Up Against the Wall
Berkeley posters from the 1960s

Exhibition at the Berkeley Historical Society
Curated and produced by Lincoln Cushing

Cataloged images viewable here ; links to specific posters described are linked by number.

Introduction

As 1950s America woke up from the deep chill of McCarthyism and the Cold War, a new genre of popular culture blossomed in the streets of Berkeley during the mid-1960s. Spurred by the success of local rock and counterculture posters, political posters were vibrant public documents that promoted a wide range of social issues. This exhibition documents Berkeley's unique role in the evolution of this medium, and includes examples of works on such diverse issues as gay liberation, people's health care, opposition to the Viet Nam war, support for political prisoners, demand for alternative educational models, and community control of police. The time period covered is the "long 1960s" (1964-1974). What’s crucial to understand is how and why the San Francisco Bay Area in general, and Berkeley in particular, were instrumental in making this renaissance happen. Just like life forms slowly reoccupying a clear cut forest, it took an interactively evolving ecology to make change. In this case the requisite participants included:

  • Artists - Many of the graphics produced in the mid 1960s were by amateurs or art students, but there were also some “old timers” that helped show the way. In the East Bay, these included Malaquias Montoya, Frank Rowe, and Bruce Kaiper, among others.
  • Consumers – The demand for posters to put on one’s wall grew dramatically during this period as the youth population swelled and free handbills were given out promoting rock concerts. Soon people wanted posters, all sorts of posters.
  • Clients - Art, even political art, rarely happens without patronage. Many of these posters were commissioned (albeit for tiny budgets) or were done as “political work.” As activist organizations grew in quantity and scale, their need for attractive and powerful posters blossomed.
  • Reproduction facilities – Almost all of these posters were either printed by hand in small workshops (screenprinting) or were produced at sympathetic offset print shops (such as Rainbow Zenith or Berkeley Free Press, later called Berkeley Graphic Arts). New technologies allowed for easier/cheaper ways to create type and to print smaller quantities than ever before.
  • Distribution – As people started wanting posters to put on their wall, new distribution channels evolved. Head shops and poster stores (most notably the Print Mint) provided the physical space to see and buy posters, and artist-run cooperatives (such as Berkeley Bonaparte) made it easy to order by mail. Similarly, the creation of alternative media outlets such as Liberation News Service and Newsreel films provided a rich, fresh, source of imagery for graphic artists.
  • Parallel media – Many of these poster images were either previously printed in underground newspapers or were used as graphics after the fact, and illustrators and cartoonists that were covering new ground with comics (such as Victor Moscoso or Spain Rodriguez) were also creating graphics for more overtly political purposes. Also, the role of other cultural organizations cannot be underestimated – poets, musicians, and theater groups all collaborated on projects to make them richer and deeper.

These posters paved the way for a subsequent generation of artists and graphics shops, such as Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco and Berkeley’s Inkworks Press. Even today, with the seductive miracle of the World Wide Web, artists are still putting ink to big paper. This exhibition honors the community that made these particular artifacts as well as encourages people to go out and make their own history.

 

Caption text

1964-1968

The 1950’s was characterized by virulent anticommunism, a “normalization” of gender roles that had been briefly challenged during World War II, and general economic prosperity. But the nascent political activism of the early 1960s – the Civil Rights movement in the South and opposition to U.S. involvement in Viet Nam – were devoid of poster art. Even Berkeley’s world famous 1964 Free Speech Movement witnessed many cultural forms – poetry, song, chants, theater – but produced no posters. The large-format documents that were produced were basically placards, large cardboard signs with a slogan.

But by 1965 things began to change. The population spike of young people, along with tumultuous domestic and foreign events, drew upon a new generation of activists and artists, and the graphics began to blossom. Local musicians with a sense of social justice, such as Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish, emerged and played at sympathetic local venues such as the Jabberwock [2]. Some of these new bands, along with more established performers such as Pete Seeger [11], would perform at concerts to support the political groups. Veterans from the Civil Rights movement, such as Stokely Carmichael from the Committee for Lowndes County, brought their message to the Bay Area [3] and began building the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Many actions were bracketed by two sets of posters, the first for the event itself and the second for the defense of those later arrested.

Viet Nam Day, May 21-22, 1965, was the first big teach-in on the growing involvement of U.S. troops in that war [1]. The Vietnam Day Committee benefit at U.C. [5] is a good example of the crude beginnings of what would flower as the Bay Area's pysychedelic style. This was followed by the peace vigil at Port Chicago during the summer of 1966 [4] [9], the point of departure for Vietnam-bound war materiel (and also the site of a WWII tragedy involving the deaths of black sailors and their subsequent demand for justice). The Stop the Draft Week actions in 1967 [10] took resistance to the draft and the war to new heights. And some political activists sought to take local control through the electoral process this poster from 1967 [8] was just such an effort by the Community for a New Politics, with Bob Avakian (who would later go on to form the Revolutionary Communist Party).

At the same time, the counterculture – which was a broad expression of oppositional values, only some of which would be considered overtly political – was establishing a beachhead. Although the established narrative puts the epicenter of this movement in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, Berkeley was also a major locus. San Francisco rock concert flyers by fresh local talent were being gobbled up by a thirsty public. Underground newspapers such as the Berkeley Barb and  the Berkeley Tribe, as well as comics provided new and cheap distribution for news, views, and graphics. The Print Mint set up shop on Telegraph Avenue in 1965, and was an important distribution point for the emerging new poster artists like Wes Wilson, whose "Are we next?' [7] was one of the first overtly political commercially-available posters. Artists banded together to form mail order distribution outlets such as Berkeley Bonaparte [6].

1969

Students of color were fighting for relevant curriculum and respect, first at San Francisco State and later at U.C. Berkeley. The benefit concert at U.C was a fundraiser for faculty sisters and brothers on strike at S.F. State [14], and the Third World Liberation Front poster [17] was one of many announcing this movement at Berkeley. U.C-community relations reached a new low during negotiations around People’s Park, one poster [19] portraying Alameda County Sheriff Frank Madigan as a toadying Blue Meany from the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” another [15] capturing a more light-hearted bonding moment between National Guard troops and civilians. The theme of peaceful coexistence between armed forces and antiwar locals is repeated in the 4th of July poster [13] by Frank Cieciorka (creator of the earlier Stop the Draft Week icon) with belt buckles elegantly intertwined with typography. And local character Bill Miller’s run for City Council certainly represents the apex of in-your-face campaigning [16].

The Berkeley Liberation Program [12] expresses the wide range of issues that were being challenged. With the slogan “Power to the imagination – all power to the people” it fused utopian and concrete demands as one; the 13-points cover a range from affordable housing to the abolition of parking meters to marijuana cooperatives. The war continued to escalate, and many homes in Berkeley displayed “A home for peace” in their window [18].

1970

February of 1970 saw the burning of the Isla Vista branch of the Bank of America branch (Santa Barbara), a dramatic act against U.S. capitalism. A detailed polemic on the back of this poster [23] details these charges. The May 4 National Guard killing of four student demonstrators at Kent State, as well as two students at Jackson State College (Mississippi) and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, resulted in massive community response. Art students all over the country directed their energy to producing social change posters. In the East Bay, three workshops sprang up that created hundreds of graphics – East Bay Media at Laney College (as well as at a location on Grove Street), under the direction of veteran printmaker Frank Rowe; the Media Project at California College of Arts and Crafts (which soon moved to a residence in Berkeley), with experienced propagandist Bruce Kaiper; and the workshop [20][21][25] at the College of Environmental Design at U.C. Berkeley, guided by Malaquias Montoya. Many of the posters were exhibited in the then-new University Art Museum [24] as well as being reproduced as a fundraiser print folio Unite Against the War by U.C. art history professor Herschel B. Chipp. These posters reflected the renewed appreciation for the practicality of silk-screen printing, a commercial process rarely taught in art school. Many of the posters were printed on discarded tractor-feed computer paper.

Norman Orr was the youngest of the early artists who did work for Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium; his “Custer died for our sins” [22] was one of many posters produced and distributed by the Print Mint. One national campaign of the early environmental movement was to challenge the widespread use of the pesticide DDT; this independently-produced poster [26] illustrates the point with the 1910 limerick by Dixon Merritt.

1971

U.C. Berkeley’s Gay Student Union hosted a Valentine’s Day dance, their second such event [29]. The Berkeley Art Center hosted a benefit poetry reading [27] for White Panther radical activist John Sinclair, given a 10-year sentence in 1969 in Michigan for marijuana possession; by the end of 1971 he was released from prison when the state's marijuana statutes were ruled unconstitutional. A “parade for Angela” [32] supported another political prisoner, Angela Davis, incarcerated for her role in assisting imprisoned Black Panther George Jackson’s escape attempt; she was tried and acquitted of all charges the next year.

Progressive efforts to seek a voice through Berkeley electoral politics continued; the newly-formed April Coalition (later to become Berkeley Citizen’s Action) fielded Loni Hancock and Rick Brown for City Council [31], a slate later expanded to include D’Army Bailey and Ira T. Simmons [28]. Community-police relations were very volatile, and a city measure to assure more accountability was a hot button issue [30].

1972-1974

The voices of people of color were gaining traction, a shift reflected in the posters. Malaquias Montoya’s poster [35] about the parallels between the Chicano and Vietnamese experience were eloquently expressed with both demanding U.S. out. And “The masses are the makers of history” [36] with the subtitle "The history of Asian-American farm labor" informs the reader that the United Farm Workers, which in 1970 had won the first farm union contract in history, had been jointly founded by Filipino workers and activists. The events of People’s Park were commemorated [34], and community demands for affordable food [33] and housing [37] were still vital. The emerging women’s movement was taking back control over health care [39], and the fledgling environmental movement had established a significant milestone – public recycling centers, years before municipal curbside pickup would be common [38]. This poster was printed by La Raza Silkscreen, recently established in San Francisco’s Mission District and one that would be a key player in the next wave of cultural and political activism.

 

Assembling this exhibition

I wish to thank the Berkeley Historical Society for taking a chance on “new history” and encouraging this show, especially staffers Dale Smith and John Aronovici. Also contributing to this show were Doug Minkler, John Dugger, David Mundstock, Alice Schenker, Gary Lapow, Ann Tompkins, Urgyan Tenpa, and Joe McDonald.

These posters are culled from various collections, including the magnificent All Of Us Or None archive assembled by Free Speech veteran Michael Rossman, the H.K. Yuen poster archive, and the curator’s own material.

For more information, contact Lincoln Cushing, 510-418-5193, www.docspopuli.org.
Last revised 4/12/2009.