Lee Conklin Rock Art at Tweed Museum through January
Lee Conklin was the main poster artist for the Fillmore ballroom in San Francisco from 1968 to 1969, but he arrived in the mecca of hippidom just a bit too late.
"I arrived in San Francisco in November of 1967 after being detained by the U.S. Army,” Conklin said. “So I missed the Summer of Love… I guess it was Utopia, but unsustainable. It was in fact a far different world than I had known before my stint in olive drab purgatory (at least it wasn't Hell; just Korea). There were still more angelic smiles than I had ever experienced anywhere, more music, and artistic behavior generally. But War and my growing awareness of toxicity in the mainstream culture (greed, injustice, environmental degradation, etc.) were bricks that kept me from floating away. Now they are boulders.”
Most people recognize Lee’s work from his poster that later became the cover for one of Santana’s greatest albums. Known to collectors as BG134, it was advertising a show for Santana and The Grateful Dead. Utilizing pen and ink, the bands' names are centered around a drawing of a lion. The people concealed in the image are part of what makes this work so outstanding. The deeper one looks, the more that can be seen.
After a poster was drawn or painted it had to be brought to a printing press where colors were laid on top of each other to create the piece. The colors that were chosen became an art in itself. Depending on the mixture and concentration of the inks the overlay process would directly lead to the outcome of the piece.
"I consider myself a primitive when it comes to overlays,” Conklin said. “I had scant experience or training in graphic technique when I got my first poster gig (BGP101). Rick Griffin had such great control of color design by using blue line prints of his drawing to make complex displays of color. I wish I had learned his secret sooner, I would have copied him for sure. But now it’s archaic. I never quite knew what I was doing. I never knew what colors I would use till I picked them off the printers chart. No mock ups, or color comps. Is it just me or is history accelerating?”
I asked Conklin if he felt the need to conform to a band’s image in the poster or if he had free range to interpret them in his own way.
“Generally the bands had nothing to do with the poster,” Conklin said. “I felt obliged to do something aeronautical for the Jefferson Airplane. A trail of skulls and roses seemed to follow The Grateful Dead, but these were exceptions. Occasionally there was an association between the name of the band and the lettering, as in the Cream and the Yardbirds posters.”
The first poster that Conklin produced that is in the Tweed display is call, “The Invasion of the Earhearts.” The Who had made their American debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, for their second American tour they were now well known and rocking the scene. This poster highlights Conklin’s impressive pen and ink skills with numerous happenings occurring all throughout the piece.
“With forty years of hindsight it is obvious that the nasally endowed couple in the background are Joy (we still share the view) and myself,” Conklin said. “We were newly arrived on the precipice of A Brave New World. I had previously shown Bill Graham a sketch of an Earheart and adapted it, plugging the speakerflower into a boulder to make rock music. The Who, I'm all ears, man. I was certainly innocent of the craft of color printing. The area behind the lettering was lightened while the poster was on the press at the suggestion Levon Mosgovian, the printer who was most generous with his craft. He and Erroll Hendra, who created the transparencies from the artwork from which the metal lithography plates were burned, were my tutors.”
The next poster that Conklin did for Graham highlighted another superstar British group, Eric Clapton led Cream. This was their second tour of the United States, and the people of San Francisco were excited to hear this hybrid rock sound.
The colors in the poster promoting the Cream show are very beautiful, and this was the first time, and one of the only times, that Conklin used an image of the band in the poster.
“Usually, one artist was responsible for two posters for succeeding concerts, both of which were printed at the same time on the same sheet of paper, using the same ink,” Conklin explained. “Later, the two posters were cut apart.”
Was there a reason for moving from using a sheet for postcards and posters in printing to just printing two posters on one sheet?
“I am not sure why Bill Graham chose to do it this way,” Conklin said. “I suspect it was financial. However, in the case of BG109 (The Cream poster) and 110 (another Cream poster done by Mouse Studios not in the Tweed display) the posters were meant to celebrate a six day stand by one of the hottest English bands of the day. We decided to use the "process" colors: Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow, (CMYK, without the K [black actually]). Bill Graham gave Stanley and me photos of the band to incorporate into the posters. Since I had no clue about working with photographs I opted to copy the faces in pen and ink. I found a more "drawable" photo of the band in a fan magazine. When the posters were printed, I discovered that Mouse had also decided to draw the faces, and had used the same photograph. The colors however could not have been more different, and Mouse’s lettering zoomed while mine oozed.”
One poster that stands out compared to the others in the show is known to collectors as BG127. This poster has two separate billings on it, but what grabs the eye most are the strangely contorted body parts weaving their way through the center of the image. It is true Conklin and features great bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Truth.
“For that poster I used the CMY colors again,” Conklin said. “The pen and ink line drawing was printed in all three colors on top of each other. The softer colors in the background were created not with watercolor or pastels, but with a graphite pencil on three separate sheets of tracing paper. They were then photographed by Erroll Hendra and added to the appropriate plate. When the design was completed I realized I had forgotten to name the venue on the poster. I cut into the yellow background to make the green on blue Fillmore and avert a small disaster. For the summer of 1968 Bill Graham expanded the Fillmore schedule from three to six nights per week, split into two bills on one poster, with twice as much hand drawn lettering (for the same pay). That may explain the schizophrenic vibe of this poster. Or maybe it contains some deep philosophic insight. Maybe not…”
In the corner of the Activities Gallery there is a great example of an extremely rare overprint (two posters printed on top of each other) by Stanley Mouse. Just to the left of those two Mouse posters is a great Canned Heat poster done by Conklin. What I originally had assumed was Conklin’s interpretation of the famous liquid light shows, highlighting the psychedelic ballroom experience, turned out to be the artist trying to copy overprints he had seen laying all around the printer’s shop. Conklin refers to the poster as “The Toilet.”
“The toilet - Canned Heat, get it,” Conklin joked. “That poster was actually inspired by my trips to the printer, where I couldn't stop staring at the stacks of recycled posters printed over each other to avoid wasting new sheets in the preliminary stage of printing. They were full of surprises. I wanted to make a poster that had that accidental energy. I made four different images that had little in common with each other and chose the process colors (CMYK) to print them in. It was only after seeing the printed posters that I realized that I had made an homage to the lightshows that always held me in thrall.”
Lee Conklin is the most unique poster artist who has produced this type of art, which makes him one of the most memorable in its history. I asked him how people reacted to his style, being that it is so different from his contemporaries at the time. He said, “Some people said, “That's cool,” Some didn't.”
So how did he decide to be so original in his designs?
“I didn't decide anything,” Conklin said. “I followed the path of least resistance, which for me has always been to make marks on paper.”