The Summer of Love ostensibly refers to a time, a few months in 1967, and place, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. It’s really about a state of mind — parti-colored, untethered, prelapsarian — associated with that time and place. The Dead! The Airplane! Feed your head!
That state of mind lives on in the hearts and minds (well, more hearts) of all sorts of people. The Summer of Love was Woodstock without the mud, the ’60s before the bills came due. In her classic piece of reportage “Slouching Towards Bethlehem ,” Joan Didion demurred. In her bill-collecting, Joan Didion way, she wrote: “We were seeing the attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.”
The charge generated by “The Summer of Love: Photography and Graphic Design” owes something to how it manages to contain both visions: the nostalgic and the dubious. There’s much, much more of the former, of course. Myth can always stare down skepticism; that’s why it’s mythic. But amid all the Day-Glo strobing and riotous fonts, a gimlet-eyed view peeks out, too.
The show, which runs through Oct. 22 at the Museum of Fine Arts, contains more than 120 items: posters, album covers, photographs. Nearly all are packed into the Edward and Nancy Roberts Family Gallery. Being in a single space gives the show an added oomph, a density of impact, making it more of an experience. That’s as it should be. Before the ’70s turned life into a lifestyle, the ’60s made it an experience. In fact, the equivalent show currently at San Francisco’s de Young Museum is called “The Summer of Love Experience.”
The items not in the gallery? They’re hanging in the Sharf Visitor Center: Richard Avedon’s 1967 black-and-white group portrait of the Beatles, the psychedelic lithographic posters derived therefrom, and the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Granted, Liverpool’s a long way from the Bay Area. But the Summer of Love definitely had its religious aspect, the Beatles enjoyed papal authority, and “Sgt. Pepper” was the encyclical to end all encyclicals.
The most enduring legacy of that time is, of course, musical. The most distinctive — and this is where the show comes in — is visual. One look at these posters and album covers, and you know exactly when they were made. In ways both good and bad, timeless they are not. Sherman doesn’t need to set the Wayback Machine for 1967. The Summer of Love comes with dials pre-set.
What’s fascinating is how the graphic designs manage to have a kind of coherence despite being such a jumble. Certain principles recur: curves, yes, angles, no; a pugilistic employment of color (psychedelia really did look . . . psychedelic); legibility as afterthought. So do certain influences: Aubrey Beardsley and “The Yellow Book,” Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession, Dada, Surrealism (among the album covers on display is, yes, the Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow”). The presiding spirit is William Blake: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” The last thing the Haight cared about was history, but history’s hand lay all over it.
The look of these designs is assaultive, overly busy, restrained only by the confines of poster size or album cover. That look still feels exhilarating: liberation in two dimensions. It must have felt close to Martian back then. NASA wanted to put a man on the moon. Why stop there? Gravity was just another law to flout. One of the 32 Herb Greene photographs in “The Summer of Love” shows Airplane lead singer Grace Slick looking at the camera and flipping the bird. Maybe that image, even more than Blakean excess, is the presiding spirit.
Greene’s excellent photos are in black and white. They startlingly contrast with all those hallucinatory colors in the posters and album covers. The elements don’t so much clash as enlarge each other, and it’s through the photographs that the Haight revisionism comes in.
Greene, who now lives in Maynard, is often described as the Grateful Dead’s unofficial photographer. There are photos here of the Dead, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Steve Miller Band. The best portrait shows Bill Graham, soon to become the most legendary of rock promoters. Lips slightly parted and face half in shadow, Graham looks tough, knowing, real. The effect is very ’50s, actually. He could be Tony Curtis’s kid brother with a killer instinct. Nothing summery or loving about that.
The most illuminating photos, showing daily life in the Haight, come from Greene’s “Ohio to San Fransico” series. “Fransico” is how the city’s name is spelled on a teenager’s suitcase visible in one of the photos. The place was a magnet no less than a state of mind — it was a magnet because it was a state of mind. Where the posters and album covers are about a self-contained world — blissful yet hectic, happily heedless, a cultural biosphere — these images are about worlds colliding. They remind us that even biospheres have basements and back doors.
Writing in the Atlantic about the de Young show, the peerless James Parker notes a serious shortcoming: the almost complete ignoring of the role of drugs in the Summer of Love. That kid from Ohio could have misspelled San Francisco more concisely — and no less unmistakably — as “LSD.” Drugs directly appear at least once in the MFA show. A jolly-looking young man and a lady friend smile for Greene’s camera. A stack of bills sticks up above his belt buckle. They look like nothing so much as a greenback erection. You can bet he was ready when that bill collector came.
THE SUMMER OF LOVE: Photography and Graphic Design
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Oct. 22. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.