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John Van Hamersveld and the Poster Revolution

John Van Hamersveld, "Thundercloud"
John Van Hamersveld, "Thundercloud."

The artist John Van Hamersveld (b. 1941) has played an instrumental role in shaping the visual culture of rock ’n’ roll and life in Southern California since the 1960s. Holding influential positions as an art director for Surfer Magazine and Capitol Records, he transcended these roles by designing hundreds of album covers for musicians like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles along with leading the surf culture aesthetic for decades. His iconic image for the movie The Endless Summer in 1964 and his concert poster for Jimi Hendrix at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium in 1968 have become two of the most recognizable and well-known images in their respective genres, securing JVH’s place in design history. 

Establishing a firm groundwork as a poster designer, a reflective Van Hamersveld has launched into a new era of creativity in the 21st century where the work is just as fresh and groundbreaking amidst postmodern theory, different audiences, and radical changes in the industry. Technology fundamentally altered the foundation of how designers functioned in the late 1990s and JVH successfully reimagined how his work was made as an artist. Despite the shift, he was still able to maintain his unique lens and originality that brought him so much notoriety in previous decades. 

John Van Hamersveld, "Johnny Face" billboard
Announcement for John Van Hamersveld's "Johnny Face" billboard, 1972.

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A slew of posters capture the first two decades of JVH’s career, from the underground psychedelic scene to refined posters designed for La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, Wet Magazine and the 1984 Olympics. The first 21 years of designs were inspired by surf culture and the professional aesthetic of museums. The slight changes during this time period were mainly due to a growing sophistication from customers and clients. 

JVH pinpoints his “Johnny Face,” an image that functioned as a logo for himself as the end of an era. The “Johnny Face” transitioned from a poster to 224 KRLA billboards in Los Angeles and Orange County.  A new way of thinking about distribution of the poster, the billboard was an emerging form of public art and left an impression for how this imagery might change in the future.

After two decades of designing posters, JVH sensed the impending change and move away from posters in the late 1980s. The importance of designing logos and T-shirts were what clients wanted and the poster all but disappeared. So JVH spent some time in the classroom as an important member of the progressive curriculum at CalArts. Designers overall had a lessened impact at larger companies in the 1980s, so JVH transitioned to becoming a design consultant. “I met with vice presidents and presidents and offered word problems and discussed how art and design could be used in their companies.“ You can thank JVH for much of the day glow colors that dominated the 1980s during this time, as his ideas were instituted for over 15 years in this position.

John Van Hamersveld Cream poster
John Van Hamersveld's Cream poster, 2005.

Essentially an ephemeral medium, the poster is an accessible and social product that has communication as its top priority. Yet the appeal of the imagery and product to the public has made it a collector’s item as well. From ancient communities to the advent of the industrial revolution, individuals and businesses have used the poster to influence the public. While the printing press gradually improved from the 19th to the 20th century, it was the digital revolution that saturated the marketplace with affordable printing processes and technology suited for the individual. 

JVH recalls the changes of the late 1990s: “The digital wiped out corporate hierarchy over the span of five to six years… Softened by the year 2000 -- I had to start over -- I would start over in this way and that I would draw my images and that I would own them and that I would be an artist – which was launched with the Cream poster.” By drawing his own images for himself, JVH stopped the service-minded aspect of design and functioned instead as an artist. 

John Van Hamersveld "Crossing America Tour"
John Van Hamersveld's "Crossing America" tour, 2005-2006.

In 2005 JVH’s launched his first new poster since 1989 when he was asked to create Cream’s reunion poster. To his astonishment, it was received with exceptional success. The image sold out the first day of the concert and the producers had to print 1,000 more to satisfy the incredible demand. Over the remaining days of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, they eventually sold out of the image again. The poster had all but been buried a decade ago but for some reason, it had a new life. 

The Cream poster ended up being the cover of the live album and the success led to JVH going on a 2005-2006 tour to visit 17 Tower Record stores, selling posters around the country. Yet as JVH recalls: “Tower Records was selling its stores. Taking away the mode of delivery of selling posters.” The end of an era, JVH realized that he must be the artist, producer, and distributer to control the entire system. “The first 21 years was about serving the culture. The last 11 years is really about wanting to own the work rather than serve the work.“ 

The big difference for JVH is that he was not servicing a company anymore. From the Cream poster on, he was making everything and owning the images so they could continue to live on in contemporary forms of distribution. The accessibility of the poster has now translated into murals, much like the billboard many years ago. While the life of the poster is perhaps short, the distributor has the ability to show the work in multiple mediums. “The artist as originator and promoter has become the new model. My work has gone on to murals. I went out the back door from this history into a new medium.” As Van Hamersveld continues to create posters, it’s the craft that excites him. The scale and distribution of his art has changed, but the concept remains the same. From posters to murals, JVH creates it and sees it through to its final place as a form of public art. 

John Van Hamersveld posters
A collection of John Van Hamersveld’s most popular images from the 1960s.
John Van Hamersveld posters
A sampling of John Van Hamersveld’s recent work.

 

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