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Wes Wilson, psychedelic poster pioneer, 82

NEW YORK — Wes Wilson, who helped create the trippy look associated with the second half of the 1960s through the vivid, swirling posters he made for rock shows by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and others, died Jan. 24 at his home in Leanne, Mo. He was 82.

His son Jason confirmed his death. No cause was given.

Beginning in 1966, Mr. Wilson made posters for Bill Graham, who produced rock shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, as well as for Chet Helms of Family Dog Productions, who started at the Fillmore but soon moved to the Avalon Ballroom, not far away.


Posters had been used to advertise stage shows for decades, but most were utilitarian conveyors of date, time, and place. Mr. Wilson, along with several other poster artists, took the form to a different level, one full of loud colors, attention-getting imagery, and vibrant typography.

If the lettering was often hard to decipher, that was by design. Darrin Alfred, curator of architecture and design at the Denver Art Museum, who curated a 2009 exhibition there called “The Psychedelic Experience,” which included Mr. Wilson’s work, recounted a conversation between the artist and Graham about one of his first posters.

“Well, it’s nice, but I can’t read it,” Graham is said to have remarked.

“Yeah,” Mr. Wilson responded, “and that’s why people are going to stop and look at it.”

That arcane quality, Chantry said, also served as a sort of rite of membership.

“The point of psychedelia was that nobody could read it — unless you were part of the ‘tribe,’ ” he wrote. “It was a type of marketing that was trying to [literally] scare away the ‘straights’ [or at least make the secret world illegible to them].”

An early poster that solidified Mr. Wilson’s emerging style was for a show at the Fillmore in July 1966 featuring the Association, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grass Roots, and Sopwith Camel. The names of the groups appeared in bright red-orange against a green background, the lettering suggesting flames. He used a similar look for the cover of Paul Grushkin’s book “The Art of Rock: Posters From Presley to Punk” (1987), except this time the flaming lettering constituted the hair of a blue-colored figure.


Mr. Wilson’s posters — collectors’ items today — documented the astonishing array of groups that played the two San Francisco halls as the psychedelic ’60s took hold: Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead shared a bill at the Fillmore in August 1966, Country Joe and the Fish and Buffalo Springfield teamed up there that November, and there were dozens more.

“In those days, for $2, you could see some amazing stuff,” Mr. Wilson recalled in a 2006 interview with The News-Leader of Springfield, Mo., near the farm he moved to in 1976.

But Mr. Wilson’s first poster wasn’t for a concert. It was a self-published work, made in 1965, that was inspired by his growing concern over the increasing American involvement in Vietnam.

Robert Wesley Wilson was born on July 15, 1937, in Sacramento to John and Ethel (Thomson) Wilson. His mother, Jason Wilson said, was an artist.

After graduating from high school Mr. Wilson served in the Army National Guard and for a time attended San Francisco State College (now University), dropping out in 1963. A friend, Bob Carr, had a small printing business and made Mr. Wilson a partner, doing the layout and design work. Graham and Helms became clients.


“I had been in the Army, and so I was kind of on the alert to watch out for our foreign policy,” Mr. Wilson told NPR in 2016. “And when we got involved in Vietnam, I began to distrust the establishment of our country.”

The poster he made suggested the American flag, but the white stars were on a blue background in the shape of a swastika. “Be Aware,” the type said. The pressman who usually printed the shop’s material was alarmed when he saw it.

“When he looked at my design his usual smile faded fast,” Mr. Wilson wrote in a 2013 blog entry on his website, “and he said something like this: ‘Wow; Wes, you’d better add something else — like maybe ‘Are We Next?’ — or most people just won’t get it.” Mr. Wilson took the advice, emblazoning those words across the top, and sold the poster all over San Francisco.

Mr. Wilson’s first marriage, to JoAnn Kimmons, ended in divorce. In addition to his son Jason, who is from his second marriage, Mr. Wilson leaves his wife, Eva (Bessie) Wilson; three children from his first marriage, Karen Borgfeldt, Shirryl Bayless, and Kelly Wiedman; two other children from his second marriage, Colin Wilson and Theanna Teodorovic; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.