NORTHAMPTON — You have to love the folks at Smith College. They have so much faith in the restraint and maturity of their tender-aged students that they are letting their venerable campus museum mount a show of drug-inspired poster art — and, what’s more, they’re calling it “Summer of Love.”
It’s hard to know whether this counts as “stimulating discussion on campus” or “promoting reckless behavior.” But knowledge, they say, is power. And they are no doubt right to have such faith. No one in her right mind really wants to go back to 1967, when most of the posters in “Summer of Love: Psychedelic Posters From SCMA” were made.
Although — who knows? — these 70-odd posters may change that. Smartly described by exhibition organizers as a “visual social media of their time,” they are certainly better to look at than your average Facebook wall.
Summer of Love: Psychedelic Posters from SCMA
Full of movement and color, and graphic design influences that channel everything from Art Nouveau to comic-book art, they were produced by inventive poster designers in the San Francisco Bay area — people like Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, and Wes Wilson.
They advertised and celebrated rock concerts, art shows, “human be-ins,” and yes, tripping — or “the legalization of so-called consciousness-expanding drugs,” as the Smith website more fastidiously puts it.
The show will also include footage of live music performances and other youth-oriented happenings in San Francisco circa 1967.
And to conjure the atmosphere of a teenager’s bedroom in 1967 (though not, of course, to encourage druggy hallucinations in the viewer), some of the posters will even be displayed under black light, filtering out all but long-wave ultraviolet light.
What makes these psychedelic posters special?
Just looking at them will give you one good answer. Bright, bulging, and often hectic, they contrast starkly with the austere, downbeat visuals of, say, the so-called 3rd Summer of Love in the UK in 1990 — a season that launched the face of Kate Moss. In this 1990 Summer of Love, remembered for ecstasy rather than acid trips, the astral idealism of the ’60s barely registered. Moss, as one writer brilliantly put it, was “the face that reminds you your optimism was misplaced.”
In 1967, with social hierarchies in upheaval, and the old equations of marketing no longer holding firm (even as I write this, I feel a new series of “Mad Men” coming on), the new psychedelic posters were no longer merely about advertising or even about lifestyle.
They had an openly political aspect. Their designers were not only attempting to communicate with a carefully targeted market. They were trying to give voice to a swelling population of unmoored, disaffected, politically turned-on, and susceptible youth in the Bay Area.
And since this area was such a factory of fantasy, thrills, and real social upheaval, the posters, with their panting promises of new kinds of private and public euphoria, became hot exports, quickly infecting the consciousness of people way beyond the Bay Area.
The Smith show opens one month before “Hippie Chic,” an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (July 16 through Nov. 11) exploring counterculture fashion in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It sounds like both shows will make a fruitful pair. Why not get in the spirit? Hire a VW van to get out to Northampton. Squeeze into some flares and tight paisley shirts. Wear your rose-tinted John Lennon glasses.
Just don’t do anything you’ll later regret . . .
Sebastian Smee can be reached at