Artist David Edward Byrd still remembers the phone call he got about doing a poster for some outdoor concert in upstate New York.
It was the summer 1969, and the guy on the phone was Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter who’d opened the Fillmore East in New York, where he booked bands ranging from Jefferson Airplane to Led Zeppelin. Byrd was the in-house poster artist for the Fillmore in those days, so a call from Graham wasn’t unusual. Neither was the festival Graham was talking about—or so it seemed at the time.
“Bill Graham told me [concert promoter] Michael Lang would be calling me about a poster for this festival they were calling the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival,” Byrd recalled. “I had been doing a lot of rock stuff at the time. I just thought it was another one of those concerts. I had no reason to think otherwise.”
As we now know, the event in Bethel, N.Y., Aug. 15-17, didn’t turn out to be just another concert. Woodstock featured 33 bands, drew over 400,000 people and became “a pivotal moment in both New York and American history,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently said, “an event that changed this nation’s cultural and political landscape.”
Seeking to continue its contributions to that landscape, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts—the artistic heir to the Woodstock legacy and custodian of its historic grounds—is sponsoring a poster contest to mark the concert’s 50th anniversary. While the winning submission won’t be promoting another three-day concert, it will “visually express [the] values of kindness, community and our aspirations for the next 50 years,” according to the official language.
Opened in 2006, Bethel Woods is the brainchild of Cablevision Industries founder Alan Gerry, who acquired the 37-acre field that hosted the 1969 concert and, on the surrounding acreage he also bought, built a performing arts center that includes a 15,000-seat amphitheater and a conservatory dedicated to educating the public about the cultural, political and artistic dynamics of the 1960s. It’s fitting, then, that this poster contest, a marketing endeavor as much as an artistic one, is drawing its inspiration from the site’s colorful heritage.
That includes inviting Byrd to be one of the judges.
Five decades have softened the blow to Byrd’s pride that the Woodstock festival ultimately delivered. He got the Woodstock poster job (and the $500 paycheck that came with it), but the festival organizers never used his work.
Byrd recalls that he received very little direction on what was supposed to be on the poster itself. “No one told me anything,” he said, “except that it was three days of peace, love and music.”
In keeping with the spirit of the times, then, Byrd created a pseudo psychedelic tableau (lots of hearts and flowers) with a neoclassical centerpiece—specifically, a nude woman posing with an urn. At the time, Byrd was an artistic disciple of Jean Dominique Ingres, the French realist, and borrowed the female figure from Ingres’ 1847 painting La Sorgente.
“I thought this was perfect because she is Acquarius [the water-bearer],” Byrd said. “What could be wrong?”
As it turned out, everything. The local government of Wallkill, N.Y., where the concert was originally to be held, was already skittish about the idea of a rock concert being staged in their town and were ready to pull out. They were also upset because the woman in Byrd’s poster was naked. Local shop owners, in whose windows the poster was supposed to go, were upset about the naked woman, too. And it hadn’t helped that the original poster contained no room to list the bands on the bill.
With Wallkill revoking its welcome and time running out, the concert organizers scrambled to find both a new site and a new poster. They located the new site in the nearby town of Bethel, in a field on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm. And the job of creating a new poster? That fell to Arnold Skolnick, a graphic artist who’d worked for Young & Rubicam in Manhattan. Skolnick got the commission on a Thursday and the work was due Monday. All he had time to do was a cut-paper poster showing a white bird perched on a guitar neck.
“It was just another job,” Skolnick told the Stamford Advocate in 2010, “but it became famous.”
Looking back on it now, Byrd is reflective about the differences between his work and Skolnick’s. “Arnold’s poster was a perfect example of branding, and mine was a perfect example of illustration—and those are two different schools of design,” he said.
But, of course, when it came time to promote the event, the branding won out.
It’s anyone’s guess what will win out for the Bethel Woods poster contest, which is accepting submissions from students and amateurs as well as professionals until March 14. But Byrd advises artists not to overthink the thing.
“If you think too much about it, you can’t do it,” he said. “My advice would be to relax and go for it.”