In 2004, Merle Becker quit her corporate television job at MTV to pursue a growing fascination with rock posters. Soon, she was traveling across the country interviewing artists such as Stanley Mouse, Art Chantry, and Tara McPherson. “My initial intent was to find out why so many artists are drawn to doing rock posters,” says Becker. “I also wanted to tell a clear story of the history of the art form.” The result is American Artifact, a documentary that has been making the festival rounds and premieres tonight in New York at the Royal Flush Festival.
The film chronicles the rise of American rock poster art, from the skeleton and roses posters created for the Grateful Dead and the birth of silk-screening to grunge and the off-kilter whimsy associated with contemporary bands. “It is my hope that this film causes people to see ‘lowbrow’ art in a different way,” notes Becker, “as beautiful pieces of art that are also valid statements about the cultural changes that America has seen throughout the years.”
Always a huge music fan, Becker was inspired to make American Artifact after encountering Paul Grushkin and Dennis King‘s coffee table tome Art of Modern Rock. “I was not only blown away by the artwork, but I was also surprised that nobody had done a film about its history and the current rock poster art movement,” Becker tells us. “I really had no idea that modern rock posters were being done, and until that book, I thought that the ’60s rock poster art had marked the end of that medium.” She soon found her way to GigPosters.com, “and the rest is history.”
Read on for more from our interview with Becker.
What do you think will most surprise people about the film/the history of poster art?
Most people who have seen the movie have told me that they were surprised about how much of the iconic rock poster art contains “borrowed” designs.
Any in particular?
The Grateful Dead logo/rock poster that was done by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley wasn’t an original design—it was a pre-existing illustration that was beautifully incorporated by Stanley and Alton into an iconic rock poster, which in turn, inspired the Dead to make it their logo. But, most people don’t know this, and the movie talks about a few instances where this was the case.
Do you collect rock posters or did you in the course of making the film?
No, I’m not a collector of anything (except for maybe CDs). Space has always been an issue living in Manhattan, so I got into the habit very early on of keeping my “stuff” to a minimum.
We count at least 14 different movie posters for American Artifact. Do you have a favorite?
Haha, that’s a bit like asking someone to pick their favorite kid, no? I really love all of them, each for a different reason: I love Chuck [Sperry]‘s orange girl poster because of the symbols and references to the early days of San Franciscan rock poster art (hard to read text, vibrating colors). I love Paul Imagine‘s “character with the projector in his head” (at left) because it’s so rad. Period. I love Dennis Loren‘s because, again, I think he does a great job of referencing several things about the history of psychedelic rock poster art. Chris Shaw‘s Elvis poster (above) is also a favorite because Elvis is indeed an American Artifact, and the design is so amusingly disturbing. Stanley’s poster with the image of him and Alton makes me laugh every time. Scrojo‘s letterpress poster is a total badass design. Leia Bell‘s work to me is delightfully playful and has such child-like appeal—and her movie poster is no exception. The PNE poster blows me away because of the concept—the “27 Club”—and the execution. What else do you expect from those guys except perfection?. And, lastly the Hatch Show Print letterpress poster (at top) really brings it all full circle. A movie poster from one of the oldest poster printing houses in the U.S. that used to print posters for events in the 1800s is such a special and relevant thing to a (historical) film like this—and, the design is amazing!