Haight-Ashbury, rock ’n’ roll and mind-altering drugs gave rise to an unusual burst of creativity that married type designs, images and explosive color on esoteric psychedelic posters. Artists embedded in the San Francisco hippie culture designed pulsating patterns and animated text to promote integrated music, free love and LSD.
David Edward Byrd jumped into this scene in Manhattan around 1968 and was catalyzed by the West Coast movement. He designed graphic art posters for rock ’n’ roll icons and events, Broadway plays, movies and TV. He shadowed the entertainment industry for decades as its link to the public with images that reached out and grabbed the viewer by the eyeballs to drag them in and ignite imaginations. From Jimi Hendrix to Harry Potter, the Brand Library Gallery in Glendale has assembled a phenomenal retrospective of Byrd’s projects that serve as a visual journal of a very interesting and effective life.
Byrd was born in Tennessee, raised in Miami and educated at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He moved to New York in 1968 and to Los Angeles in 1981. The exhibition at the Brand celebrates 40 years of Byrd’s artistic production and 70 years of life, from the time that he worked with Prisma pencil and airbrush to Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.
His influences were many. Stylized posters can be attributed to Japanese woodblock prints, Gustav Klimt’s patterned paintings and Toulouse Lautrec’s café posters, and Haight-Ashbury citizen Wes Wilson can probably be credited for catapulting psychedelic poster art. Yet Byrd’s style is unique.
One of the first major patrons for this art form was music promoter Bill Graham, who hired Wilson to design posters for shows at his Fillmore West auditorium. In 1968 disputes over money — and the fact that Wilson’s poster text became so stylized that it was not legible — opened a door for young Byrd, who picked up the slack and launched his own career.
As poster designer for Graham’s Fillmore East in Manhattan Village, Byrd reinterpreted the West Coast styles and created posters for the Grateful Dead, Hendrix, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones, and the rock ’n’ roll Valhalla event — Woodstock in 1969. His orange, pink and green optical illusory Hendrix poster is one of the most recognized images from the era, and was voted No. 8 in the top 25 rock posters by Billboard magazine. Byrd received a Grammy for his collaborative participation on the design for the album cover for Tommy by the Who.
Byrd continued to develop in the graphic and illustrative arts movement, designing for Broadway megahits like “Follies,” “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the rock opera “Tommy.”
His “Follies” poster is one of the most recognized images in the 20th century. Inspired by Marlene Dietrich, the graphically enhanced symbolic dancer is crowned with Follies text, an iconographic crack parts her face symbolizing the end of an era. Sunset orange and gold are offset with blues and magenta. The palette is explosive and the image is trimmed out to define a collective shape. It is very art nouveau. Klimt and Lautrec would have been jealous.
Starting in 1991, Byrd was hired at Warner Bros. Creative Services as senior illustrator. He created style guides for the iconic Looney Tunes and Hanna Barbera characters. The Picassoesque pastiche of Bugs, Sylvester and Daffy as “Three Musicians” is in the exhibition and thematically consistent. He also read between the lines for J.K. Rowling on the first three Harry Potter books and interpreted visually the scenes and characters that became the foundation for the globally popular Harry Potter series of movies.
Byrd’s lifelong contribution to our culture is nearly immeasurable. The exhibition engages and transports. It is really more than just a retrospective of one man’s creative life; it is a look back at a few decades of fond memories.
What: The Byrd Show; 40 Years of Art and Design
Where: Brand Library Art Galleries, 1601 West Mountain, Glendale
When: June 11 to July 22, 2011. Gallery hours are noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
About the writer:
Terri Martin is an art historian and art critic for the Glendale News-Press.