Wes Wilson: The Greatest American Artist
One artist that truly stands above all other in American history is Fillmore West and Avalon Ballroom concert poster artist Wes Wilson.
On a few occasions I have had the humbling opportunity to speak with him about his art over the phone from his farm/ranch in Missouri (usually at noon while he was eating lunch). While our conversations have been personally life changing I thought it only right to share some of his stories with the readers in the Northland.
“In the fall of 1965 I was married to my dear wife of 40 plus years, Eva Christine,” Wilson said. “This was the luminous beginning to my time as an up and coming freelance artist; it was a time that was both exhilarating and exceptionally demanding. During that brief, wonderful period of artistic creativity I designed many well-received posters for any number of San Francisco dance/concert venues. I designed, printed and then personally delivered most of my earliest work. My first poster for the Family Dog was called the “Tribal Stomp.” I printed 300 good ones for Chet; the total cost for these 300 posters in 1966 was $60 or twenty cents apiece. Recently one of these has sold at auction for over $24,700.”
Wilson created all of the first concert posters in the San Francisco scene and is known best for his Beatles Candlestick poster and the many Avalon and Fillmore West posters he did from 1965 until he was fired during the Summer of Love. His art has influenced the artists who followed him as well as the pop art explosion he helped to create. To those who research and collect concert art he is known as the king of the concert poster.
“Early on the weekly attendance at the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms seemed fairly modest, with attendance in the hundreds. But, rapidly, the numbers bumped up to a few thousand each week. With attendance increasing I was able to convince the promoters to spend more money to print posters with two or more colors on larger sheets. Larger stock sizes meant they could be cut to a bleed line, have postcards included to be trimmed out, and eventually include tickets all on the same sheet. This made the artistic possibilities ever more exciting. Because of their uniqueness, many people began eagerly collecting these posters. Soon, plenty of other artists became intrigued with these new artistic possibilities, as well. Before long an entirely new poster art genre and its booming print industry had begun in earnest, all due to the development of the unique San Francisco psychedelic rock poster.”
He continued, “My workload rather quickly expanded. I began doing just the artwork and arranged for others to do the printing. This all was evolving while I was meeting the difficult, inflexible, short term scheduling deadlines required for dated dance/concert events. Each poster included several notable bay area acts and eventually even national and international entertainers and musical groups made the billing. Time was always the most important factor in event poster production. One of my most demanding considerations lay in dealing harmoniously with the often acrid personalities of promoters and their tight scheduling demands. All of which, for me, was characteristic of the unique, post-”Trips Festival Bohemian” dance/concert poster scene of the mid-60s’ San Francisco.”
Soon Wilson was being asked to do art for a much larger audience.
“The public awareness of my work quite rapidly increased. Early in 1966 I began to be contacted by local media and more clients. Soon, many more from well beyond the city limits of San Francisco were calling, requesting commission work and newspaper, television and film interviews. I did occasionally find time for work other than posters, including illustrations for Ramparts and later two Time Magazine cover commissions (though paid for, neither TIME covers were published). I illustrated a Newsweek poster/cover for their international edition. I was commissioned to do a poster for the LA offices of the J. Walter Thompson Company. For this commission I was approached by Ron Ziegler, later to be the press secretary for Richard Nixon. (As a side note, the J. Walter Thompson Company was also headed at that time by another future Nixon appointee, ‘Bob’ Haldemann.) This poster became what I call my Open Up & See! poster. The ‘Operational Research Society of America and the Technical Institute of Military Science’ (ORSA-TIMS) commissioned me to illustrate their convention’s program cover. I was also asked to make the poster for the final Beatles concert tour event at Candlestick Park in South San Francisco. I had quickly become a notable, or perhaps notorious, artist.”
Being famous also began to take a toll on Wilson
“Though this was a grand and exciting period it was also plenty tough on me both physically and mentally. The deadlines, late nights and the harshness of over work took their toll. At first mostly local media were interested in me as a unique poster artist, but when I became a national and then even an international artist of note this new publicity thing and all its additional work became almost as demanding as doing the artwork and producing the posters. My single-handed management of my new art career and its PR expanded until coping with it all became my daily concern. My first hard won copyright contract with Bill Graham, a good one for artists, was at last fully shouted out in negotiations and was agreed to and signed by all. (Tragically for me, this contract would somehow become ‘lost’ a year or so later according to the Graham office people.) My oncoming fame brought the persistent calls requesting more and more public exposure as the media pressure intensified. All these regular media requests for information and personal interviews caused me to be almost constantly in need of additional, restful sleep.”
Wilson finally was acknowledged for his contribution to art and was even awarded an endowment, affirming his skills.
“So by mid-1967 I had been well noted in scholarly, professional, art and design publications and most major news magazines including Time and LIFE. My posters were moving abroad and amazing the art acquiring communities as far away as the Louvre in Paris and even the Hermitage in Soviet Leningrad. So many requests for my personal attention and my artwork were coming in that I was soon exhausted by it all. Throughout the art world I had rather rapidly become world famous.”
One poster that I own and we discussed is known to collectors as BG-3. It was the 3rd poster that Wilson did for Bill Graham, who was promoting one of his first dance concerts at the Fillmore in 1966. The poster is probably not the best of colors, done in orange and red, but the letters bend in different shapes and are surrounded by a face. My opinion is that it was really the first “psychedelic poster” that anyone created as it preceded what would come.
BG-3 is promoting Jefferson Airplane before Grace Slick left The Great Society to join the band and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Wilson called the show a “Blue’s-Rock Bash” on the poster and changed the look of concert advertising forever. This concert followed Graham’s highly successful Tripps Festival that had Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on the bill with newly named The Grateful Dead.
Wilson said he hated the poster and called it, “that ugly thing.” Printed on vellum paper and done in two colors, BG-3 has an early simplicity that really gives a glimpse of the quick progression that his art would morph into.
Wilson was eventually ripped off by Graham and his last posters reflect their disagreements, but I will save that for another time.