Poster Children

"American Artifact" Released on DVD March 27

March 2010 / Chronogram

Promoter Chet Helms, Bill Graham’s chief rival during those heady days of early concerts by the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, the Grateful Dead, and other bands at San Francisco’s Avalon and Fillmore ballrooms, had a revelation after learning that the ornate posters advertising the shows were disappearing as fast as he was putting them up. “People began to steal them,” Helms recalled. “It took me three weeks to get beyond anger and frustration with that and to realize that that was the signal of our success, that the most we could hope for was to create posters that people would rip off the walls. When we had that going, we were really moving.” Besides building the buzz about the concerts, Helms and his peers had created the rock poster-collecting movement.

Newburgh documentarian Merle Becker’s American Artifact is an eye-dazzling look at the first 50 years of American rock-’n’-roll posters and the lives, methods, and attitudes of their creators. Using her own narration and colorful commentary from the artists, Becker’s film examines the utilitarian “boxing match”-style showbills of the 1950s; weaves its way through the swirling 1960s psychedelic works of San Francisco’s “Big Five” (Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson, and Rick Griffin) and their Detroit contemporary Gary Grimshaw; tears into the—literally—cut-and-paste punk fliers of the ’70s and ’80s; and finally explodes into the retina-blasting, neon-bright conceptions of ’90s stalwarts like Frank Kozik, COOP, and Art Chantry, and the newer wave of artists they inspired. A perfect storm for fans of art, music, and graphic design, American Artifact is a captivating and long-overdue tour through one of pop culture’s most fascinating sub genres.

A double-DVD edition of American Artifact, featuring nearly two hours of extras, will be released by Freakfilms on March 27. A free release party and film screening will take place on the same day at the Wherehouse in Newburgh. (845) 325-6708;

Before you had the idea to make a film on rock poster art, how familiar were you with the genre?
I wasn’t a poster collector at all, and, really, I wasn’t that familiar with the rock-poster genre. My background was in music programming for television (MTV, Fuse, VH1). I’ve always been into music imagery; music videos, album covers, etc. The eye opener for me was when I came across The Art of Modern Rock (2004, Chronicle Books), which is a huge coffee-table book of modern rock posters. Up until that point, I was only familiar with the Fillmore-era posters, and I wasn’t really aware that there were all these kids doing silkscreen rock posters for bands today. That book was the spark that gave me the idea to do the film.

Which artists from the book jumped out at you the most, and why?
I remember initially being drawn to Justin Hampton’s work. He has a very “comic book” style, and does some really striking musician portraits. I was blown away by EMEK’s work, as well (see his Decemberists poster). EMEK puts an incredible amount of thought into every piece, and you always notice some new, cool detail each time you look at one of his posters. I have an appreciation for work that you can look at over and over and notice something different each time. (And, in many ways, I try to do this in my filmmaking.) But, honestly, during the production of American Artifact I had a different “favorite” artist every week, usually depending on which section of the film I happened to be working on at the moment.

While the medium has its roots in circus, rodeo, and boxing posters, and many rock artists were inspired by hot rod art, comics, and the art nouveau and pop art movements, it’s always seemed to me that the real precursors to modern concert posters were the ornate sheet music covers of the early 20th century. Like rock concert posters, they also aimed to evoke the feel of the music while simultaneously advertising it. Was this something that ever came up during the making of American Artifact? Has any vintage sheet music ever caught your eye?
It’s interesting that you mention sheet music art. It’s another area that often gets overlooked! Sheet music art and album [LP] art could be the subjects for their own documentaries, for sure. As far as sheet music art catching my eye, yes; it all does. Music videos, album covers, sheet music art—I’m a little obsessive when it comes to music and music imagery. A good example of this would be my first job out of film school, which was on the MTV show “Beavis & ButtHead.” It was my daily duty to pick out the music videos that would appear on the show. I’d have to go through the MTV video library and find old or obscure music videos and watch them all day and take notes for the producers on whether or not they might be good videos for Beavis and ButtHead to talk about. Most people would have slit their wrists after a few days of watching one bad music video after another. I loved it, though, and I did this job for a long time. I love to see how a visual artist relates his or her work to music. A recipe for good music imagery is something that you can’t really put your finger on. It either works or it doesn’t, and there’s no inbetween. A successful music video or rock poster resonates and grabs you. If it doesn’t “work,” you’re bored to tears.

One interesting thread in the film is in how the earliest rock ’n’ roll posters, from the 1950s, were done by in-house artists whose names are now lost to time using the letterpress methods of companies like Nashville’s Hatch Show Print. Have you seen any evidence of a return to simpler, more primitive designs, or do you think the splashy-colored genie is out of the bottle for good? Do you see a cycle with poster art?

There are so many artists doing rock posters today that it’s very hard to isolate one sort of “style” representative of our era. Today, you see a lot of muted colors and simpler designs (like Jay Ryan), as well as throwbacks to art nouveau (Chuck Sperry), cut-and-paste Americana (Print Mafia), and in-your-face, colorful, pure “rock ’n’ roll” designs (Mike Martin). The diversity, I think, can be explained by the technology and the mainstream nature of rock these days. Today, there’s a rock club on every corner, and most people have access to a computer. There are so many kids doing posters today, which means there is much more diversity of styles.

With most bands promoting their shows online today, many would say the days of concert posters are on the wane. What’s your take?

Most of the artists recognize that rock posters today are being used less for advertising, and instead serve more as collector’s items for music enthusiasts. So the fact that MySpace and Facebook now serve as advertising for bands hasn’t really affected rock poster sales. The popularity of mp3s, however, has. Many artists [in the film] talked about how you used to have a nice big piece of art when you bought a record album. Then it was shrunk down to a CD-size picture and all but disappeared when people started buying music in mp3 form. Rock posters today have sort of filled the void that was created when LPs became less popular. Kids today still want a cool image that is associated with their favorite music, so they can hang it on their wall and piss off their parents.

Prior to American Artifact, you worked on films about politics in Newburgh (2004’s Saving Newburgh) and rock bassists (2002’s Rising Low). What’s next?
I’m working on a few ideas. One is another rock doc (which is currently under negotiation, so I’m not quite ready to talk about it). Honestly, it’s been a little difficult to focus on the next project while touring with American Artifact. But once the DVD is released I’ll have a little more time, and I’ll be back to the drawing board (no pun intended).