“American Artifact: The Rise of American Rock Poster Art”: What a long strange trip it’s been

By on January 29, 2018

American Artifact: The Rise of American Rock Poster Art chronicles the rise of American rock poster art since its birth in the 1960s, taking the viewer on a journey through the different decades and incarnations of this rebellious art form. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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Directed by documentary filmmaker Merle Becker, American Artifact — clocking in at just over 90-minutes — features interviews with a mix of older and newer rock poster artists, many still working today, talking about what inspired their truly American works of art.

This extraordinary film is a great reminder — particularly for those who were alive during the rock poster’s main era — of a time when the artwork connected fans to the political and social themes found in the work itself.

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American Artifact — which kicks off with cult hero artist Robert Williams exclaiming “Rock ‘n’ roll is so goddamn important!” — features rarely-seen film footage of the late Rick Griffin, the California surfer and art school reject credited with the very concept of the rock poster as an art form.

He also created the Rolling Stone magazine logo.

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Also featured is Stanley Mouse, one of the most important figures in rock poster art.

Mouse — who was born in Detroit — was initially inspired by “car culture,” but he made his bones in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, partnering with Alton Kelley to co-design the famous “Skeleton and Roses” poster for the Grateful Dead, an image which the band later used for their iconic logo.

Mouse — now living on an apple farm outside of San Francisco — delivers a poignant diatribe on the death of Sixties-era ideals and tells Becker why the poster art scene died along with it (until punk revived it a decade later).

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Becker’s film features several of the artists who followed in their influential wake, including Dennis Loren — another native Detroit rock artist and San Francisco transplant, who also designed American Artifact‘s official poster — who calls Rick Griffin “the Michelangelo of poster artists.”

Loren has created album covers, posters and print ads for Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Paul McCartney, the Velvet Underground, Rick James and many, many others.

In the 1990s, Loren freelanced full-time with west coast-based reissue labels like Rhino, Bomp, Ichiban and Del-Fi Records (where he designed CD booklets for collections by Frank Zappa and Barry White that yours truly also worked on).

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Becker also interviews Victor Moscoso, who studied at Yale before working in the underground comics scene with Robert Crumb in the early ’60s.

Moscoso soon became known for his optical illusions and and vibrating/psychedelic color patterns, which can be seen on his famous Fillmore West concert posters.

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“Victor saw these posters as a kind of language that you spoke to your friends,” Merle Becker told the San Francisco Chronicle when the film was originally released in 2009. “If somebody wasn’t cool enough or stoned enough to read the psychedelic lettering for Big Brother and the Holding Company, then they weren’t meant to be at the show.”

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Read more about Merle Becker and American Artifact below.

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American Artifact‘s producer-director Merle Becker is a television producer/director who originally worked on MTV Animation’s late-1990s programming, including “Beavis and Butthead,” “Daria,” and “Cartoon Sushi” (in 1997, she directed the “Fly Girl” segment of “Science Facts”episode).

She left MTV in early 2000 to start her own independent film company, which she says she named Freakfilms, Inc. because she “wanted to steer away from be asked to do wedding videos and corporate videos.”

In 2004, Becker produced and directed the political documentary Saving Newburgh — a historical look at Newburgh, NY, once called “The Best All-American City” before becoming one of New York state’s most dangerous crime-ridden cities.

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Here’s part of her “artist’s statement” on the making of American Artifact:

“Around 2004, I was in a bookstore, and I came across a huge coffeetable book of rock posters called The Art of Modern Rock. I was floored. Up until that point, I had no idea rock posters were still even being made.

As a kid, I remember all these amazing album covers, sometimes prompting me to buy the album just for the artwork. Then came CDs, and the artwork shrank to a little 5×5-inch square. Then, it became a digital download, often being delivered without any art at all – but, with the rock posters, here was this whole collection of artwork that went along with the bands I loved. The rock visuals were back!”

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“At the time I saw that book, I was working a corporate television job at MTV, but I needed a change. So, a week later, I quit my job, and decided to travel across the country interviewing rock poster artists for American Artifact.

As I started doing research for the film, I came across a website called GigPosters.com, where over twenty thousand rock poster artists post their work. It was (and is) an unbelievable collection of the coolest rock imagery one could ever imagine. I quickly realized that this wasn’t just a little hobby that a few people were doing on the weekends in their basement. It was essentially a modern day “art movement,” pertinent to our era: The Era of Rock and Roll.”

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American Artifact includes interviews with over thirty different poster artists in all, each of whom has their own D.I.Y. artistic style, creative inspirations and motivations, including Frank Kozik (often credited as the one who inspired the resurgence of rock poster art in America today), and Art Chantry (who worked publications like The Rocket and did artwork for record labels like Sub Pop).

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Watch American Artifact — and other artist-related documentaries — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.