by John Held, Jr.
I went to the press opening/artist reception at the de Young Museum’s The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll with great anticipation. I wasn’t disappointed. Before a guided tour of the show — timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the original festivities — commenced, Director Max Hollein and the exhibition’s curators delivered opening remarks. I sat in the second row, behind iconic poster artists Victor Moscoso and Stanley Mouse. Mouse was initially seated elsewhere, but Moscoso’s wife, Gail, waved him over. Vincent, who studied with Joseph Albers at Yale, began sketching on a 4” x 5” pad, passing it to Mouse without a word. Mouse made some additions and returned it. Back and forth it went – “jamming,” as it was known by underground cartoonists in the ‘60s. It was a beautiful thing to watch. You could tell they hadn’t seen each other in awhile, yet without a word they picked up seamlessly where they had left off. Fifty years ago? Twenty years ago? Who cares? As playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie, who penned the ‘60s classic anti-war play “American Hurrah,” recently wrote me, “Funny about time. It doesn’t exist.”
Time stands still at the de Young this summer, a stone’s throw from where youthful concertgoers frolicked in Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields during a bliss-filled season fueled by idealism, drugs, music and too much free time. Everyone wanted to be in San Francisco that summer. Preferably with flowers in their hair. The powers that be didn’t much care for it. There were crackdowns by The City’s police in the beginning of the year at the conclusion of the January 14th “Human Be-In,” and constant warnings from San Francisco mayor John F. Shelley against the “vagrant presence.”
Nightsticks would not deter the raging passion of youth. The energy increased, and so did the flocking tourists, marking the beginning of the end. By October, an open casket careened down Haight Street proclaiming the “Death of the Hippie.” Many of those who instigated the Summer of Love departed for Bolinas or the wilds of Humboldt County to cultivate their gardens away from the maddening crowds.
Hippies were the “disruptors” of their generation. They refused to play by the rules. They had seen too much hypocrisy in the wake of assassination, racial tension, war and a prevailing suburban mindset that foisted consumerism over spirituality. I was a 20-year old Baby Boomer in 1967. Society’s fabric was shredding. It was us against them – old vs. young, long hair vs. short, Sgt. Pepper vs. Sinatra. We were out to change the world. And we did. It reverberates to this day in a myriad of ways, from legalized drug intake to divisive political and social stands, continuing the polarization between those welcoming the zeitgeist, and those who would deny it.
But let us return for one brief moment to romanticize a more innocent era marking an explosion of creativity in art, music and lifestyle. The Summer of Love was an iconic San Francisco event that captured the world’s attention. Fifty years later, Haight Street shops still cater to the longing of both incredulous young and nostalgic hippies. There seems no lack of curiosity about the era, appealing to young and old alike.
As a result, many of the Bay Area’s cultural institutions are celebrating the Summer of 1967 on its 50th anniversary, including the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s, Hippy Modernism (through May 21), the San Francisco Art Commission’s Jim Marshall photography exhibition at San Francisco City Hall (to June 17), and the California Historical Society’s, On the Road to the Summer of Love (May 12-September 10).
But as a cultural institution situated in Golden Gate Park, a locus of hippie activity, San Francisco’s de Young Museum, is uniquely situated to unravel the 50-year-old tale of peace, love and understanding, which unfolded just outside its doors. “With the de Young’s proximity to the Haight-Asbury district, said Hollein, "our exhibition will be the cornerstone of a city-wide celebration. The work created during this period remains a significant legacy and we are uniquely positioned to present this story in all of its controversial glory.”
The exhibition is organized by Jill D’Alessandro, curator of textile and costume arts, and Colleen Terry, assistant curator for the Achenbach Foundation of Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with contributions by Julian Cox, chief curator and founding curator of photography. The exhibition reflects their specific area of interest, with clothing, poster art, and photography, taking center stage, supplemented by multi-media installations conveying the feel of the era.
I talked to textile curator Jill D’Alessando, who mentioned that she didn’t want to do a memorabilia show – no jeans worn by Jerry Garcia, no Janis Joplin dress sported during a particularly important concert or photo shoot. Rather, she concentrated on designers, who were influenced by the times, creating fashions both for entertainers and their fans alike. As anyone who has attended exhibitions at the de Young over the past decade knows, fashion has become a staple on the museum’s menu, including shows by Yves Saint Laurent (2008-2009),
Balenciaga (2011), Jean Paul Gaultier (2012) and Oscar de la Renta (2016). These exhibitions have paved the way for state-of-the-art fashion installations, used to great effect in the current exhibition. Dresses, shirts, jackets, shoes, pants, headbands, boots, and most unusual of all — an embroidered hospital scrub top created by a psychiatric patient, who had succumbed to a bad LSD trip — give context to a time when attention-grabbing DIY attire reigned supreme.
“Rarely had commercial art obtained such status within both the popular realm and the fine art world,” states Curator Colleen Terry, in her essay, “Selling San Francisco Sound: Artistry in 1960s Rock Posters,” included in the excellent exhibition catalog. Poster artists Robert Fried, Rick Griffin, Alton Kelly, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse and Wes Wilson are well represented in the exhibition with a room devoted to their work and others. Artfully staged, the installation of the posters harks back to a hippie crash pad, lines and colors vying for attention in a tangle of vibrating hues. Terry concludes her essay arguing that the seemingly ephemeral posters lost nothing of their luster after the performers left the stage, “For when the music ended and the lights came on, what remained was a series of innovative graphics that could instantly transport the scene’s participants back to a time and place where creative freedom mingled with the rarefied idealism for which San Francisco continues to be known.”
In addition to an outstanding catalog, a good preview to the exhibition can be found online.
Although clothing, posters and photography take top billing in the exhibition, there is much more. The exhibition encompasses collage and assemblage, albums and books, sketches and mechanicals, film, posters and handbills, buttons and textiles. There are vestiges of the fine arts sprinkled throughout, too, including Bruce Conner’s cover for the 1966 Trips Festival program and collages by Jess (Collins) and Sätty.
For an old-timer like myself, who lived through the era, it was an entirely satisfying exhibition, bringing back a flood of memories. For those who missed the Summer of Love the first time around, the museum has scheduled a number of related programs providing insight into the era. Speakers include poster artist Stanley Mouse (August 5, 7pm) and Merry Prankster and former wife of Jerry Garcia, Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia (June 1, 3pm). Panels on poetry (April 15, 2pm) and bohemian style (April 22, 2pm) are also slated. Films by Ben Van Meter (August 18, 7pm) will include footage of the 1966 Trips Festival and the Human Be-In of the following year. Links to additional programming can be found here.
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“The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock and Roll” @ de Young Museum through August 20, 2017.
About the author:
San Francisco artist and writer John Held, Jr. co-curated the exhibition Gutai Historical Survey and Contemporary Response, at the San Francisco Art Institute in February-March 2013. He presented a paper in New York City on archiving Japanese Mail Art during the September 2014 conference, For a New Wave to Come: Post-1945 Japanese Art History Now, sponsored by PoNJA GenKon, NYU Asian Studies and Japan House. Held has authored Mail Art: An Annotated Bibliography (1991), Rubber Stamp Art (1999) and Small Scale Subversion: Mail Art and Artistamps (2015), as well as contributing to Dictionary of Art (Grove, 2000) and At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet (MIT, 2005). He has lectured at the V&A Museum (London, 1991), the Museum of Communications (Berlin, 2004) and organized exhibitions at the National Palace of Fine Arts (Havana, 1995) the Mayakovsky State Museum (Moscow, 2003).