Published: July 30, 2019
By Karla Klein Albertson
GREENSBURG, PA – Back in the day, even the sketchiest crash pad was enlivened by a treasure trove of graphic design. Spread out on the floor near the turntable would be a peacock array of record album covers – colorful, evocative, even visionary. Many of the most memorable sprang from the imagination of multi-disciplinary artist John Van Hamersveld, and an exhibition featuring his works will be on view at the Westmoreland Museum of Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, through October 20.
Before the record designs, the artist had his first big hit with the classic poster for The Endless Summer, a 1966 movie where a bunch of very relaxed guys explain how you can make the surfing season never end by traveling around the world. Although Van Hamersveld was born in Baltimore, his heart settled in Southern California after he moved there to study art as a young man. Waves have been a recurring motif in prints, posters and murals. Not surprisingly, in a recent photo of the designer, patterns of water decorate the surface of his heavy gun, a type of surfboard engineered to ride large waves.
Westmoreland chief curator Barbara Jones explained that the idea for the exhibition arose through a family connection of curatorial assistant Bonnie West. Her uncle, Ned West, had many contacts in the music business and had formed a comprehensive record and poster collection, including examples of Van Hamersveld’s work. Jones told Antiques and The Arts Weekly, “He brought in all these posters that he had, and we were just wowed by them. The psychedelic colors brought on the real nostalgia for that time period in the ’60s and the ’70s. We found out that John Van Hamersveld designed the Endless Summer poster. It was probably over a year and a half ago that we initiated the idea; we thought it was a perfect subject for a summer show. I was doing the schedule for the next couple of years and knew this would be a really great fit.
She continued, “We made contact with John and his wife, Alida Post, who serves as his agent, dealer, manager. And they were really excited about the opportunity, so that was the genesis of the exhibition. John’s been very involved in the installation as we knew he would be from the beginning. As a graphic designer, he’s presented things in a very graphic format. We sent him the floor plan of the gallery, and he came back with five or six different gallery layouts. We’ve been going back and forth with him about those and letting him know what we would like to include – so there have been compromises back and forth about what’s in and what’s out. It’s going to be really great. It’s not chronological, essentially – it’s more thematic. We put some vintage posters together; we put the printed things together. John’s been printing a lot of things on canvas.”
Visitors will see a parade of his most memorable album cover designs, including the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967), the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (1972), and The Grateful Dead’s Skeletons in the Closet (1974). He also designed legendary posters for individual events, such as the Jimi Hendrix 1968 Pinnacle Concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Many of the designs will be available as reproductions in the gift shop, and the artist designed a special Era of Cool poster just for the exhibition. Vintage examples of his works can be bought and sold online, so this artist’s material is accessible to all admirers.
Bonnie West did an illuminating interview with Van Hamersveld about his career, which can be viewed in its entirety as a blog post on the Westmoreland website. One reveal by the artist was the challenge of designing art for musicians when faced with massive amounts of input. He called his record business experience “quite an adventure” because, “The thing about the album covers is that, in a way, you’re in the trenches with probably about 20 people, right? Between the band and the management, the girlfriends and secretaries.” Everyone had an opinion, yet the ultimate design captured a unique moment in musical history.
Elsewhere in the show, there are editions from the artist’s “Composer” series, begun in 2007, which ranges from Mozart and Beethoven to Lennon and Dylan. Van Hamersveld made art for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, represented by the official poster of a javelin thrower. He also has a long history of creating murals, including a massive 360-foot-long example for those historic games. A more recent water tank wrap can be seen in an exhibition photo and model, and exhibits in the gallery include other murals in sections stretched along the wall.
When asked what viewers will take away, Barbara Jones replied, “It will be a real visual overload of color. It will take people back to the day when everything was hot colors, fluorescent colors. The way he layers them, it’s almost like an evolution of time. It tells a comprehensive story in one piece.” Above all, the exhibition demonstrates Van Hamersveld’s enormous energy as he moved from one project to another. Even now, while the art world looks back at his history, he keeps thinking ahead.
Well worth a look, that contagious energy saturates the artist’s own website called – of course – jvh.cool, where he presents his coolhous [sic] studio material. There are photos, posters, murals – things to explore, things to buy. The site is a portal into a talented mind that sees the world quite differently than the average person. A stated goal of rock and roll was to “blow your mind” – the Van Hamersveld approach to art is an aid to realization on that path.
Because this art is so closely connected with popular music, special events during the exhibition will feature multiple opportunities to sing and dance along; it all began in July with an Endless Summer Beach Party. Next up in the Summer Saturday series on August 17, the music of the Rolling Stones will be paired with a showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) with Keith Richards. On August 21, Nwaka Onwusa, curator and director of curatorial affairs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will discuss the impact of rock in the 1960s and 1970s. The artist himself will be on stage for “In Conversation with John Van Hamersveld” the evening of October 2. On Saturday, October 5, the Big Art Party – Peace. Love. Art. – will feature music, the artist and an opportunity to rediscover your psychedelic core.
When the exhibition opened, Anne Kraybill, the Richard M. Scaife director and CEO, said, “Over the past five decades, Van Hamersveld has created a wealth of instantly recognizable graphic design. We invite visitors to experience the eye-pleasing alchemy created when pop culture, music and visual art converge.”
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art is located at 221 North Main Street in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh. Exhibition information and a history of the museum and its collections can be found at www.thewestmoreland.org.
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