Illustration and Graphic Design in the Sixties
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Illustration and Graphic Design in the Sixties

The 1960s was the age of free love, flower power and psychedelia. This was a decade of tremendous social upheaval – sexual liberation, drug use and radical experimentation in art and design. The rebellious young generation began reacting against the values of their parents. In terms of youth culture, this was the most creative decade in history. They say that if you can remember the 60s, you weren\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'t there, but we can at least explore the fascinating array of styles to which it gave rise.

The 1960s was the age of free love, flower power and psychedelia. This was a decade of tremendous social upheaval – sexual liberation, drug use and radical experimentation in art and design. The rebellious young generation began reacting against the values of their parents. In terms of youth culture, this was the most creative decade in history. They say that if you can remember the 60s, you weren't there, but we can at least explore the fascinating array of styles to which it gave rise.

A major 60s sensation was Beatlemania. This is the cover of the Beatles’ third album, A Hard Day’s Night. Robert Freeman wanted to suggest the idea of movement by using a flow of pictures, set out as though they were frames from a movie. Freeman asked the Beatles to make different facial expression in each photo. The Beatles made a film called A Hard Day’s Night, so the cinematic flow of images was appropriate.

The Beatles became more experimental in their work. This is the cover of Revolver, designed by Klaus Voormann. He decided that the cover should have the same avant-garde feel as the album. He created a line drawing of the Beatles in a sinuous Art Nouveau style reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley’s work. Voorman found George Harrison too difficult to draw, so he cut out the eyes and mouth from a photograph. The cover also uses a collage effect. Voorman sat down with the Beatles one night and cut out pictures from newspapers, then worked them into the composition.


Pop Art

A major trend of the 60s was Pop art. Artists began to study the imagery of advertising and mass culture. They asked how this bombardment of imagery affects us. The first true Pop artist was Richard Hamilton, who created a collage called Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956). He used the detritus of consumer culture to create a supercharged image of the consumer dream. Masculinity is represented by Charles Atlas, a famous bodybuilder, and femininity by a girl from a pin-up magazine. By quoting from these forms, Hamilton is critiquing the dreams and illusions promised by consumer culture.

The New York artist Andy Warhol quoted from mass culture using images like soup cans, comic strips and celebrities. Warhol was suggesting that these were the iconic images of the age, not fine art. Warhol’s studio was called the Factory and he produced art on an industrial basis. He used the silkscreen process and an army of assistants to reproduce images with minimal contact from himself. This contravened all notions of true ‘Art’. The works of old masters were valued because they had been created by the hand of the artist, but Warhol turned art into just another system of mass-production. This is Warhol’s portrait of the tragic icon Marilyn Monroe. Warhol had an innate understanding of celebrity culture and predicted that ‘In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.’

Warhol also produced a portrait of the Chinese Communist leader, Mao Tse Tung. Chairman Mao was a dictator, but Warhol has reproduced his image as if he were just another celebrity like Marilyn Monroe. He realised that an image can lose its meaning when it is endlessly reproduced. Some people think Warhol’s work is vacuous and empty, and it a way it is, but he was making prescient points about culture in the postmodern era.

Warhol was interested in new media and put together a rock group called the Velvet Underground. He designed their first album cover, which featured a silkscreen image of a banana. The skin could be peeled off to reveal a banana in phallic pink underneath.

Another Pop artist was Roy Lichtenstein, who communicated by quoting from comic book images. He produced canvasses that were like huge comic book panels, replicating the Ben Day dots used in the printing process. The idea of elevating these vacuous images and sentiments to the status of high art is an example of radical kitsch, the knowing critique of cheap, tacky culture.

Op Art

Another far-out trend of the 60s was Op art, a style that made use of optical illusions: the term comes from ‘optical art’. Op art is abstract, and most of it is in black and white. When the viewer looks at them, they give the impression of movement and vibration, swelling and warping. Op art’s preoccupation with vision and perception mirrored the effects of mind-altering drugs. Op art was actually derived from the work of Bauhaus artists like Josef Albers. When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, many of its instructors fled to America. Op art took root at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where Josef Albers went to teach.

The painter Bridget Riley was one of the leading exponents of Op art. Around 1960, she developed a style consisting of black and white geometric patterns that explore the nature of perception and produce a disorienting effect on the eye. Riley began investigating colour in 1967. Critics dismissed Op art as nothing more than trompe l'oeil, or tricks that fool the eye, but it was popular with the public. Op art was used in commercial contexts. The style found its way onto everything from furniture to wallpaper. Bridget Riley tried to sue an American company for using one of her paintings as the basis of a fabric design.

Summer of Love

The year 1967 was a major turning point. Hippie culture and psychedelia date from this year, which was known as the ‘Summer of Love’. Most of the psychedelic albums by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane and others were released from 1967 onwards. The Beatles released their ground-breaking album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in this year.

The cover of Sgt. Pepper was designed by the British Pop artist Peter Blake. It was a life-size constructed collage featuring cardboard cut-outs of iconic figures. Blake asked the Beatles to make lists of people they'd like to have in the audience at this imaginary concert. The illustrator Aubrey Beardsley is there. They also used the Beatles’ waxworks from Madame Tussaud’s. The Beatles are dressed in military uniforms, but they’re in psychedelic colours. Blake designed a cardboard cut-out with a mustache, sergeant stripes and badges.

The hippie scene was centered on San Francisco, especially the district of Haight-Ashbury. They listened to acid rock, embraced the sexual revolution, and promoted peace and love. Hippies used hallucinogenic drugs like lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, to explore alternative states of consciousness. This gave you hallucinations and fluctuations in colour and sound.

Psychedelic design tried to visualize these effects. The word psychedelic means ‘mind manifesting’. Concert posters and album covers used kaleidoscopic swirling patterns. Victor Moscoso was an American illustrator who designed psychedelic art and concert posters.

Rick Griffin was one of the leading designers of psychedelic posters. He was closely identified with the Grateful Dead, designing some of their best known posters and album covers.

Psychedelia responded to drug culture, but it also drew on the past. Art nouveau was a style characterised by the whiplash curve and stylised organic shapes. This style was plundered in the 60s and metamorphosed into psychedelia. This is a Bob Dylan poster by Milton Glaser. The hair has been rendered in Art Nouveau spirals and psychedelic colours. The portrait silhouette technique is borrowed from Marcel Duchamp.

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Comments (11)

Interesting graphic designs from prominent artists of the period. I couldn't imagine how Andy Warhol's Eight Elvises was sold at $100 million in a private auction in 2008 but his art simply stands by itself.

"You gave your heart to every bedsit room, at least a picture on the wall . . ." Oh, yes, I remember every monent of this. And still have the Dylan poster.

Nice work.

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

Thanks for reading, everyone.

You can see the '60s/early '70s art style in movie posters and even baseball, football and basketball card design of the era. I did an article once for Goldmine on classic Fillmore West (San Francisco) posters, and these gems are psychedelic wild. Rick Griffin, as mentioned above, was one of the leading illustrators. Yes, the originals can sell for over $1,000.

I was there and I do remember it :-)

WoW! Amazing! Op art on eye spells are great including the black & white of Revolver, not to speak of the character collections in Sgt. Peppers and the colors of Psychedelics. terrific job Michael.

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

Thanks, William. Yes film posters reveal many of the same aesthetic trends. Thanks for the tip about your article, I'll go and read it. Thanks Val and Ron.

great article as usual

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

Thanks, Carol.

Excellent, thanks for sharing. : )