many of the posters by Mouse Studios (Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley) have lettering inspired by the Speedball lettering books, most likely the 19th edition which was published in 1965. [7] A prime example is the 1966 poster for the Grateful Dead at the Avalon Ballroom. Its lettering is copied from an elegant Ross F. George alphabet called Stunt Roman that is largely familiar today in the guise of a typeface called University Roman. [8]

Sam & Dave, James Cotton Blues Band, Country Joe & the Fish, and Loading Zone at the Fillmore, July 18–23, 1967 poster (BG73). Design by Bonnie MacLean.

Grateful Dead at the Avalon Ballroom, November 4–5, 1966 poster (FD33). Design by Mouse Studios (Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley).

Blue Cheer, Lee Michaels, and Clifton Chenier at Avalon Ballroom, October 6–8, 1967 (FD86) poster. Design by Victor Moscoso.

Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sons of Champlin, and Initial Shock at the Avalon Ballroom, November 28–30, 1968 poster (FD147). Design by San Andreas Fault (Tad Hunter); photograph by Steve Rahn.

Moscoso created a distinctive form of lettering that was chunky yet different from Wilson’s Rolleresque lettering. It looks like a baggy interpretation of a Tuscan typeface with heavy, bifurcated serifs. One example of it is the celebrated 1967 Blue Cheer et al poster (FD86) with a blue vase of red and pink flowers.

All of the posters designed by San Andreas Fault (aka Tad Hunter) in the show at Jack Rennert’s Gallery are in black-and-white and marked by the inclusion of a photograph and lettering in outline, (though in a variety of styles, including a reverse-weight slab serif). The most distinctive of them is the one for the November 28–30, 1968 concerts at the Avalon Ballroom with Art Deco-style lettering positioned in four overlapping rows.

There is much more that can be said about the Bill Graham/Family Dog posters than these rough notes. The more of them that one sees, the more one discovers in them. The Letterforms Study Group was fortunate that such a large display of them was available in New York.

1. The quintessential example of Roller’s lettering that inspired Wilson can be found in his Secession 16th Austellung poster (1902).
2. The names of these rock groups were not only in flux, but the postr artists seem to have taken liberties with them. I am quoting them as they appear in the posters.
3. The creepiest Conklin poster, nicknamed “Ear Head”, was not in the show at Jack Rennert’s Gallery since it was produced for a 1969 concert in Santa Rosa, California.
4. The names of wood types are notoriously confusing and often contradictory from one manufacturer to another. The sample of a very condensed French Clarendon that I have linked to is labeled French Antique. For more information on wood type see American Wood Type 1828–1900 by Rob Roy Kelly (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969) and The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection: A History and Catalog by David Shields (Austin, Texas: The University of Texas Press, 2022).
5. Moscoso, who studied at Yale University, has often said that his vibrating colors were inspired by his studies with Josef Albers. It is ironic to think that there is a direct link from the Bauhaus to the psychedelic posters of the 1960s.
6. E13B is a magnetic ink character recognition typeface designed in 1959 for check routing. It was the basis for the lettering on the poster (FD121) for the May 31, 1968 concert by Taj Mahal, Dave Van Ronk, Family Tree, A.B. Shky Blues Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Avalon Ballroom. The poster was designed by David Smith.
7. The Speedball Text Book for Pen and Brush Lettering by Ross F. George (Philadelphia: Hunt Manufacturing Co., 1965) 19th edition. The Uncial Gothic in the book was probably the basis for the lettering of the 1966 Jefferson Airplane and Great Society poster (FD17) by Mouse Studios.
8. For an attempt to untangle the typographic legacy of Ross F. George’s Stunt Roman design see Fonts in Use.

I want to thank owner Jack Rennert and manager Terry Shargel for making this study session possible and Xavier for keeping the gallery open for us after hours.

For information on how to join a session of the Letterforms Study Group write to Paul Shaw at paulshaw@nyc.rr.com.