Wes Wilson is generally acknowledged as the father of the 60s rock concert poster. In 1968, he received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts for “his contributions to American Art.” He pioneered what is now known as the psychedelic poster.
Wilson grew up more interested in nature and the outdoors than in art. He studied forestry and horticulture at a junior college in Auburn, California, then attended San Francisco State, where his major was philosophy. After college, Wilson joined Bob Carr, whose basement print shop was known as Contact Printing. As Carr’s assistant and partner, Wes Wilson did the basic layout and design for most of the work Carr brought in through contacts in San Francisco’s North Beach coffeehouse poetry and jazz club scene.
In 1965, Contact Printing was well-positioned to serve San Francisco’s burgeoning counterculture. It produced handbills for the San Francisco Mime Troupe fundraising benefits, the so-called ‘Appeal’ parties, as well as for the Merry Prankster Acid Tests. Both were linked to the newly reborn dance-hall venues through a series of benefit concerts, so it is no surprise that the dance-hall promoters soon found their way to the Contact press. Wes Wilson’s first poster was self-published. Done in 1965, it features a swastika within an American flag motif, a protest by Wilson to the ever-increasing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Wilson designed the handbill for the Trips Festival. He attended the event and was deeply moved by what he saw and experienced.
Wes Wilson had also been doing the posters for promoter Chet Helms’ shows at the Straight Theatre. It was Wilson who designed the original logo for the Family Dog and who did the posters for the brief series of Family Dog shows at the Fillmore Auditorium, and then for the first series of Family Dog shows at the Avalon Ballroom. Soon he was doing that work plus doing the posters for Bill Graham’s shows at the Fillmore. After several months, Wilson stopped producing for the Family Dog venue and concentrated almost exclusively on posters for Bill Graham’s Fillmore events. He cites that with Chet Helms and the Avalon Ballroom, he was often given a theme around which he was asked to improvise, while with Bill Graham and the Fillmore, he was given complete freedom to design whatever he wanted. Wilson enjoyed the added artistic freedom.
After a friend showed him a copy of a 1908 poster done by the Viennese Secessionist artist, Alfred Roller, that contained an alphabet and lettering style similar to what Wilson had been doing, Wilson absorbed the Roller style, altering it in an explosion of lettering creativity that changed the poster scene permanently. His style of filling all available space with lettering, of creating fluid forms made from letters, and using flowing letters to create shapes became the standard that most artists followed in order to put “psychedelic” in the art. The first clear example of this—and a key piece in Wilson’s history—was the poster BG-18, done for a show with the Association at the Fillmore Auditorium. Set in a background of green is a swirling flame-form of red letters. With this poster came a new concept in the art of that time—perhaps the first truly ‘psychedelic’ poster.
The Art Nouveau style of celebrated Czech designer Alphonse Mucha was another major source that influenced Wilson’s work. In late 1966, Wilson created a poster for Bill Graham’s Winterland that has been nicknamed “The Sound.” (BG-29) It combines Wilson’s ability to fill all available space with vibrant, flowing letters together with his admiration and respect for the feminine form. It is one of a handful of posters from that era that is considered representative of the entire period. Wilson’s treatment of women and the feminine form is one of his most lasting contributions to the poster art of the sixties. It has been said that the psychedelic poster—as we have come to know it—was defined by Wes Wilson sometime in the summer of 1966. Wilson did his last poster for Bill Graham in May of 1967 but continued to produce posters for the Avalon and other venues.