Rick Griffin Heart & Torch

Rick Griffin: Just Another MAD artist or Draftsman of the Sacred?

I have to be careful how I talk about Rick Griffin, not just because if I get it wrong his surfer buddies will stomp my hodaddy ass, but because the whole point of this endeavor is to take stock of Griffin’s measure as a capital-A Artist, and he got it wrong on so many counts. Griffin was marked as a published cartoonist and commercial graphic artist before he attended – and dropped out of – the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute, where the prevailing Abstract Expressionist dogma precluded figuration and original thought.

Griffin’s main claim to fame is as one of the coauthors of the poster renaissance of the psychedelic mid-60s -- an art historical moment whose importance is still resisted by academic and curatorial establishments (in spite of a recent flurry of lip service), in no small part due to the inordinate global impact psychedelic visuals had on humanity’s visual language in comparison to the diminishing legacy of the increasingly stingy sensory content of the sanctioned fine arts.

Griffin was interested in comics, figuration, lettering, graphic and product designs, illustration, and honest labor. All of which are low-status – if not taboo – categories in academic circles. His primary media were drawing and printmaking, unfairly disparaged in both traditional and new media studio art culture, and short-changed in the Art marketplace. He was a surfer and a hippy. Then Griffin went and found Jesus.

The most formidable taboos in Griffin’s life and work are – not coincidentally -- the most intriguing: his mystical spirituality and shamanic presence. Spirituality is an iffy topic in contemporary art circles – you can get away with references to Tantric yoga or Theosophy, but pedophilia and fecal smearing are more acceptable topics than Christianity – particularly of the “fundamentalist” stripe.

While shamanism – the ancient planetwide tribal spiritual practice – is generally accepted as the prehistoric source of artmaking (think of the animals in the Lascaux caves and the Venus of Willendorf), attempts to contextualize contemporary art practice along analogous lines are often regarded with contempt – stigmatized by a false equation with the lucrative plastic New Age shamanism industry. Nevertheless, it’s a model that compensates for much of what is perceived as lacking in contemporary art, and one that suits Rick Griffin remarkably well.

The various subcultural contexts of Griffin’s life and career can be read as a sequence of tribal situations – Surf Culture, Psychedelic Culture, Jesus Freak Culture – that sought to create utopian splinter microcosms of human society to which various consciousness-transforming sacraments were central. In each case, Griffin’s role was to act as an intermediary between the experiential and the symbolic realms, translating and codifying the transcendent weightlessness and timeless immediacy of the Green Room, the ego-shredding electricity of LSD, and the redemptive living waters of Christ’s presence into pictorial equivalents -- as roadmaps for the novice and reminders for the initiated.

Other factors play into the Griffin-as-Shaman paradigm: his early exposure to, and subsequent affinity with, Native American culture; his formative and physically scarring near-death experience; his proclivity for entheogens. Griffin was larger than life, he moved effortlessly through different strata of society oblivious to status, and legends sprang up around him – often as a result of his own trickster talespinning.

This isn’t to say that Griffin’s art doesn’t hold its own in terms of formal and conceptual inventiveness in the context of contemporary art history – that is essentially what this exhibition and essay are asserting – but that the validity of his works relies less on their arguable merits as potential luxury status objects in the Fine Art World than on their role as indicators of a far richer and more vital vision of art’s role in the interlaced aesthetic, psychological, and spiritual possibilities of our species. Which, whether he would cop to it or not, is what Rick Griffin was struggling to communicate right up until the end.

But let’s start at the beginning. Richard Alden Griffin was born on June 18 1944 in LA and grew up in the suburban enclaves of the Palos Verdes peninsula, between Los Angeles and Long Beach along the California coast. His father James was an engineer [who briefly worked as an animator for Disney] and an amateur archaeologist in his spare time. As a boy Rick accompanied his father on digs where he was first exposed to native artifacts and the rustic Old West visual culture that was to inform so much of his later work.

Griffin’s earliest artwork derived from the cartoonish end of comic art, drawing from MAD artists – Don Martin and Jack Davis in particular – as well as reflecting the pervasive stylistic influence of gag cartoonists like Herb Gardner (Nebbishes) and fellow Chouinardian, quintessential gag-panelist and Laguna Beach resident Virgil Partch (VIP). Griffin would do drawings on tee-shirts for his classmates for pocket money, and seems to have been a constant doodler, filling notebooks with his ever-more-sophisticated drawings.

When junior high buddy Randy Nauert converted greaser Griffin to surfing – a practice Rick would continue on and off for the rest of his life -- something clicked. Griffin’s gremmy factotum Murphy was born, and Griffin was soon designing posters for surf movie screenings and churning out advertising spot illustrations for Hermosa Beach’s Greg Noll Surf Shop among others. And when Nauert passed Griffin’s work on to Surfer Magazine impresario John Severson, Murphy’s iconic status in surf culture was set.

Due to their rigid competitive criteria, sports are under-recognized as aesthetic disciplines – though virtually every aspect of athletic culture is determined to some degree by discriminating between visual, kinesthetic, and other sensory information, often with vast litanies of subjective distinctions and rankings underlying the binary qualitative principle of win/lose. Nowhere is this truer than in the lonely sport of surfing, with its odd patina of romantic bohemian introspection, its emphasis on individual experience and virtuosic performance, its frequent religious overtones, its incredibly detailed vocabulary for subtle variations in wave structure and board technique, and its strange and deep impact on popular culture in the early 60’s.

As one of the foremost artistic chroniclers of surf culture, Rick Griffin was actually translating one very experimental and unrecognized art medium – the performative improvisational choreography and subjective collateral physical and psychological effects of surfing – into an only slightly less disreputable one – comic strips. Not only did Murphy originate, disseminate, and chronicle much of the argot, fashions, and other signifiers of the surf subculture (often to landlocked surfer wannabes or comic fans), the comic was increasingly informed by transcendentalist subtext, as Griffin’s surrogate became unfixed in time, space, and social standing.

From 1961 – 1964 Griffin’s penmanship continued to grow in fluidity and facility, and he began incorporating washes, zip-a-tone, and zany old-timey lettering resulting in a sophisticated faux-naive style that was soon adorning decals, movie posters, ad campaigns, and album covers. The Murphy strip itself became a vehicle for Griffin’s elaborate and intricate renderings of giant waves, which possessed a grandeur that quietly dwarfed the cartoonish goings-on below them. But a major stylistic shift occurred when Rick was laid up in recovery from his legendary automobile accident. Accounts of this turning point vary wildly, but apparently Rick was hitchhiking north to try to secure passage to Australia out of San Francisco when his ride lost control and Rick was thrown from the vehicle.

His face was badly damaged and he was in a coma for several weeks, before awakening to the sound of some one reciting the 23rd Psalm – the valley of the shadow of death number. His dreams of globe-trotting scuttled, Griffin holed up at his parents’ house and licked his wounds, using the time to focus and sharpen his graphic technique – particularly his crosshatching and rendering of texture, which began to creep into any unoccupied visual spaces leading to an ornate, almost claustrophobic horror vacui at odds with the happy-go-lucky cartoon illustration style in which they were contained. Griffin had acquired an eyepatch to hide his lidless left eye, and Murphy had developed a dark, introspective edge.

As his graphic style became more baroque and clotted with information and his thoughts turned to the future, Griffin somehow took it in his head to attend art school. Although the Chouinard Art Institute had recently turned out such idiosyncratic regional Pop innovators as Ed Ruscha and Llyn Foulkes (and mad just been bailed out by Walt Disney, which would lead to its transformation into CalArts -- one of the most cartoon-friendly art academies in the world), Griffin found the mandatory and already-institutionalized Abstract Expressionist formula (and outright dismissal of figuration, symmetry, and rapidographs) unsuited to his gifts or ambitions, and dropped out after a year. Nevertheless (and is often the case) the friendships he developed while at art school proved to be the foundation for a rapid period of artistic growth and self-discovery, leading directly to Griffin’s ascension to global fame as one of the inventors of both the psychedelic rock poster and underground comix.

1965 and 66 were the flashpoint years for the cultural transformation that was to unfold over the course of the next several years, and Los Angeles was one of the ground zeros. At Chouinard, Griffin met his wife-to-be Ida Pfefferie and fell in with a scraggly bohemian tribe called the Jook Savages -- an art gang/jugband that amazingly enough continues to play to this day, regularly competing for the coveted Hollywood Waffle Iron trophy at the annual Battle of the Jug Bands in Minneapolis with a 19-member lineup led by Griffin’s cohort David Morton. Griffin played the one-string zither. Griffin began to smoke weed, grow his hair, and dress funny.

Soon Murphy was no longer a viable alter-ego for Griffin’s expanding consciousness, so in mid-65 he shelved the character indefinitely and began the “Griffin-Stoner Adventures” in which a more accurate self-caricature -- paired with a foil based on Surfer Magazine photographer Ron Stoner –wandered the globe like debauched Tintins (or proto-Hunter S Thompsons), supposedly sending fragmentary, absurdist coded dispatches to the Magazine from the frontlines of a rapidly mutating surf culture. Which turned out to be not far off the mark.

Griffin/Stoner (which was largely scripted by Surfer’s editorial branch) allowed the artist to stretch out in terms of ever-more-detailed landscape panoramas and ornamental Victorian filigree. At the same time, Griffin was in demand as the illustrator for surf-related commercial enterprises. It could have been his big break, but strange winds were blowing from the north. He and his friends attended Ken Kesey’s Acid Test in riot-devastated Watts and partook of the LSD-laced Kool-Aid. Ida, who had moved to the Bay Area to give birth to Rick’s daughter Flaven, started sending back trippy postcard versions of the new posters emerging from the nascent Haight Ashbury ballroom scene. And at a connection’s pad Griffin had come across the year-old “Seed” poster advertising proto-psychedelic band The Charlatans’ summer-long tenure at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada.

Co-designed by Charlatans leader George Hunter and executed by pianist Michael Ferguson, this scraggly flier seems tame in comparison to the outpouring of visual stimuli that was to follow in its wake, yet its easy to see how its combination of Old West and circus poster motifs rendered with elaborate crosshatching and handmade variations on old typefaces caught Griffin’s attention. Griffin even made a journey to check out the scene at the Red Dog Saloon, and knew his days were numbered. Frustrated with Chouinard and Surfer Magazine’s ham-handed censorship of the sly, parenthetical drug references in his Griffin/Stoner strips, Griffin folded up shop and split (though he continued drawing the stories until the following June. He spent the summer in Mexico surfing and then, reunited with Ida, relocated to San Francisco Haight-Ashbury, where the Jook Savages had been offered a group show of their artwork at the prototypical Psychedelic Shop.

Timing is everything. Griffin’s poster for the Jook Savages Art Show led directly to an invitation to design a flier/poster for the immanent Pow-wow: A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-in, the signal jamboree integrating the previously sectarian clans of the Berkeley radical stronghold, the lingering North Beach Beat scene, and the blossoming Hippie community. More than 20,000 fringe dwellers assembled on the polo field on Golden Gate Park to hear speakers like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lenore Kandel, Timothy Leary, and Jerry Rubin, and dance to the new music emerging from the scene: The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Sir Douglas Quintet, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Jefferson Airplane.

Mostly the Human Be-In was a revelation and declaration of a communal, drug-fueled psychic awakening that seemed to many to have unlimited potential to transform humanity. Griffin’s poster captured this portentous vibe with a modified rendering of an engraving depicting a Native American holding aloft a ceremonial blanket and cradling a hollow-body electric guitar; from a disconcertingly ominous cloud above emerged a talon – undoubtedly belonging to a certain mythical eagle/lion hybrid – clutching a pair of crossed thunderbolts. Griffin had announced his arrival on the scene with a poster that instantly became iconic.

Chet Helms of The Family Dog (a collective that had emerged from the Red Dog Saloon scene) soon recruited Griffin to design posters for the weekly dances held at the ornate Avalon Ballroom, which – in combination with Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium – formed the initial commercial foundation for what would soon become known as the San Francisco poster renaissance. Rick’s first assignment was the playbill for Contact (The Family Dog gave names to many of their early dances), featuring Big Brother and the Sir Douglas Quintet. For this and his next few posters, Rick followed the collagist formula that was the default approach for the emerging genre – in this case a browned-out version of The Creation of Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Soon enough Griffin began utilizing his chops as a draftsman in an effective elaboration of the graphic work he had been doing for the surf tribe.

Griffin’s B&W linework was the foundation of his graphic prowess, but it wasn’t long before he took up the challenge of the versatile color lithographic printing technology at his disposal – not to mention the psychedelic community’s extravagant expectations and the competitive and collaborative energies at play among the five main poster artists working through the Summer of Love -- and embarked on a breathtaking trajectory of artistic growth. Griffin had been drawn north in part by the affinities between his own vision and that of Stanley Mouse (Miller), the former Detroit pinstriper whose appropriative passion for retro package design, ye olde typefaces, and vintage illustration closely paralleled Rick’s visual obsessions.

Mouse, his studio partner Alton Kelly, former Yaley Victor Moscoso, and psychedelic poster movement patriarch Wes Wilson -- with the new addition of our protagonist – became “The Big Five,” a sort-of Theodore Sturgeon-esque group mind that collectively birthed the graphic vocabulary of the Aquarian Age inside of 18 months. Tracing the layered, reflexive, interpenetrating strains of influence among their respective oeuvres (and those of numerous poster talents who didn’t make the cut) would be a near-impossible undertaking. Since the focus of this essay and exhibition is on the work of Rick Griffin, we must forgo any such attempt at historicist exegesis. But it’s safe to infer this polymorphous mutual influence as a given over the course of the Big Five’s tenure.

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From "Rick Griffin: Heart and Torch" catalog LAM/Gingko Press 2007