The Daily Heller: David Byrd, the East Coast’s Psychedelic Poster Man

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While psychedelic rock concert poster artists were making art in San Francisco, defining the style of the ’60s, concert promoters at New York rock palaces were churning out their own brand of work. David Edward Byrd was arguably the leader of this East Coast movement, and later became a ubiquitous Broadway show poster designer. His first retrospective monograph, POSTER CHILD: The Psychedelic Art & Technicolor Life of David Edward Byrd, created with Robert von Goeben, is a stunning collection of art and stories behind one of rock and roll’s most visible yet somewhat lesser celebrated artists. The book is packed with finished and sketched work as well as anecdotes galore—an essential chronicle of the times. I asked Byrd whether he saw himself as central to the East Village music scene and why the San Francisco artists soaked up all the notoriety.

You appear to be inspired by an Art Nouveau language. How were you introduced to this approach? And what would you say distinguished you from the late 19th-century masters?
I fell in love with the work of Alfons Mucha in my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon when it was still called Carnegie Tech. I am still not certain about how that happened at that time—but I do believe that it is necessary for a young artist to “fall in love” with an older artist in order to gas the engine of their creativity, so to speak. Everything about Mucha’s work: the exquisite draughtsmanship, the sinuous curves, the very delicious color palettes, the image/ground treatments, etc., just thrilled me. I became a voracious collector of art reference sources/books from that moment on. I was a major in the painting and design department and by my senior year I became somewhat fixated on the work of Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon. I was creating very large canvases (6–8 feet) of what I called “Existential Figure Investigations” of loosely brushed nudes. The only 19th-century masters I was interested in at that time were Carravagio, Gauguin and Puvis de Chavannes, plus the aforementioned Munch and Bacon.

I know your work for the Fillmore East (one of my teenage haunts that housed the office of the East Village Other); it was very different from the Fillmore West and San Francisco poster artists, like Victor Mosocso, Wes Wilson, et al. How would you describe the distinction in form and style?
Well, I was living on a commune (Fantasy Farm) and I got a call from Josh White and Kip Cohen, both of whom I met in art school. They were part of the creation of a rock concert venue in the East Village called “The Fillmore East,” and they desperately needed a poster designer. As I was the only graphic artist they knew, they called me at the commune and asked if I would be interested in creating a poster for Traffic, Blue Cheer & Iron Butterfly, which was the next show lined up at this new venue. Several of my communards were classmates of Josh and Kip at CMU so it became a cozy start for the new rock era. Bill Graham liked my style a lot, saying it was “very New York.” He was thrilled that the type I used was “readable.”

Your approach was indeed more illustrative—and I’d say more precise—than other poster “children” of the ’60s. What was your background and starting point for developing a signature approach?
You are right on about it being very different than the Fillmore West artists. I had no idea about how to create a poster. Also, I had absolutely no knowledge of or about typography. And the “Westies,” as I called them, were all about hand-drawn Nouveau-ish typography, which at that time was way over my head, but I was determined to not let this stop me. So, I worked hard to make PressType work on the fly. (I am still embarrassed about this, by the way.) My well-known Hendrix Poster uses Clarendon PressType but the complexity of the “Experience” image I hoped would draw your eye away from this type. (WTF—Clarendon? Oy!)

How much influence did The Who, Dead, Byrds and other groups you promoted have on your final output? Did they request you specifically?
In those days the bands were just happy to get “paid and laid.” It was Bill Graham that kept me creating posters. NYC was not a “poster town,” as it were. So in the three years we were open I only did a small number of FE posters compared to David Singer (the best of the Westies) who created 60 posters during his gig in San Francisco. (We became friends—the only Westie I really knew.) Never the twain shall meet.

Bill was a real mensch as far as I am concerned. His son David owns some of my originals. But, if it weren’t for Broadway and the theater, I never would have survived. But that is a real “shaggy dog” story in itself that is pretty much covered in the book. But my rock posters got me my first Broadway gig (Lanford Wilson’s The Gingham Dog) in 1969.

Was there a spoken or unspoken rivalry with the San Francisco artists?
I was never aware that any of the Westies even knew who I was. We did finally meet at the book signing for The Art of the Fillmore at the Fillmore West back in the day. We all sat at a long table and the books would be passed down the line and we would each sign our names inside. I never felt any rivalry ever at this time or since. To me, it was these guys who were famous, not myself.

Your Hendrix poster is but one of the icons of the period, but even more well-known and ubiquitous were the Broadway posters for era-defining musicals. Given that the San Francisco poster artists focused on music, would you agree that you owned the musical theater space?
For a New York Minute. It is true that Follies and Godspell put me on the map, as it were. But there were so many NY illustrators who created fantastic show posters that I am very humbled to be part of such an illustrious pack of designers.

Who among your peers as Broadway posterists—Paul Davis or Doug Johnson, for instance—did you look at as a “competitor” or “peer”?
Everyone who creates a good show poster is a competitor and/or a peer. One of the most prolific is my first student at Pratt Institute from my Beginning Illustration course in 1971, Frank Verlizzo. “Fraver” being his poster handle. We are still very close friends, though a continent apart. (Sweeney Todd, The Lion King, Sunday in the Park With George, etc.) He brought me home to share his Italian mama’s eggplant parmigiana. I always knew he would be famous some day!

Do you believe that your work was of its time or for all time?
One hopes “for all time” but I will take either. The fickle finger of fate sometimes sticks it in your eye, alas.

I’ve read that you were always busy, but your name was not as well-known as your work. Milton Glaser may be known for his Dylan and many other ’60s icons, but “Byrd” was and is a marquee name. Do you believe you were somehow undervalued in the poster world?
I never expected to have a coffee-table book about myself and my art. So I am tickled Barbie. As I like to say, “If you live long enough, you might get a book!” It’s a long road from Miami Beach to the Library of Congress. Shalom!