Ultraviolet: 69 Blacklight Posters From the Aquarian Age and Beyond by Dan Donahue

The far-out heart of Ultraviolet lies in its posters: R. Crumb’s famous Keep on Truckin’ and Stoned Again, Stanislaw Zagorski’s mind-bending Fly Carefully, George F. Goode’s Jungle Princess, and Tom Gatz’ Acid Queen, among many others. The book features 69 posters (heh), all produced between 1967 and 1972 (apparently–a few don’t have years attributed to them), and covering a wide range of subjects, all of them groovy. Every page evokes nostalgia, perhaps a flashback, and conveys a strong sense of the wild power and energy of the times.

Counterculture historian Dan Donahue compiled the book, and contributed a lucid and thorough essay that covers the development of the oddball art form associated most often with the late ’60s, when “the blacklight poster had become the premier freak flag to hang at the door to a new consciousness.” In his history of the “blacklight revolution,” the use of ultraviolet light originates (possibly) with secret communication techniques used in WWI, and flourishes with the spirit of experimentation and hallucination in the Summer of Love:

“The blacklight poster was actually a medium capable of mimicking the effects of the new wonder drug. With the ability to glow and vibrate under ultraviolet light, the posters could simulate the sensations and visual distortions one experienced during an acid trip.”

The combination of strange technology and altered states (as well as the subject matter of many of the posters) makes the blacklight poster seem to be a key contributing element of the “hybrid” art form described by Christoph Grunenberg in his forward to Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era:

“The psychedelic era was the result of a highly productive interaction between art, technology, politics, drug culture, music and many other influences, creating an extraordinary aesthetic exemplifying the spirit of liberation and freedom…The fusion of different artistic techniques in producing all-encompassing sensory spectacles was central to the new movement, culminating in a new hybrid art form variously labelled ‘intermedia’, ‘multimedia’ or ‘mixed media’ art.”

Grunenberg also describes how psychedelic art has been “tainted by its incestuous relationship with popular culture, low art and entertainment,” which would seem to be an accurate description of the blacklight poster as its described in Donahue’s book. “Like a bad dream that will not go away, the style has made periodic comebacks, only to be sent back into the wasteland of bad taste and stylistic aberration,” Grunenberg writes.

Possibly the first book of its kind, Ultraviolet embodies Grunenberg’s stated desire to “move beyond a purely nostalgic reception and attempt to understand the original creative and visionary potential of the period.” Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of Donahue’s essay is his introduction of many key artists in the medium (not all of whom are represented in the posters, unfortunately), and his deft descriptions of their styles, influences, techniques and notable works. Donahue manages to balance historical details with colourful character biographies and trippy turns of phrase. For example, writing on Zagorski’s Fly Carefully, Donahue drops an interesting bit of trivia connecting the Polish designer with the Velvet Underground, describes the subject of Fly Carefully as an “Icarus spaceman with rainbow wings,” and calls the poster “a perfect message for a zoned-out stoner’s door.”

Donahue credits alternative newspapers, such as the San Francisco Oracle, underground comics artists (including Art Spiegelman, Treena Robbins and Kim Deitch) and head shops (with classic names that include Mind Mart and Electric Lotus) with helping to popularize the blacklight posters. Then, as the use of blacklight spread into concert “experiences,” so did its appearance on posters for those shows. An interesting feature of those posters is the strong influence of art nouveau, which Donahue says was “a look inspired by a then-recent retrospective on the era held in Berkeley.” His excellent but all-too-brief essay follows the blacklight poster out of the sixties, into its adoption for a wide variety of consumer products.

“The pop-art dream had come full circle, with comic icon becoming pop products in this capitalist, escapist atmosphere…No longer a bootleg article, the blacklight poster had become an attractive commodity for mass consumption.”

In Sally Tomlinson’s essay, “Sign Language: Formulating a Psychedlic Vernacular in Sixties’ Poster Art” (included in Summer of Love), she describes how the posters were initially meant “to target a small community assumed to be LSD-savvy,” but then (as always happens, it seems) the style was co-opted by mainstream advertising:

“Once the posters caught the attention of national media, the ‘psychedelic’ elements were rendered harmless through the neutralization of their context and reoriented to appeal to a consumer public with youthful sensibilities.”

Fly Carefully

But adoption by the mainstream didn’t dull the disaffected-youth-appeal of blacklight, it seems. Into the ’80s, blacklight found a new home in video arcades (described by Donahue as “dark dungeons with flourescent facades”), and skateboard graphics, while in the nineties, the “rave revolution stole its day-glo smiles straight from the walls of the seventies.” Donahue also cites the medium’s continued growth and use by various artists and art-collectives in the twenty-first century.

Representing “the kids” today are “alternative neopsychedelic band” MGMT (of Time to Pretend fame, among other trippy videos), who pen an appropriately bent forward that begins (the emphases are theirs):

Fuzzy wuzzy wuz the pinstripe cloaked wizard that watched proudly o’er our gallant practice spacey space at such perilous heights. What imagined crag doth he scale at dawn, staff in hand?”

Keep on truckin’, dudes.

In another essay from Summer of Love, titled “Veiling and Unveiling: The Culture of the Psychedelic,” the trippily-named Diedrich Diederichsen writes:

“The psychedelic discourse recognises two fundamental axioms that, strictly speaking, contradict one another. One axiom presumes that out world is false on principle…The other axiom is that the world is merely not truly knowable by us.”

Which brings to mind this true story: This one time, when we all took way, way too much E, and we were all lying in this guy’s apartment–this was after everyone had gone off on their own in this building-wide Halloween party, and then projectile puked, at the same time, and then found each other and kind of freaked out a bit, and after like 11 hours we were all still unbelievably high and messed up and kind of miserable–I started looking through this picture book of ancient Egyptian jewelry, and all the pictures were suddenly in 3D. I had to touch the pages to prove that I couldn’t pick up the scarabs. And then, when I showed the book to everyone else, without any explanation of what to expect, they all saw the same thing.

Upon seeing the promise on the book’s cover that its pages “shine brilliantly in ultraviolet light”, I scampered giddily to the store to buy a blacklight bulb with memories of that “whoa, awesome” book experience in mind. As I installed the black bulb into my rocket-shaped desk lamp, Donahue’s words added to my anticipation:

“The blacklight version of turning on is flipping the electric switch and waiting for the unmistakable hazy glow…Used in combination with outrageous illustrations, the light created a glorious glow and spectacular optical odysseys.”

Then there was Grunenberg’s essay in Summer of Love, on “LSD Art”, where he writes:

“At best, psychedelic art…evokes the effects of perceptual distortions on perceived or imagined objects, rendering multi-coloured forms and excessive, repetitive patterns, in a state of constant flux.”

Having long since called it quits on alternative recreational consumables, my hopes were nonetheless quite… high.

But in my darkened room, staring at this book under the feeble purple light, I felt more than a little like Ethan Suplee in Mallrats, struggling with the Magic Eye poster.

I went to another store and bought another blacklight bulb, this time from a different maker. The packaging even featured a day-glo leopard image that reminded me of Michael Art’s alluring Tiger Lady poster in this book. (An aside: I asked at the hardware store why there so many manufacturers of blacklight bulbs. Apparently, they show where cats urinate. I tried to test that, too, but I couldn’t get my desk lamp to reach the couch where my cats hang out, and pointing the lamp at them from across the room only seemed to confirm their rather low opinion of me. This fact suggests that the South Park episode on cheesing could provide the missing link between blacklight posters, cat urine and drug culture.)

Alas, the lines didn’t wiggle, and the colours didn’t come alive. Their grooviness remained intact. It was just harder to see in the dim light. It would seem that Diederichsen’s two axioms held true for me.

Slightly disappointed (in myself, not the book), yet thankfully sober, Ultraviolet remains an enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking experience. And if I stare at these pages long enough, maybe they’ll start to move. Dude.

RATING 7 / 10