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Through the looking glass: the ’60s in poster art

The Bahr Gallery features rock ’n’ roll posters

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What do you do when you’re closing down an office where the walls are filled with psychedelic posters you started collecting as a college kid in the 1960s? Realizing that those posters, promoting local rock concerts back then, are considered works of art today, Ted Bahr opened an art gallery in Oyster Bay in 2018 to display them.

The Bahr Gallery’s new exhibition, “Travelogue,” showcases the artistry of day-glo colors, psychedelic typographic distortions and other techniques that those posters were known for.

The show, which opened on March 19 to Covid-limited access, explores the regional differences in poster-making in the late ’60s, a genre that is typified by the iconic work produced in San Francisco for the Fillmore West and other concert halls. Grouped thematically on the gallery walls are first-edition vintage creations, handsomely framed and enthusiastically explicated, from Manhattan, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, among other locales.

Bahr’s interest in music posters dates back decades. “In college I collected a little bit, attracted to the bright, psychedelic look and its association not only with the great music being made, but also with the utopian ideal of peace that was represented,” recalled Bahr, 62, a former owner of a publishing company who moved to Laurel Hollow in 1998. Originally from Westchester County, he spent 15 years in the San Francisco Bay area. “Eventually I had about 45 pieces. I treated them as fine art, hung them in various areas around the office” — BZ Media in Melville — “and wrote placards with explanations of the work. I treated my office almost as a museum.”

Bahr sold BZ Media in 2017. “I had 45 framed posters and nowhere to put them,” he said. “My wife said, ‘Maybe you should sell the posters,’ and I didn’t know whether she meant go into the business or get rid of them. I figured for the baby boomers having reached the age when it’s basically ‘me time,’ maybe I could make a business of it.”

So he opened a gallery in Oyster Bay, and, three years later, is on what he calls a mission to share posters carefully stored in boxes, under beds or in portfolios. He envisions himself as an “agent” committed to having concert art seen by the world.

“I’ve known Ted since high school, but my interest in these posters comes from my love of music,” said Brendan McCurdy, a banker and a “chieftain” at the annual Bradstock music festival in Center Moriches. “We know the ’60s were an incredible caldron of music, art and writing, so much that opened up the doors of perception. And Ted is just an encyclopedia behind what’s on his walls.”

David Chalif, who met Bahr soon after he opened the gallery on Audrey Avenue, said, “Ted is extremely knowledgeable, including the process, the artists and the genre’s place in art history — poster art that goes back to France in the 1890s, and artists from that time whose work was an inspiration for these posters. He’s assembled a world-class collection, from 1956 on, first editions, mainly from the Bay area, but now we see representations from other parts of the country.”

Unlike the posters of 1890s Paris, which were typically pasted on the sides of kiosks, in ’60s San Francisco, some posters were stapled to telephone poles, and others were given to record and book stores to be displayed in their windows. “Eventually they were handed out at a show, as an announcement for the next show,” Bahr explained. “At Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, for instance, the incentive [at closing time] was that the first 500 people who left the building got a poster.”

Another San Franciscan, Ben Friedman, owned a head shop and saw the posters’ marketing potential. He went to Graham looking for overruns, offered him 50 cents apiece and brought home as many as 500 to 1,000 to sell. “The posters were popular, and he struck deals with most of the major rock promoters in the city,” Bahr said. “That’s why we have a pretty large body that still exist today and are in pretty good shape.”

Thomas Germano, a professor of art and art history at Farmingdale State College, said the vibrant day-glo colors in the classic San Francisco posters fed off of, and informed, optical art in the ’60s. By contrast, posters from other regions of the country reflect other forces at work. Boston posters, included in Bahr’s exhibit, are black and white, but rely for effect on graphic design. “In Ted’s words,” Germano said, “they don’t try to compete with the San Francisco posters.”

The posters from Detroit have more of a working-class edge to them, he said, while still reflecting some of the Bay area artists’ psychedelic sensibilities. And New York’s posters? An eclectic blend of art influences, from Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher to the assemblage artist Marcel Duchamp, whose profile was appropriated by Milton Glaser — one of a number of major commercial illustrators in Manhattan — to produce the iconic silhouette of Bob Dylan that was tucked into “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.”

The approach to poster-making changed as the rock era swept across the nation and rock ’n’ roll became big business, Bahr said. “The poster era began in 1969, but by 1971 the promoters didn’t use posters because it was too inefficient, he said. “The music, and the concerts, were promoted by FM radio and underground stations.”

Poster artists moved on to make album covers. It wasn’t until the 1990s that posters returned, but they were mass-produced, for sale at a table at a typical concert along with T-shirts.

Bahr said that the regional posters on view at “Travelogue” still attract considerable interest. “Some of the most historic concerts, such as Led Zeppelin and Elton John’s first tours of the U.S., started in Boston, and New York’s Fillmore East was nicknamed ‘the church of rock ’n’ roll,’” Bahr said. “So, while the epicenter of the psychedelic rock poster was San Francisco, it certainly wasn’t the only place that artists of the period were creating notable works.”

“We all know about San Francisco,” McCurdy agreed, “but for anyone who loves music from that era, it’s great to experience how that music was expressed in places like Detroit, the Boston Tea Party shows and, of course, the Fillmore East, which was housed in an old vaudeville theater on East 2nd Street. These posters help to recall all that.”

“I think Ted has a great idea with this show,” Germano concluded. “I never would have thought to do it, but curatorially, he has a point, and the point is well made.”

“Travelogue” continues through June 6.