Illustrating the year 1969, when rad met trad
STOCKBRIDGE — Part of what made the ’60s feel so crazy wasn’t the sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, per se, crazy as all that could be. It was how the sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll didn’t exist in a vacuum. They shared the decade with all this other stuff that was ongoing and non-crazy. Or at least status quo.
Put another way: Herb Alpert sold a lot more records than Jimi Hendrix did. Are you experienced? Well, sure, it’s just that during the ’60s experience could take many forms. Just how much the role of cultural cognitive dissonance did to define the tenor of that time tends to get forgotten. That was especially true of 1969. The year the decade was at its most characteristically ’60s was 1968. Still, 1969 came pretty close as regards the clash of turbulence and continuity.
The title of “Woodstock to the Moon: 1969 Illustrated” conveys that duality with impressive concision. The show runs at the Norman Rockwell Museum through Oct. 27. Less than a month after two men walked on the moon (the triumph of technology and know-how), some 400,000 men and women did a lot more than walk in and around Bethel, N.Y. (the triumph of all sorts of very different things).
Consider the poster Arnold Skolnick executed for the rock festival and an illustration of the moon landing that Rockwell did for Look magazine. The contrast is nicely expressive of this difference, in ways unexpected and otherwise. Both are in the show.
That the poster remains familiar half a century later owes as much to execution as association. Yes, the event is famous. Even if it wasn’t, the poster would still be very good. Skolnick’s perching an abstracted dove atop a strongly horizontal guitar neck is both visually arresting and succinctly symbolic. Peace + music = counterculture? Pretty much. Factor in an attractive and varied palette, as well as an effective balance between image and text, and you can see that Skolnick deserved a whole lot more than the $15 fee he was paid. His achievement stands out all the more compared to the several posters hanging nearby for the legendary San Francisco music venue the Fillmore West. The Woodstock poster remains fresh and innovative, unlike the Art Nouveau busyness that clogs the Fillmore designs.
Rockwell’s rendering of the moon landing looks like an anticipation of Photorealism. It’s crisp and cold and almost abstract in the optical collision between the whiteness of the space suits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the blackness of outer space in the background. The image is far more daring than the Woodstock poster. It’s mind-bending — but then so’s the idea of humans on the moon.
The exhibition, which has been organized by the Rockwell museum’s Jesse Kowalski, takes up just two galleries. Those galleries are well provided for, though, and cover a lot of range. A display relating to “Sesame Street,” which debuted on public television that year, is an implicit reminder that Woodstock was by no means the most important cultural event of 1969. An early draft of the screenplay for “Easy Rider” sits near a poster for the movie version of “Hello, Dolly!” Talk about 1969 innovation vs. 1969 tradition — though closer inspection reveals that the poster employs all sorts of up-to-the-minute devices. Note the flowers exploding out of Barbra Streisand’s hat. In a nice nod to another Massachusetts museum, the show includes artwork for “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (yes, published in 1969), whose author-illustrator is the namesake of the Eric Carle Museum, in Amherst.
One could go on about the show’s skillful blending of rad and trad: Zap Comix and The Black Panther newspaper here, The Saturday Evening Post there. The Post ceased weekly publication in, you guessed it, 1969. Seymour Chwast’s political poster “End Bad Breath” combines the two with a wildly colored rendering of Uncle Sam (though not all that much wilder than the hues of that “Hello, Dolly!” poster) wherein the old guy’s mouth contains airplanes dropping bombs on houses.
The most startling example comes from Rockwell. It’s the cover for an LP, “The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.” The album was recorded, as it happens, at the Fillmore West. More to the point, Rockwell did the cover art. “Woodstock to the Moon” includes photos of Bloomfield, Kooper, and Rockwell posing together. They look quite simpatico. The Jimi Hendrix Experience wasn’t the only power trio active in 1969.
WOODSTOCK TO THE MOON: 1969 Illustrated
At Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Glendale Road, Stockbridge, through Oct. 27. 413-298-4100, www.nrm.org