Victor Moscoso was the first of San Francisco’s “Big Five” psychedelic poster artists to have his work shown in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Moscoso pioneered the use of vibrating colors to create the ‘psychedelic’ effect in poster art. His work is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and in the Library of Congress. His Neon Rose series of posters is one of the crown jewels of the psychedelic poster era.
Born in Spain in 1936, Victor Moscoso was brought up in Brooklyn, New York, where he studied art at Cooper Union Art School before attending Yale University School of Art. At Yale, he studied with the modern colorist Joseph Albers, whose color theories were an important influence on Moscoso and on the development of the psychedelic poster. Moscoso moved west in1959 to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, where he later received his MFA. After graduation, he remained at the Art Institute, where he taught lithography and built a career as a freelance graphic designer.
Moscoso’s interest in psychedelic poster art was sparked when he saw Wes Wilson's Paul Butterfield poster (FD-3) for the Family Dog. As Moscoso recalls in an interview, “Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley's poster for "Zig Zag," [“Zig Zag Man (FD-14)] influenced me . . . I mean when I saw Mouse and Kelley do “Zig Zag,” it just about knocked me down on the sidewalk . . .” Moscoso became active doing concert posters in the fall of 1966 with work for the Family Dog at the Avalon Ballroom. His Neon Rose posters for The Matrix brought his work international attention in the Summer of Love 1967.
As of 1967, Victor Moscoso had gone through a transformation; he had to set aside his academic training and has said, “One of the ways that I did it was by reversing all the rules I ever learned in school . . . For instance, I had been told that lettering should always be legible, so I turned that around to say: Lettering should be as illegible as possible. Another rule was that a poster should transmit its message quickly and simply. So, I said: A poster should hang you up as long as possible. Another one is: Do not use vibrating colors; they're irritating to the eyes. So I said: Use vibrating colors as much as possible. After all, the musicians were turning up their amplifiers to the point where they were blowing out your eardrums. I did the equivalent with the eyeballs . . .”
“So I reversed everything that I had learned, and once I did that, then it fell into place. Then everything I’d learned in school began to work for me. I could pick a vibrating color like nobody could . . . It's not just using colors from the opposite of the color wheel. The intensity has to be equal. The value has to be equal, so that your eye cannot tell which one is in front of the other . . . Your eyes are limited. That’s why you can see motion pictures. Motion pictures don't move. They're just a lot of still pictures. However, because of the limitations of our eyes, they appear to move . . .”
Moscoso tells about watching people cross the street to look at his posters on telephone poles: “I would just stand out on the street, like outside the Trieste, and I could even stay inside the Trieste and watch people as they passed. One of the reasons I used vibrating colors is because it's kind of like neon lights flashing. The other thing that catches your eye is contrast. Stop: Black and yellow. But you can read that from across the sidewalk and continue. The neon . . . the vibrating colors will catch your attention and then "what's going on?" brings you over. The other thing that hangs you up is complexity. Make them complex. A poster should not transmit its message quickly and simply. They'll be gone man. I wanna see if they could stay there an hour. I wanna see if they can stay there a whole week . . .
“. . . That was advertising. The only way that those events were advertised was by those posters, which we made as hard to read . . . I made as hard to read as possible. And it worked. The halls got filled up, because of those posters. They started getting torn off the wall. Then you could buy them for a dollar. They go up at the Trieste and catty-corner from the Trieste was Ben Friedman's poster shop. They'd be in Ben Friedman's for a dollar. So, here's advertising coming at you from both sides of the corner . . . when they started getting sold for a dollar, hey, I took art history. I know that when the Toulouse Lautrec and Jules Cheret posters started getting ripped off the walls, that's when the poster stores opened. For lo and behold, I said to myself, this is what happened in Toulouse Lautrec's day. If it happened in Toulouse Lautrec's day and it looks like it's happening now, well, then it's happening now. All I wanted to do was invent posters. Not free posters, not white rabbit posters, not East Totem West posters. I didn't want to do those. I wanted to, I guess because of the historical value, I somehow intuited that these were events, historical events, with dates, and that's all I wanted to do . . .”
“And I didn't want to be dependent on Bill Graham, Chet Helms, or anybody else at that point. I said, "Okay, I'll set up my own company," and I went to The Matrix because The Matrix was playing The Doors, Big Brother & The Holding Company—the same groups that were at the Avalon Ballroom and at the Fillmore, and I said to the guy at The Matrix ‘How would you guys like to have me do some posters for you? Already, I've been doing posters at the Avalon. They already were good.’ And they said, "Sure, we'd love it, but we don't have the money. We can't afford it." I said, "No problem. I will give you 200 free posters for your event. I will pay for them and I'll run off as many as I can afford and sell them.’ Sure. Well, here they're getting 200 free posters, one of the top poster artists at that time. So I commissioned the poster, I designed the poster, I produced the poster, and I sold the poster. I was selling posters to Australia, the other side of the world.”
In 1968, Moscoso became a leading artist for the underground comics. He and his friend and colleague, Rick Griffin, were two of the main contributors to Robert Crumb's legendary Zap Comix. While working in comics, Moscoso designed magazine cover art, billboards, and album covers for Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Herbie Handcock, among others.