A 1960s television, fancy yet stodgy in its boxy wooden console, sits in the middle of Woodstock to the Moon: 1969 Illustrated at the Norman Rockwell Museum. A colorful cut glass candy dish, a kitschy green ceramic figurine, and framed black-and-white snapshots sit on doilies on top. On the flickering screen, Patsy Cline sings “Stand by Your Man,” then Tina Turner owns the stage with “River Deep, Mountain High.”
Most of Woodstock to the Moon, organized by curator of exhibitions Jesse Kowalski and on view through October 27 at the museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, examines how popular illustration reflected a tumultuous year. But this installation, complete with a love seat where viewers often sit and watch as if hypnotized, brings us into the heart of the 1960s home.
The color television was the family hearth and the central portal through which news and popular culture flooded the living room: Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the Vietnam War, Sesame Street, Scooby-Doo, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
Before TV, the home had in many ways been a refuge. By 1969, televisions plugged American directly into an awesome and frenzied world, delivering a jolt. Woodstock to the Moon captures that awe and frenzy with close to 100 objects encompassing illustration, design, and more.
The works of Norman Rockwell, that paragon of apple-pie tradition, anchor the exhibition with his keen observation and assured storytelling.
His exquisite painting, The Final Impossibility: Man’s Tracks on the Moon, made for Look magazine, depicts Armstrong on the moon’s soil watching Buzz Aldrin climb from the lunar capsule. He titled his deft, double-portrait of a soon-to-be president, also for Look, The Puzzling Case of Richard Nixon (Portrait of Richard M. Nixon). Though a cooperative model, Nixon was apparently not an easy man to paint.
Rockwell could dip into sentimentality, but there’s none of that penchant here. Attentive to the country’s moods, he chronicled some of the violence, environmental degradation, and counterculture of the 1960s.
His paintings and drawings provide a measured counterpoint to the era’s more progressive styles. It’s sweet to see Rockwell’s assured, tightly cropped portrait for the album cover of The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, recorded at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, alongside several posters for concerts there designed by artists such as Greg Irons and Randy Tuten.
Their psychedelic broadsides swim with woozy Art-Nouveau filigrees and saturated, flat colors that make your eyes spin. They’re ornate and surreal, as is Heinz Edelmann’s bubbly cover art for the Beatles Yellow Submarine LP, every bit as endearingly loopy as the animated film.
Nearby, Arnold Skolnick’s legendary prototype for the Woodstock concert poster, a bold, nimble image of a dove perching on the neck of a guitar, advertises the event as “3 DAYS of PEACE & MUSIC.”
Such designs were a world away from the prim and tailored graphic art trends of the 1950s. They reflected Timothy Leary’s description of psychedelia’s expansion of consciousness, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
That was a benign exhortation, but in 1969, there were many reasons to drop out—and a feeling that America was at an edge. The year before, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Riots at the Democratic Convention were sparked by demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War. In 1969, Altamont Speedway Free Festival, California’s answer to Woodstock, turned rowdy and violent, and four people died. Societal tensions seethed: Second Wave Feminism and the Black Power movement were in full swing.
The political and social-justice illustrations in Woodstock to the Moon are far from psychedelic: They grab you by the lapels. Year of the Panther, Emory Douglas’s cover for the Black Panthers’ eponymous newspaper, is a call to arms: a Panther, mouth open in a shout, raises a rifle in his fist as bands of red and white radiate—explosively? patriotically?—behind him.
Seymour Chwast’s antiwar poster End Bad Breath is more caustic than violent, a ferocious version of Uncle Sam, also framed in radiant bands. Sam is green-faced; his eyes fierce; his square, open mouth filled like a TV screen with the image of planes bombing a village.
Works such as these offer necessary hard edges to an exhibition that is frequently fizzy. A large section is devoted to Sesame Street, which premiered on PBS in 1969 thanks to the good work of producer Joan Ganz Cooney. Even this beneficent enterprise caught flak at that troubled time. In 1970, Mississippi’s State Commission for Educational Television hauled the show off the air because, the commission stated, “it uses a highly integrated cast of children.” Viewers protested, and Sesame Street was back on the air after 22 days.
Illustration is a wonderful tool to palpate history and discover the moods and visions of an era. Even Superman, whom one might think of as perennial and relatively immune to society’s shifts, would momentarily break out of formula to take on news and trends.
The Man of Steel comically suffers the slings and arrows of generational discord in an issue of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, drawn by Neal Adams. On the cover, Jimmy, wearing a long beard and a purple frock coat, totes a sign reading, “SUPERMAN IS A FREAK-OUT!” He hurls an egg, which hits Superman in the face. The title of the comic: “Hippie Olsen’s Hate-In!”
A nation fractured. Fear, bickering, political action, and escapism. A deluge of electronic intrusion. Does it all seem too familiar, 50 years on? As Dick Martin used to say on Laugh-In, “You bet your sweet bippy.”