Orange, red-violet, purple, electric blue, and tangerine are the signature colors found in the quintessential psychedelic rock posters created by graphic designer and illustrator David Byrd, whose powerful work was reflective of the art cultural revolution of the 60’s and 70’s.
Byrd was part of a movement and revival in art that spanned beyond a decade, producing vibrant and moving posters that inspired the entertainment seeking public and future artists to come.
“I’m an agent from the 20th century, so I am here to tell you about the last 50 years,” Byrd said to an attentive cluster of artists and appreciators who filled room V-212 to near capacity.
Byrd’s early art deco works reflected in the local Miami Beach architecture and “tawdry resort glamour” around him, Byrd had said of his home town. He also helped bring back the curvaceous, swirling detail found in the art nouveau of Alphonse Mucha and Maxfield Parrish, artists who were contemporaries of some of the first posters ever.
“It was a big, kind of mishigas,” Byrd said of the art nouveau revival in the ‘60s. “All of the rock posters were emulating the sinuous curves of nouveau … that was part of the aesthetic of the time, and it started me looking around. The 19th century was a big influence.”
Educated at Carnegie Mellon University and taught by the same art instructor as Andy Warhol, Byrd’s early school work consisted of portraits, or “existential snapshots,” of his fellow students and friends. Fueled by a “sea of nihilism and despair,” he credits painter such as Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon as his school work influences.
“The crowd was thinner than Cheez Whiz on a Ritz cracker,” said Byrd of his first gallery showing was in New York at Brooklyn College.
But word on his work in New York soon spread thicker and quicker.
When Jimi Hendrix approached Byrd, he asked him to redo the first work presented because Hendrix had wished to include all of the members of his band, The Experience. Byrd had become fascinated by dot matrixes, so in the new piece he used three colors in different combinations to make Hendrix’ hair into “photons,” where each dot was drawn by hand and hand-inked.
In the history of Byrd’s collective work, the now-famous poster had only been his third.
The Hendrix Experience poster has since been featured in the “Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Victorian and Albert in London, and was chosen by Billboard Magazine as number eight of the ’25 most important rock posters of all time,'” Byrd said.
Later, the poster was brought to the attention of Prince, who recommissioned it for his tour in 2012. With his own likeness replacing that of Hendrix in the repurposed work, the glorious reds, blues, hot pinks, and neon orange of the long-dormant art deco poster had been re-electrified.
“Sometimes they don’t fly, so you use the idea yourself,” said Byrd. “Steal from yourself, don’t be afraid. If you have a good idea rework it. And, of course, steal from others.”
Not immune from rejection, Byrd had created an exquisite poster for the 1969 Woodstock Festival. The poster features his own signature nouveau with jewel-toned, ornate flowers, hearts, nude cupids, and a nude borrowed from the 1856 French neoclassical “La Source,” but was rejected by the client for being “obscene.”
By today’s standards, the work is tame and chaste, like something you might see on a tasteful valentine card.
“Picasso said, ‘Good artists borrow, great artist steal,’” continued Byrd. “So, keep that in mind. Of course you have to make it your own, or it will be too obvious. I have a post-modern concept, which is everything that’s come before me is a part of me. All the artists, and the universe, before me are in my DNA.”
Byrd has produced poster and graphic art illustration for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, Casablanca Records, and numerous films — including the “Day of the Locust” poster famous for capturing Karen Black’s signature lazy eye.
In addition to Hendrix and Prince, he has catered his art to the individual tastes of rock stars such as Elvis Presley, The Grateful Dead, Lou Reed, Crosby, Stills & Nash, KISS, and Van Halen.
Byrd has also done years of poster art for Broadway theater hits such as “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Tommy”, “Little Shop of Horrors”, and even locally in California for the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
In 1970 another piece famous for its use of monochrome and red, the “Godspell” poster, was created for the play’s premiere. According to Byrd, the low-budget production had commissioned the poster for just $100. Knowing that an extended run is a gamble for any new play, the caveat to accepting the low fee was that Byrd would be paid an additional $50 for every week that the show remained.
“Godspell ran for 8 years,” said Byrd. That poster would influence theater and music poster art for decades thereafter.
Now 75 years old, Byrd uses contemporary drawing and painting tools that are available to young artists today, such as Adobe Illustrator, which can make creating easier and faster.
“I started on Illustrator. It takes a lot of the drudgery out of doing art. It can’t make you an artist. It still helps to know everything about art and how to do it. But it’s a great tool, so you are very lucky,” Byrd said to the students.
Graphics and screen printing instructor Kris Pilon referred to him as a “national treasure” in her introduction.
“He has a knowledge and a background and experience that nobody else has,” Pilon said. “In 1960 no one was using Photoshop and Illustrator. They were drawing stuff by hand. Everything — lettering and all the graphics were hand done and hand colored and hand separated … It’s almost like a lost art.”
Through a chance encounter at a holiday party, engineering and technology instructor John Minor met Byrd, where he then invited him to speak, teach, and publish a print at PCC.
Minor, along with Pilon and engineering and technology professor David Cuatt, frequently have guest artists speak in the colorful, poster-plastered, and well-oiled screen printing and graphics design machine that is V-212.
“These are artists that I have worked with and I just extend the invitation,” said Minor. “So I just arrange this informal happening, we do a print that the students work on, and we open up the invitation to everyone and they are always successful.”
Staying long after the presentation to speak to students and sign the newly printed PCC graphics and screen printing collaboration project, an art deco self-portrait, Byrd reinforced the need for them to not only practice the craft, but to research and find inspiration from all of art’s history.
“You’ve got to keep looking at all those [artists,]” he said. “You might find somebody who just inspires the hell out of you. Then you do something that becomes known.”