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Psychedelic Art: The Minds Behind the Movement

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Where did psychedelic art come from? Picture the sixties, and you’ll probably think of hippies, the summer of love, and psychedelics. It all calls to mind a very specific aesthetic of kaleidoscopic spiral patterns, extreme, clashing colours, and optical illusions. The psychedelic art movement began in the mid-1960s and helped shape fashion, art, music, and literature for decades to come.

History of Psychedelic Art

The word “psychedelic” was invented by the pioneering British doctor Humphry Osmond in 1957, who was among the first medical professionals to use psychedelic drugs such as LSD to try and understand mental illness. From the Greek words psyche (for mind or soul) and deloun (for show), psychedelic means “mind-manifesting.”

There’s a long history of art portraying what we believe to be psychedelic substances and experiences, though we haven’t always been as thorough as we could be about the label. In 1500 BCE, stone sculptures portrayed mushrooms from whose stems show the heads of Gods in Mexico and Central America. Some Native American artists expressed their hallucinogenic peyote visions in fabric, stone, or other objects.

To name a few examples closer to our own day (but still prior to the actual psychedelic art craze) Edgar Allen Poe tried opium, and Poe’s French translator Charles Baudelaire wrote “The Poem of Hashish,” describing his experiences with the mind-altering substance. Two other French writers, the playwright Theophile Gautier and the writer Thomas De Quincey, also wrote about their experiences with opiates. The absinthe craze, beginning in France and spreading around the world, inspired imagery that any psychedelic user will find familiar.

the history of absinthe
T. Privat Livemont, poster for Absinthe Robette 1896, © David Nathan-Maister & The Virtual Absinthe Museum

Modern psychedelic art is heavily influenced by Art Nouveau, an ornamental style born during the time when industrial technology was changing rapidly. It often featured feminine figures, bright peacocks, plants, and nature. 

Emerging in the 1960s, psychedelic art became the visual identity of the hippie movement in the Western world. San Francisco was the world capital of counterculture, where art was finding new ways to express the emotions and sensations of drug-induced hallucinations. Amidst the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, many young Americans questioned their society’s political and social outlooks, raising such issues as racism, sexism, and freedom of speech. Many sought spiritual healing through psychedelic drugs. Psychedelic art was a reflection of the era, with concert posters, album covers, newspapers, and comic books representing the political, social and spiritual gleanings from these altered states of consciousness.

Influential Artists who Helped Define the Scene

Wes Wilson

One of the leading designers of psychedelic art posters. He made trippy-looking posters for many prominent bands, including the Grateful Dead, Otis Redding, and Jefferson Airplane. Wilson invented the psychedelic art style that is now used to describe the peace movement of the 60s. He used flowing and fluid forms to create different and unique shapes of lettering. The psychedelic poster was defined by Wilson in 1966.

Rick Griffin

Griffin, inspired by the work of Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, decided to start a psychedelic art career in poster design. He was a regular contributor to Zap Comix and was known to be one of the original ‘surf artists.’ Griffin made posters for Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, the Grateful Dead, and the logo for Rolling Stone magazine.

Zap Comics

Victor Moscoso

Spanish artist Victor Moscoso made some of the most memorable acid posters of the psychedelic era. One of the few psychedelic artists who had extensive formal training, Moscoso studied at Cooper Union and earned a B.A. from Yale. In 1961 he earned a master’s degree in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. He made posters for the Doors, Jerry Garcia, and Jed Davis. He was also an illustrator at Zap Comix.

See Also
NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine

Stanley Miller (best known as Stanley Mouse)

Mouse is known for creating psychedelic art and posters for numerous musicians such as The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. His posters were heavily influenced by Art Nouveau graphics, especially by the works of Alphonse Mucha and Edmund Joseph Sullivan. Mouse worked in close collaboration with Alton Kelly for 15 years.

Alton Kelley

Kelley, together with Mouse, is remembered as a creator of hundreds of classic psychedelic art posters, with the most famous being the “skull and roses” poster for a Grateful Dead show at the Avalon Ballroom. Kelley and Mouse created posters and album covers for Journey, Steve Miller, and Jimi Hendrix. 

Bonnie MacLean 

MacLean helped define the psychedelic art space in the early 70s. She stood out as one of the only women in the field at that time and was not recognized among the Big Five, which included Wilson, Mouse, Kelley, Moscoso, and Griffin. MacLean made posters for Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, and The Who.

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