Wes Wilson

Biography by

Graphic artist Wes Wilson pioneered the rock concert poster aesthetic of the late '60s, translating the sights and sounds of counterculture society into the psychedelic iconography that endures today…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

Graphic artist Wes Wilson pioneered the rock concert poster aesthetic of the late '60s, translating the sights and sounds of counterculture society into the psychedelic iconography that endures today among the era's most indelible images. Born Robert Wesley Wilson on July 15, 1937, he drew throughout childhood, but while attending the local junior college in Auburn, CA, instead studied forestry and horticulture, subsequently majoring in philosophy at San Francisco State College. He later went to work at Contact Printing, a small press that produced handbills for the Mime Troupe Appeal parties mounted by concert promoter and impresario Bill Graham; soon Wilson -- who had already completed a handful of well-received posters for Chet Helms and the Family Dog -- was also designing for Graham's rock shows at the Fillmore Auditorium.

The legendary Trips Festival staged during late January of 1966 was among the events publicized by a Wilson flyer; he also attended the event, and the combination of music, drugs, and love impacted him deeply. By the middle of the year Wilson stopped producing materials for Helms altogether, preferring instead the creative freedom offered by working for Graham; his posters became wildly experimental, inspired largely by his discovery of the Viennese Secessionist lettering style developed by Alfred Roller. Wilson altered the style to fit his own ambitions, rendering the characters with almost indistinguishable singularity by expanding their outlines and inset shapes; at the same time, he played with foregrounds and backgrounds, his design patterns becoming increasingly exaggerated with each new creation.

Wilson's other major breakthrough was in his use of color -- inspired by the light shows of the concerts themselves, he mixed colors with wild abandon, resulting in jolting visuals that perfectly captured the revolutionary essence of the music his art promoted. Wilson's work quickly moved beyond the confines of the psychedelic subculture into the mainstream, resulting in profiles in magazines including Time, Life, and Variety; however, in May 1967 he stopped producing posters for Graham, claiming the promoter had failed to honor their existing royalty agreement. Two final Fillmore posters -- one of them depicting Graham as "rich and smug like an antique Roman merchant" -- constituted his final work for the famed auditorium.

His poster days now behind him, Wilson and his family relocated to a farm in the Missouri Ozarks during the 1970s. In 1990, the Springfield Art Museum invited him to exhibit his classic Fillmore work, resulting in the show Looking Back: Rock Posters of the 1960s by Wes Wilson. The exhibit's success seemed to rekindle his interest in graphic design, and from 1991 to 1995 he published Off the Wall, a leading news journal devoted to the world of poster art and happenings. With the resurgence of public interest in the form, Wilson also produced three successful Expos spotlighting event posters in San Francisco during the early '90s, and contributed to a number of gallery exhibits celebrating both classic and contemporary works.