de Young Show Captures Summer of Love Zeitgeist

by Jean Schiffman

This major show at the de Young is the centerpiece of San Francisco’s Summer of Love celebration.

Amidst an eclectic, citywide celebration of the 50th anniversary of the legendary Summer of Love, the de Young Museum’s “Summer of Love: Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll” is the most comprehensive of the various, similarly themed exhibits on offer. In a series of galleries, it explores the threads that interwove to create not only the zeitgeist of that summer but the entire hippie movement in San Francisco.

The de Young is ideally situated for such an exploration: in the middle of Golden Gate Park, where the “tribes” so often gathered, and adjacent to the epicenter of flower power, the Haight-Ashbury, where 100,000 young people converged that fateful summer of 1967 from all over the country. Many of them were lured by radios broadcasting Scott McKenzie singing John Phillips’ “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” written as a commercial for the Monterey Pop Festival in June, which pop music journalist Joel Selvin has described as “the pivot point on which the modern rock movement swiveled.”

In tracing those threads, the exhibit reveals a complex tapestry. For example, as pointed out by Colleen Terry, Fine Arts Museums assistant curator for graphic arts, who co-curated the exhibit with Fine Arts Museums textile and costume arts curator Jill D’Alessandro, much of the material in the exhibit (photos, ephemera, soundscapes, videos, costumes and more) would not have existed without the music scene. But the music scene might not have come to fruition without the iconic, psychedelic posters that advertised concerts of such pioneering local bands as the Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead—or without brilliant impresarios like Bill Graham, and Chet Helms and his Family Dog. Then again, the posters themselves might not have attracted all that attention had the artwork not been influenced by the pervasive, mind-altering drug LSD. And would there have been a hippie rebellion against authority at all without the unpopular, relentless Vietnam War?

A stroll from gallery to gallery, beginning with an introductory entryway called “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” offers more than 300 cultural artifacts—mannequins in period fashion, photos, films, objects, posters and other printed material, slide shows, liquid light shows, music and sound effects—that add up to a colorful picture of a city undergoing a historically significant countercultural movement. 

For example, “A Trip Without a Ticket” features a wide range of multimedia depicting the Trips Festival of January 1966, organized by Stewart Brand (who created the “Whole Earth Catalog”) and author/Merry Prankster Ken Kesey at the Longshoremen’s Hall; it includes filmmaker Ben Van Meter’s layered footage from the three-day event (he triple-exposed the film and spliced the rolls together). “That layered, collage-y effect, in order to create something new, is an aesthetic we find throughout the exhibit,” notes Terry.

Two freestanding center walls of the next gallery are devoted to the January 1967 Human Be-In, including recordings of poets Lenore Kandel, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and more, plus guru Timothy (“turn on, tune in, drop out”) Leary.

A “poster shop” is wallpapered, floor to walls to ceiling, with posters from the likes of Rich Griffin, Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, featuring unreadable lettering, appropriated imagery and complementary colors, all meant to dazzle the eye and tease the brain. Another gallery describes the poster-making process itself, showing how the artists actually achieved their startling effects. If you look at the “Butterfly Lady” poster in a certain light, the wings will seem to be flapping up and down, says Terry. 

“Love and Haight” is divided into little sections relating to various organizations: the street-theater Diggers, who fed the masses in the park for free; two alternative newspapers, Allen Cohen’s famous San Francisco Oracle as well as the Haight-Ashbury Tribune; a message board for runaways, a relic from the park police station; plus photos by Herb Greene, Jim Marshall, Elaine Mayes and others, some originally exhibited at the de Young in 1969.

“Feed Your Head” focuses on artwork that borrowed from other art movements to create something new, as seen, for example, in collage and in the avant-garde films to be screened. This is where the exhibit explores the effect of psychedelic drugs on art. There’s also an actual billboard: “The Family Dog is coming down to Earth.” Elsewhere, a newly commissioned light show by Bill Ham—an influential artist back then—envelops visitors within four walls of liquid light art plus soundtrack. And “The Music Never Stopped” gallery is all about the beloved musicians, with such items as Jerry Garcia’s “Captain Trips” red-white-and-blue-striped hat and Janis Joplin’s handbag, plus another commissioned light show, by Ben Van Meter, with strobes, film and stills, running in a loop on screens above eye level.

Throughout the exhibit, mannequins display the eclectic fashions of the times, including designer Jeanne Rose’s clothes for local bands. Near and Far Eastern, Native American, Victorian, Wild West: the influences and appropriations abound. A final gallery, “What Are We Fighting For?”—its title referencing Country Joe McDonald’s anti-war anthem—contains objects from various social and political efforts: civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, the environmental movement and the women’s movement. Some of the political buttons on display are, as Terry observes, relevant today; “Give Earth a Chance,” says one (and a handbill written by Joan Baez offers this advice: “Ultimately you can only listen to one thing, not your President… you must listen to your own heart…”). Actor Peter Coyote, one of the original Diggers, narrates the audio guide.

Local historian Dennis McNally writes, in an essay in the exhibit’s catalog, “The Summer of Love era has never really left us; our current national culture wars are rooted in the profound intellectual challenges of the 1960s,” and even, he points out, further back than that.

Apr. 8 → Aug. 20

de Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., Golden Gate Park  (415) 750-3600