Tripping back to San Francisco: art fuelled by acid

In the heyday of psychedelic rock, the Fillmore auditorium was the place to be – as an auction of the venue’s eye-popping artwork demonstrates

By Arifa Akbar

Rick Griffin
Grateful Dead – Skeleton in Top Hat, cover image of Grateful Dead’s 25th Anniversary ‘Without a Net’ tour programme

It was the hazy acid-soaked heyday of psychedelic rock when the cool kids of West Coast America crammed into the now-legendary Fillmore auditorium to witness the birth of bands who came to epitomise the rebellious spirit of the 1960s.

Night after night, fresh new acts such as The Grateful Dead and The Doors would pound out the unfamiliar yet seductive sound of swirling keyboards, feedback guitars and hypnotic vocals that held an entire generation of fans in thrall.

The Fillmore, which became a focal point for San Francisco’s music scene, became famed not just for its trance lightshows and sell-out performances but also for the owner’s habit of giving away free apples and posters to bleary-eyed audience members after every show. The artists who provided the inspiration for the handbills, with their deathly images of skeletons and flying eyeballs in vivid colours, became as synonymous with the psychedelic movement as the bands that played the Fillmore.

Now many of the original artworks of Wes Wilson and Rick Griffin, who became inextricably linked with the biggest acts on the West Coast music scene, are going to be available to buy when the vast rock art collection of Peter Golding, a British fashion designer and musician, comes up for sale at Bonhams in New York next month. Golding, who is credited with creating the world’s first designer jeans in 1970, began collecting after picking up a poster at a protest concert in Hyde Park in 1967.

“These are artworks that would be used for posters, album covers, T-shirt designs and even handbills and they were typically psychedelic in colour and influenced by the idea of death and hallucinations with images of the weird and wonderful,” said Jon Baddeley, director of collectables at Bonhams.

Among the highlights are the designs of Griffin, who was revered as the “grand master” of psychedelic rock art. His 6ft high Flying Eyeball canvas is considered to be one of the most iconic works of the Fillmore era. Estimated to sell for up to $350,000 (£178,000), it was commissioned for the auditorium’s owner, Bill Graham, for a series of concerts in 1968 featuring Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall and Albert King, and was reproduced as a music poster.

Griffin was also a key figure for producing artworks for The Grateful Dead – the most significant being a skeleton in a top hat which was used on the front of a tour programme – along with Stanley “Mouse” Miller and Alton Kelley, who designed some of the handbills for their early concerts in San Francisco. In 1971, Kelley designed the “skeleton and roses” imagery for the Grateful Dead’s eponymous album.

One of the most exciting pieces of the collection is an original poster by Michael English and Nigel Waymouth, featuring Jimi Hendrix as a native American and holding a peace pipe, before a background of dragons and Japanese flower designs. An inscription on the work reads: “To Jimi with love”. The work was commissioned by Hendrix, who met the artists at his home.


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