LSD and the Psychedelic Art Movement

517pQ1Yet9LOn the 15th of July 1937, the American artist Wes Wilson was born in Sacramento, California. He is generally regarded as the pioneer of the psychedelic poster and inventor of the psychedelic font which made the letters look as if they were melting or floating. The style of the font was derived from a Viennese Secessionist style of  lettering he discovered in a University of California exhibition catalogue. His early posters were also distinguished by their stylistic borrowings from artists such as Mucha, Beardsley, and Klimt. Art Nouveau-inspired figures and lettering, stylized almost to the point of illegibility, flowed together in a single, integrated design. Wilson created posters for the Filmore West and Avalon Ballroom run by music legend impresario Bill Graham. His creations were more than just announcements of who was playing on a given evening, but bold visual chromatic statements. The playful use of colours, according to Wilson, was dictated by his own visual experiences with psychedelic drugs, mostly LSD.  

The Psychedelic Art movement is mainly associated with the late 1960s counterculture and the wake of increasing recreational use of ‘psychedelic’ drugs that produced colourful hallucinations. The movement was centred in San Francisco and flourished from about 1966 to 1972. Instead of breaking typographic ‘rules’, the Psychedelic Art movement set out to reverse them. Instead of delivering clear messages, psychedelic posters advertising rock’n’roll concerts and other music events often had to be deciphered by audiences. The main principle of psychedelic posters was not to deliver messages as succinctly and efficiently as possible, but rather, to engage the viewers for as long as possible. The psychedelic style was quickly adopted by the growing hippie subculture, and employed in various 51hakQmEddLdomains of hippie life. “Hippie visual expression was frequently tribal in the strictest sense of the word. Much of it was lavished on personal adornment – costumes, jewellery, bells. An overlay of psychedelic decoration worked to transform mass-produced utilitarianism objects – automobiles, vans, windows, walls – into artefacts that thereby became identified with the subculture. Unlike the urgent, tense, and highly personal art of the Beats, the visual expression of the counterculture was primarily functional. For the political activists, it took the form of straightforward propaganda posters that followed the Socialist Realist conventions of the 1930s and (somewhat later) murals that were strongly influenced by the Mexican mural painters. For the hippies, it consisted principally of accessories to the overriding preoccupation with lifestyle and with music – the focal points of their subculture, as poetry had been the focus for the Beats.” (Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980: An Illustrated History)     

The emergence of the Psychedelic Art movement corresponded with major political and sociological transformations in American society at the time. “The idealism and activism engendered during the short-lived Kennedy administration helped to direct the rebellion of a younger generation outward into society. Cool jazz was supplanted by folk music. The withdrawal and nihilism of the Beats gave way to the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley (1964) and campus demonstrations in favor of civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. The attention lavished on their activities by the mass media gave American teenagers and young adults a new sense of group identity. …Among visual artists there was a new preoccupation with Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, as distinct from the individual unconscious 41BmxXj1XyLemphasized in Freudian psychology. The model was the universal archetype rather than the individual neurotic dream. The emphasis on collective expression was accomplished by a resurgence of internationalist eclecticism – frowned on by artists in the “buy American” postwar years – on a scale that had seen few parallels since the synthesis of Oriental, Egyptian, and Mayan traditions in the Art Deco of the 1920s. There was an influx of elements of non-Eastern religion and philosophy that vastly extended and multiplied the earlier infusions of Zen. These developments, in turn, were bound up with an increasing use of drugs – marijuana, peyote, mescaline, and particularly the synthetic hallucinogen LSD, which became the most popular of the “mind-expanders”. The psychedelic art that began to surface in the mid-1960s frequently gave expression to drug-induced visions. Its stylistic trademark was vivid color, vibrant energy, flowing organic patterns, and a tendency to compress time and space so that images from the most disparate cultures and time periods were brought together in elaborate montages.” (Albright)

View a large collection of Wes Wilson’s psychedelic posters HERE