Bonnie MacLean, psychedelic poster artist, is dead at 80

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Bonnie MacLean, psychedelic poster artist, is dead at 80
MacLean was married to famed concert promoter Bill Graham.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Bonnie MacLean, whose colorful posters for rock shows in San Francisco in the 1960s and early ’70s helped define the psychedelic scene and have since become collector’s items, died Feb. 4 in Newtown, Pennsylvania. She was 80.

Her son, David Graham, said MacLean, who moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the 1970s, died at a nursing home. He did not specify the cause.

MacLean was married to famed concert promoter Bill Graham as he was beginning his career in the mid-1960s in San Francisco, where she was immersed in a vibrant cultural scene that generated influential groups like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. She worked with him mounting shows — most of them at the Fillmore Auditorium — which he promoted with attention-getting posters commissioned from several artists.

A group of men became known as the big five of poster art: Wes Wilson (who died last month), Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Stanley Miller (known as Stanley Mouse) and Alton Kelley. MacLean wasn’t initially part of the group; when Wilson and Bill Graham had a falling-out in 1967, she stepped in to fill the void.

If she is sometimes left off the list of pioneering poster artists from that moment in time, it is in part because that world was dominated by men and in part, as she acknowledged, because her output and tenure were limited.

“I designed a total of 32 posters,” she told The Key, a music news site maintained by Philadelphia radio station WXPN-FM, in 2015. “I was off the scene by 1971, though, so it was not a long time doing it.”

The works she created in that time, though, stood with the best of psychedelic poster art. Her posters have been shown in gallery and museum exhibitions, including “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era,” which began in 2005 at the Tate Liverpool in England before traveling to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2007.

That show included a poster she often identified as her favorite, “BG #75.” It depicts a peacock’s tail next to a human face, with swirling blue lettering listing the groups appearing at the Fillmore in a particular week in July 1967. The roster, for aficionados of 1960s music, conveys just how exciting the scene was: Appearing were the Yardbirds, the James Cotton Blues Band, Richie Havens and the Doors.

Bonnie MacLean was born Dec. 28, 1939, in Philadelphia to Russell and Beatrice (White) MacLean. She grew up in the Trenton, New Jersey, area and earned a bachelor’s degree in French at Pennsylvania State University in 1961.

She worked for a time at Pratt Institute in New York, taking a few art classes there on the side, before moving to San Francisco in 1963.

Graham was an office manager in San Francisco for Allis-Chalmers, a manufacturer of heavy equipment.

“An employment agency sent over a young woman named Bonnie MacLean that I interviewed,” he recounted in “Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out,” a 1992 book constructed by Robert Greenfield from various interviews with Graham, who died in a helicopter crash in 1991. “They called me up afterward and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘No, no, she won’t do.’ ”

Then MacLean herself called Graham, and he confessed to her that what had put him off was that she had been wearing “the ugliest chartreuse coat I ever saw in my whole life.” He gave her another chance, hired her, then started dating her. After living together they married in 1967.

When Graham started staging concerts at the Fillmore, MacLean would take tickets, pass out handbills and — her initial artistic contribution — draw the names of bands on the “coming attractions” board inside. She got to see a lot of excellent groups.

“My favorite was Cream, which had three great musicians” — Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce — she told The Bucks County Courier Times in 2015.

Although the San Francisco scene was known for hallucinogens, MacLean said she had avoided them.

“I didn’t have much to do with that,” she told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2015. “Timothy Leary’s idea that you just ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ just nauseated me.”

Her first poster, in May 1967, was for a Jefferson Airplane show. After she and Graham divorced in 1975, she turned her artistic abilities to pastels, paintings and drawings, and was featured in gallery shows.

In 1981 she married Jacques Fabert, an artist, and she used the name Bonnie MacLean Fabert thereafter. He died in 2013. In addition to her son, she is survived by a half sister, Valerie Sands.

Although MacLean had moved on from poster art by the early 1970s, in the ensuing decades she would occasionally make a poster for a fundraiser or a special occasion. When concert promoter Live Nation opened the new Fillmore Philadelphia in 2015, the company commissioned her to design a poster for the inaugural concert, by Daryl Hall & John Oates.

Even in the digital age, when computers opened up a world of new possibilities for poster artists and other designers, she preferred working by hand, as she did in the 1960s.

“I think handwork needs to be kept alive,” she told The Key. “It’s something people are inclined to do naturally. It’s something we have a human built-in desire to do. It always has been. It still is.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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