Rick Griffin: Just Another MAD artist or Draftsman of the Sacred? (Part Two)
From March of 1967 when the Contact poster was released through November of 1968, when Griffin collaborated with Kelly and Moscoso on an Abba-Zaba candybar-themed poster for a Deep Purple/It’s a Beautiful Day lineup at Fillmore West, Griffin produced more than two dozen posters for The Family Dog and Bill Graham, plus almost as many piecemeal commissions and projects, ranging from the virtuosic faux ads for Canablis and A Puff of Kief done for the Berkeley Bonaparte poster company (in which he was a partner) to out-of-town clients like LA’s Shrine Exposition Hall and the Family Dog’s short-lived Denver franchise to one offs like his Christmas-colored flying dildo (or maybe a Tibetan dorje – which would make it another thunderbolt motif) poster for the 2nd Annual Grope For Peace on Dec 26, 1967 at the Straight Theater.
The phenomenal growth of the psychedelic poster mirrored the unprecedented global media frenzy over the hippie phenomenon as a whole. Consider this: Griffin’s first official Family Dog poster hit the streets around the Ides of March 1967. By July 17th the Big Five were the subject of a solo show at the uptown Moore Gallery, which generated huge opening-night crowds and massive publicity, including a review (succinctly titled Spirit of Mother Lode MAD and the Circus) by Thomas Albright in the SF Chronicle, singling out Griffin as one of two major talents (Kelly was the other).
On September 1st, Griffin (alongside all the Big Five except Mouse) was featured in a LIFE cover story called The Great Poster Wave. Although the article tried to make the poster phenomenon a spontaneous society-wide (read: East Coast too!) eruption the opening spread of a poster-covered bulkhead on Long Islands Montauk Point tells the real story – Griffin’s Sutter’s Mill and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory posters are front and center, only a couple of months after they were printed. What had initially begun as runs of a few hundred were selling in the six figures by early 1967, shipped all over the world and establishing a distribution network that was to evolve eventually into the independent comic and music stores of the following decades.
As widespread and immediate as their literal dissemination was, the psychedelic posters’ (and subsequent record jackets designed by Haight-Ashbury poster artists) influence on visual culture was exponentially greater, swiftly copied by product designers and advertising companies hoping to capture a portion of the youthquake a go-go demographic with watered-down versions of the unadulterated sunshine. Still, Victorian filigree, day-glo colors and Surreal and arcane symbols were suddenly filling the clean gray compartmental voids of post-Bauhaus minimalist design. Preteens in the Midwest and on the far side of the globe were suddenly using the visual code of a tiny LSD-saturated bohemian subculture to identify themselves and their millions of fellow travelers. It was an unprecedented semiotic convulsion in the history of human culture, and -- except for the far more visually constrained aftershock of the punk era – one we are unlikely to witness again.
The visual characteristics of psychedelic posters are so deeply ingrained in our culture’s collective memory that it’s almost redundant to list them here. Probably the most important factor is distortion, particularly as regards the information-bearing text of what is, after all, supposed to be an advertisement. Lettering was stretched and morphed, melted and compressed, inverted and – in the case of Griffin – deliberately nonsensical. This set the experiential program for the reception of the work, slowing comprehension, privileging the visual over the verbal, mandating a contemplative period followed by an Aha! moment of gestalt comprehension.
His rupture in the expected function of the advertising poster allowed for an outpouring of other incorrect pictorial strategies. Imagery – particularly the human body – was subjected to the same kind of distortions as the text. Much of the imagery was appropriated – lifted wholesale from all possible sources from ancient Egypt to last week’s newsphotos, cobbled together in impossible hybrids. Some collage artists had displayed a similar eclecticism before, but never for so public or so emphatically designed a vehicle. The psychedelic posters were nothing if not eye-catching. It’s just that once caught, the eye wasn’t released with the delivery of a message from our sponsors.
Designs were iconic, symmetrical, stacked, radiant, and framed. Colors were vivid, to the point of absurdity, and often deliberately skewed from any sense of naturalism – solarized, inverted, or just plain wrong. Deliberate off-registration or overprinting of patterns over images or images over one another added dense skeins of visual information, as did the deliberate filling-in of empty spaces with op-art geometries or writhing seas of human faces. Content was sexual, mystical, political, humorous and theatrical, and only occasionally bore any relationship with the bands, events or venues they were promoting.
Rick Griffin shared in the creation of many of these distinctive attributes, and utilized them all to a greater or lesser degree. He was never big on the op effects, and his colors were more a full range of meticulously separated hypersaturated primaries than the trippier vibrating complimentaries. He pushed the boundaries of textual intelligibility with exaggerated convolutions of gothic fonts (and even, in works like FD-D12 -- his collaboration with Moscoso for Chuck Berry at the Family Dog in Denver – using meaningless calligraphies where the expected titles and names should appear) but never adopted the signature negative floating blobs swallowed-by-monster-serifs effect that preoccupied Wilson and Moscoso.
Perhaps the greatest difference in Griffin’s posters was the content. It usually consisted of meticulously hand-drawn pictorial elements, employing consummate drafting skills to render them in over-inflated three-dimensionality that stood in stark contrast to the patently flat interplay of elements in most of the other Big Five posters. This was clearly a concern for Griffin. Many of his best works from this period (and indeed throughout his career) possess a playful dimensionality: Aunt Jemima displaying an “Avalon Ballroom” card, the Doors alien proffering a “Pay Attention” pill, the Hendrix Flying Eyeball with its protruding snaketail and jutting phallic skull – each of these and many other entities are deliberately made to be breaching the decorative border devices that should contain and define them, in order to offer something forward into the viewer’s space.
This gesture of offering – while not always tendering something wholesome or palatable – is something essential to Griffin’s work, and finds its purest expression in the Big Brother Torch and Heart poster (BG- 136) from which this exhibition takes its name. A loving motion of illumination and communication, Torch and Heart is beguiling in its simple mystery. Its stripped down message “Behold!” seems to summarize the benevolent social intentions in much of Griffin’s art, and isn’t a bad model for what any art can hope to achieve. It’s profoundly moving, and emblematic of the best impulses of 60’s counterculture -- while partaking of very few of the visual conventions of the psychedelic poster.
The other area where Griffin’s gift for three-dimensional rendering stands out is his lettering, which progressed from occasional drop shadows to extravaganzas of multiple perspective deep space trompe l’oeil. A prime example is the Grateful Dead poster that would become the cover of Aoxomoxoa. The band’s name is spelt out in an ornate mutant gothic typeface that arcs across the spherical space surrounding the solar ovum, bulging out toward the viewer with elaborate shadows that make the words look like cast metal or carved wood. It’s a crowning bit of typography for one of Griffin’s most intricately constructed symbolic landscapes.
It is in Griffin’s rich, intricate and idiosyncratic symbolic vocabulary that his work is most distinguished from his fellow poster artists. Where most of the others used a smattering of generic spiritual symbols – generally hindu and Buddhist, griffin seemed to develop a profoundly personal archetypal language from universal natural forms and phenomena including eggs, eyeballs, hearts, wings, cascades of water, scarabs, suns, sperm and ova, reptiles, and flame, as well as more culturally specific iconography as hopi kachina faces and appropriated commercial mascots. Griffin’s work was and remains as disturbing and unforgettable as a powerful dream.
Death and Birth oozed forth from one another’s respective orifices, intermingling and generating a phantasmagoria of mythological hieroglyphs with endless recombinant possibilities. This phase of Griffin’s artistic development seemed to be peaking in 1968 with Aoxomoxoa’s radiant mandala of phallic and uterine symbols, the Quicksilver Eternal Reservoir (FD-101 and Griffin’s last poster for the Family Dog) with its visionary bleeding heart tree, and his most famous work, the unutterably Other Tibetan-thangka-like Hendrix Flying Eyeball (BG-105 – his first for Bill Graham) whose twining swastika of appendages seems to be rending the fabric of reality from the other side to deliver its memento mori. Sadly this peak also marked the end of Griffin’s tenure in the Haight.
Like many, Griffin had witnessed the rapid disintegration of the tentative utopian experiment of the early Hippies, transformed into a dark parody of itself under the onslaught of media hype, throngs of delusional children and predatory hustlers, and hard drugs. In early 1969 he and his family fled the scene for the greener pastures of [El Paso?] Valentine, Texas where Chouinard buddy (and future Eagles album artist) Boyd Elder let them hide out in a water tower, while back home the Manson/Altamont vibration gathered steam. It was the beginning of a period of reconnection and reinvention for Griffin, though what is arguably his most substantial formal contribution to 20th century art – his abstract comix -- wasn’t quite finished yet.
Although Rick Griffin had been dropped as staff artist from the masthead of Surfer a couple of months after the final Griffin/Stoner adventure, his engagement with the medium of print continued unabated. The Haight luminaries who had initially spotted the talent in his first Jook Savages poster weren’t concert promoters, but rather Ron and Jay Thelin – co-owners of the Psychedelic Shop and partial backers of the San Francisco Oracle, Allen Cohen’s dream-inspired rainbow hued “newspaper” which spawned the alternative press movement and disseminated many of these ideas around the world.
Griffin’s visual presence was immediately unveiled in the January Human Be-In edition of the Oracle – released to coincide with the titular event and the first issue using their innovative trademark split-fountain inking – with a spectacular centerfold illustration for Allen Ginsburg’s Renaissance or Die. This was also the last edition of the Oracle with a mere circulation of 60,000. Griffin’s contributions to issues #6 (the Aquarian Man cover with a corresponding Aquarian Woman by Ida Griffin on the back, plus Rick’s full-page portrait of the Grateful Dead), and #7 (a Gustave Doré-quoting promotion for Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising) reached 100,000 or more, and traveled around the globe. Even the Moscow Literary Gazette subscribed.
Early in 1967 Griffin was commissioned to design a logo for Ralph J. Gleason and Jann Wenner’s nascent Rolling Stone magazine. Rick brought in some preparatory sketches from which he expected the editors to choose one to be finished in the artist’s usual meticulous style, and was shocked when the magazine appeared with one of his rough drafts as its logo – a funky circus font that remained the magazines corporate identity until Griffin was summoned to revamp it in the mid-70s. In many ways, Rolling Stone was the biggest crossover success of the hippie counterculture, though some would dispute its authenticity. In any case, Griffin had contributed significantly to both the doomed visionary and pragmatic commercial versions of the underground press.
As if that wasn’t enough, Griffin then went on to help redefine the most underrated medium in 20th century art when he was Robert Crumb’s first draft choice to contribute to the second issue of Zap Comix. Zap #1 had unleashed Crumb upon the world, and although it took a little while for the world at large to catch on (like until the multiple obscenity busts of issue #4), the graphic narrative medium would never be the same. Griffin and Moscoso had already been toying with the idea of producing a comic book, and Griffin’s famous mutant Morning Paper funny pages poster (FD89) is said to have inspired Crumb’s Ultra Super Modernistic Comics in Zap #1 – his somewhat less successful attempt at non-linear comic art.
Morning Paper -- along with several related posters done for John Van Hamersveld’s LA-based Pinnacle Productions -- had insinuated the concept of non-linear structuralist comic art into the graphic mainstream. Although there were precedents – Bay area Beat artist Jess’ Tricky Cad collages of fragmented Dick Tracy episodes spring to mind – these seem to be the first truly abstract non-linear “narratives” presented in comic-strip panel sequences (a union that had happened early in Cinema) in something resembling a commercial mass medium.
While Robert Crumb was and remains a consummate cartoonist and storyteller, his is a self-admittedly (or rather, militantly) 19th century mindset. Nevertheless, he recognized and supported Griffin and Moscoso’s revolutionary work. Where Crumb and the other new recruit S. Clay Wilson were experimenting primarily in terms of content and subject matter, Griffin and Moscoso were tackling the very form and structure of the medium. Griffin contributed heavily to Zap #2, and this early work evolved directly from the deliberately disjointed comic strip posters, with hosts of eyeballs in a variety of roles from Viking warriors to avenging angels to puzzled sex-ed students. Chemically mutated Disney animals wandered shifting Surrealist landscapes. Panel borders bristled with rocks and pod-like growths. Everything looked slightly overinflated and a little too sharply focused.
It is in Griffin’s comix work that his lettering finally achieves full autonomy, beginning with unintelligible pseudo-Hebraic calligraphy, scribbles and patterns in textual formats, empty speech balloons rendered with dimensional shading, simple and often visually determined palindromes (OXO et al) and finally, as landscape objects, props and characters equivalent to any pictorial elements in the panel. As graphic design scholar Steven Heller put it “Griffin was a master of what might be called the Rorschach school of calligraphy, with page after page of letter drawings that have mysterious, multiple meanings.”
Griffin’s relationship to the written word was problematic. He was a terrible speller, and proud of it. One 1963 Murphy strip (Murphy Strikes Back Surfer 4 No 2) even has Griffin’s pissed off protagonist protesting to the artist over letters to the magazine that complain about the poor spelling. “Yoo know Murfie …” proclaims cartoon Griffin “Yor absalootlie wright!” Clearly, Griffin never had much faith in words as vehicles for truth. Nevertheless, as time went on he began having at least some semblance of plot and dialogue, though it would usually disintegrate under the weight of his increasingly dynamic and cluttered compositions.
Griffin continued contributing regularly to Zap as well as other underground titles like Jiz, Snatch, Bogeyman, The Dying Dolphin, and The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You Comix. His cover for Zap #3 (“The 69 Issue”) was spectacular, depicting a stain-glass-winged beetle sporting a sombrero and pipe standing in a dark subterranean tunnel piled with skulls and teeming with warlike eyeball entities. In one of his four hands he holds a lantern containing a glowing winged letter A, which illuminates a staircase before him. Near the top, a scampering solar disc inscribed with an Egyptian eye glyph beckons him to follow it into the daylight. The beetle gestures and utters something in faux-Hebrew – a warning perhaps, or “Eureka!” It’s a picture that brings to mind Plato’s Cave and Gnostic parables of awakening. Griffin’s inner life was clearly brimming with energy.