An Elegy to a Bygone Era, by B.N. Goswamy
In these few paragraphs, Dr. Goswamy captures the energy and magic of the San Francisco dancehalls and poster scene of the late 1960s–early 70s. Reprinted from the 'Art and Soul' section of SPECTRUM, the Sunday supplement of The Tribune newspaper of Chandigarh, India, 08/25/2002.
It may not be easy to recall this to one's mind now, but in some manner the 1960s of the last century were—decidedly in America, but even elsewhere—the best of times and the worst of times. Drugs, music, promiscuity, dance, spirituality: everything was getting rolled into one heady package. The West Coast was where most of the action in America was, and San Francisco the city where the heardbeat of the counter-culture then sweeping the land could be heard most clearly. Every day during that rollicking decade, something exciting, something explosive, could be seen, or heard, there. Intoxication was in the air: lives teetered on the edge of eternal happiness and self-destruction. And freedom was the slogan.
Between 1965 and 1967, a historian of the movement notes, vast groups would "gather in the streets and parks and in the dancehalls, where loud music and sensory-bombarding light shows claimed the night". The sensation of being inside that environment could be disorienting at times, but it drew people as few things in their lives had done before.
The heady mood of the times was reflected, nearly perfectly, in the art that sprang up there: an art at once old and new, that of poster-making. Suddenly, as if on an unseen cue, a remarkable group of painters began producing leaflets and postcards, but, above all, large posters saturated in colour, announcing events, enticing visitors to the very same dancehalls in which a whole generation was rocking. One could see that these were 'commercial ads', but, like the ukiyo-e art of Japan which dealt with those enticing 'images of the floating world', or the celebrated work of Toulouse-Lautrec in France, there was something riveting about them. It was possible, of course, to dismiss them as ephemera, products of a passing if colourful fancy, but quickly, very quickly indeed, they turned into art, full of an electric vitality on the one hand and a certain innocence on the other. The dazzlingly innovative typography or the lettering used, however illegible at times, was in itself enough to give these posters an identity of their own, suggestive as it was now of flames licking the air, now of bubbles forming and bursting, now of Phoenician inscriptions cut into the rock.
'Psychedelic' was the word most often used for them, for the association with them was of hallucinating drugs, and the 'mind-expansion' that they temporarily bring. But the term is not wide enough in itself to cover the range of work that was being produced. Certainly not the work of artists who became celebrities in the field: Wes Wilson, Victor Mocsoco, Rick Griffin, Lee Conklin, David Singer, for instance. For it was marked not only with high-key colours and exotic calligraphy: there were subtle references in it often to classical works of the past, and a searing desire to push the very limits of art. The effete but highly elegant art that marked the end of the nineteenth century in Europe, Art Nouveau or Jugendstil as it was called, was of course drawn upon, but it was infused with a fresh energy, as it were. David Singer's poster announcing a Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore should serve as a good example of the layering of meaning, and the cool classicism, that could be combined with such elegance. Here, those giant mushrooms do of course make a reference to hallucinatory drugs, but there is also that surrealistic image of a man walking towards light and nothingness, evocative of "vastness, stillness, the eternal and the transitory", as one critic remarked.
The 1960s movement as a whole ran aground as one knows, for the shadow of violence came over it, obliterating the image of peace and harmony that had reigned for a few, passing years. From everywhere started coming in disturbing news of excesses: not only of hippies taking over streets and imposing their own lifestyle upon unwilling neighbours, but also of lawlessness. Of the kind that gangs of bikers like Hell's Angels unleashed upon rallies and concerts. And there were of course all those deaths that drugs and other abuses brought with them, famous names succumbing: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, among them. When the celebrated dancehall, the Fillmore West, was closed down in 1971, David Singer was commissioned to commemorate the final performance in it through a poster. There is sadness in the work, but it was among the best things that he ever produced, representing as it did "a dream state, a reverie", but also a meeting of aligned and opposing forces, an elegy to an era that had come to an end.
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We gathered from research on the web that Dr. B.N. Goswamy is a distinguished art historian and professor emeritus of the History of Art at Punjab University, in Chandigarh, India. The recipient of many honours and fellowships, he was responsible for major exhibitions of Indian Art in Paris, San Francisco, San Diego, and Zurich and has taught as a visiting professor at some of the world's leading universities, including Berkeley, Pennsylvania, and Heidelberg. Although a leading authority on Indian Art, his work covers a wide range of subjects, and he has authored many books and articles on art history.
It seems certain that Dr. Goswamy was living and teaching in the Berkeley–San Francisco area, during those "few, passing years" he mentions. We can assume that to describe the period so well, he must have experienced the energy in the dancehalls, poster parlors, and hippie gatherings of that time. He stands as a witness.