California Studies Association

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Red in black and white: The New Left printing renaissance of the 1960s – and beyond

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In conjunction with the PEACE PRESS GRAPHICS 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change show at the University Art Museum at CSU-Long Beach, archivist of graphics and author (and current chair of the CSA Steering Committee) Lincoln Cushing has published an essay entitled, “Red in black and white: The New Left printing renaissance of the 1960s – and beyond.” The essay appears in the catalog for the show, and is also available online.

From the essay:

The advent of relatively low-cost office spirit duplicators and mimeograph machines [4] democratized the lowest end of printing, and made it possible for unions, churches, and community groups to produce crude flyers composed on typewriters. But the trickier and larger jobs were still in the domain of professionals who had the skills and equipment. Occasionally a sympathetic shop or press operator could slip out a surreptitious tract, but for all intents and purposes public printed agitational documents like posters vanished from the landscape. It’s a remarkable fact that the Civil Rights movement and the Free Speech Movement of 1964 relied on almost every medium but posters.

What broke the ice for posters were the free handbills produced for the San Francisco rock concerts starting in 1965. All of a sudden, people realized what they didn’t know they were missing – vibrant, powerful graphics they could put on a wall. And the underground newspapers were doing crazy thing with graphics. Cultural forces preceded political ones, which interestingly was happening about the same time in Cuba. The majority of posters produced by government agencies after the 1959 revolution had been relatively stiff and boring until visionary publicist Saúl Yelin at the Cuban Film Institute transformed the entire concept of a film poster. He encouraged a style where the graphic art emphasized the film’s content rather than the film’s stars, and dozens of idealistic and talented artists applied their professional skills to this new enterprise. The other Cuban propaganda agencies took note. That happened here too.

The first glimmer of the new generation of activist print shops started in 1964 in the heat of the Free Speech Movement. The Free Speech Movement Newsletter was first printed on a 14” x 20” Multilith 2066 by Duard Hastings, in the basement of a home later demolished to make People’s Park. The press was owned by Dunbar Aitken, publisher of the occasional science journal Particle, but Dunbar was evicted by his landlord for printing “communist papers,” and they briefly moved the operation to the basement of Lewin’s Metaphysical Books (Ashby and College) before settling into a propitious storefront on the 1700 block of Grove Street (now Martin Luther King Jr.)

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