ART OF MODERN ROCK: THE POSTER EXPLOSION
By Paul Grushkin and Dennis King
(Chronicle Books, 492 pages)
"It was our ambition to increase the public's visual-anxiety quotient." Jim Evans, TAZ
In 1987, Paul Grushkin produced The Art of Rock: Posters From Presley to Punk. That book chronicled what then seemed to be a soon-to-be extinct art form: the rock poster. The posters that promoted rock shows in the 1960s and 1970s were some of the century's most inventive and vibrant public-oriented graphic art. Somehow, the scrappy DIY ethic of punk rock and an ever-centralizing record business oddly worked together to help dismantle the tradition. Able to dash off hundreds of appropriately raw fliers on a copy machine, punk rockers turned their backs on the flashy graphic approaches of the previous decades as assuredly as they refused to traffic in concept albums and fourth chords. Likewise, the profit-takers at the major record labels focused their energies on billboards, magazine ads and mass-produced photographic posters, leaving graphic design as the sole purview of album-art departments.
It was into this vacuum that Grushkin's first book was thrust, and at the time, it seemed like a eulogy for an art form. And perhaps it was. But, like they say, nothing is better for art than dying, and the death throes of rock & roll poster art combined with the upwelling of a vibrant, underground movement of post-punk art-rock in cities like Austin and Seattle to turn a funeral march into a clarion call for a new generation of poster artists. (It also did a good job of kick-starting the market for these posters as collectibles.)
In the years since The Art of Rock was published, Frank Kozik, Coop, Art Chantry, the TAZ collective and scores of other artists have crafted a visual vocabulary that has defined the last decade and a half of rock & roll as surely as bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana created its soundtrack.
There were about 8,000 submissions to Grushkin for inclusion in Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion which has been at least a three-year project and although it feels like nearly every one of them is included, that's not the case. There are "only" 1,800 or so, including some excellent work from Orlando poster designers Greg Reinel (www.stainboy reinel.com), Jeff Matz (www.luredesigninc.com) and Thomas Scott (www.eyenoise.com), and that means that a number of worthwhile artists were left out. Nonetheless, the visually explosive presentation of what actually made it into the book it's printed in bright and beautiful colors and, being an 11-by-13-inch book, most of the posters are reproduced at respectably large sizes makes up for any such deficiencies.
Whether Derek Hess' textured darkness, the disjointed visual assault of the Aesthetic Apparatus studio or the retro-abstraction of artists such as Jeff Kleinsmith and Jason Munn, there are an astonishing number of different styles on display in The Poster Explosion. Though quite a few subscribe to what's become the new formalism in rock poster art the fast cars/big tits/funny devils/scary teddy bears school of design the images explode with individuality, rebelliousness and, most importantly, fun. The book is smartly organized and peppered with just enough information to make it feel like you're reading something besides ticket prices and show times. And by the time you make it through the book once, you'll have three questions: 1) Why didn't I fly to San Francisco for the 1999 New Year's Eve show that featured Mr. Bungle, the Melvins, Nomeansno, Fantômas and the Kids of Widney High? John Seabury's poster will still make you want to go. 2) Who the hell were all these fourth-rate opening bands Wax? Ruth Ruth? What were we thinking? And 3) Where can I buy some of these posters?