Feature: A Conversation with John Van Hamersveld
John Van Hamersveld is an icon in Southern California culture, or maybe more aptly described as a creator of icons, credited with many graphics and images that identify the West Coast. His poster for Bruce Brown’s classic surf film The Endless Summer is an image that nearly everyone has seen, an emblem for surf culture itself (the poster was included in LACMA’s Pacific Standard Time Exhibition California Design: 1935-1965). . .
John Van Hamersveld is an icon in Southern California culture, or maybe more aptly described as a creator of icons, credited with many graphics and images that identify the West Coast. His poster for Bruce Brown’s classic surf film The Endless Summer is an image that nearly everyone has seen, an emblem for surf culture itself (the poster was included in LACMA’s Pacific Standard Time Exhibition California Design: 1935-1965). However, John’s work goes beyond the surf industry. He’s produced posters for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane, just to name a few. He’s worked in more corporate fields as well, adding the classic logo of the Fat Burger restaurant chain to the list. His recognizable hand has spanned an array of cultural niches. For some this reveals Van Hamersveld’s far-reaching influence, and for others this simply validates their understanding of John’s deep roots in the culture that makes up the California we know today. Upon a recent visit to Los Angeles, John and I discussed his new book 50 Years of Design, the evolution of his career, and the joy of drawing and making. —Max Karnig
MXK: I'm interested in what the books mean to you. In a way it acts as a brief retrospective of your practice.
JVH: There will be a biography some day, but this book is an overview. It's kind of abbreviated. It doesn't really concentrate on any one area because it's fifty years.
MXK: Through out the span of time covered in the book, your work functions within several different fields while maintaining a recognizable and distinct style. Some of the obvious areas you go between are music, surfing, and commercial design.
JVH: Parts are more corporate than others, but surfing too became corporate. The music is still sprinkled in there, and then the psychedelic world comes back. That's like '86, 20 years after ’66. The trends are so interesting. After that, it goes back to corporate, and then it becomes digital. So the whole digital world is like a movie, and this is the beginning of the digital and the computer.
(Palos Verdes Surf Gang in the early 1950s with John on the far right.)
MXK: I'm interested in how you saw these trends happening and how this is reflected in your work in the book?
JVH: I saw in the beginning in 1965. Within the art scene there was an art studio, Gollin, Bright, and Zolotow, Inc.. They showed me exactly how a design studio works. But that wasn't necessarily interesting to me because I was from an art school. So I what I did is I looked at the business as art, and not advertising and corporations. I looked at it as art and entertainment. So when going to Capital Records, I could see more clearly how the music business worked. At that time the San Francisco scene was coming and this whole community of hippies was a movement. So I started Pinnacle with a couple people and a consortium of students from four different schools: UCLA, USC, Chouinard, and Otis.
MXK: What year was this?
JVH: This was in '67 and '68.
MXK: What was the focus at this point?
JVH: Doing these happenings about every two weeks where about 13,000 people would go to the place over the weekend down here at the Shrine Exhibition Hall. It was bigger than the Filmore and the Avalon. It was bigger than the clubs and in-between small venues.
MXK: What were these happenings?
JVH: They would have these screens all around half the room on which they would have a light show from the second balcony. That would be all film and objects and ideas that were going on in the community. Down on the floor was an audience of four or five thousand people and there would be a big stage where Jeff Beck played with the Cream.
MXK: That’s quite an interesting setting for your work.
JVH: It was the media and the radio and the posters and the advertising that I was obviously able to do. That's what people know me more for: a poster. Not necessarily for organizing a whole movement.
MXK: But your posters were the advertisement for this whole movement, bringing people together for these happenings.
JVH: And they were given away free. These ads also went into the underground papers.
So before I started, I did the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour Album, but sitting there at Capital, you could see a whole world unfolding really. Music companies were at that point in time where it all had evolved from tape decks and jazz and classical music and into this popular world. They had to make albums which they just laminated and put a sheet of paper on the front of some cardboard on both sides. By the time it got to the '70s, it went to a board pack where it was a folded down whole kind of thing. So that's why in 1972 the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street is such a stark and amazing kind of packaging event. It unfolded and it had all these pieces and parts to it. It was beatnik and it was hip. It connected with all these great people.
So after that I became an instructor at Cal Arts during that whole conceptual art period around the time John Baldessari was there.
MXK: How long were you teaching at Cal Arts for?
JVH: Seven years: ’75 to ‘82. Teaching design and getting people to actually work with their hands making things with line and color and drawing and all that. And a photography class called "Taking Pictures Without a Camera"
MXK: That in itself sounds like a very conceptual approach to picture making.
JVH: It’s all about your thinking. Your photograph is no more than your thinking.
MXK: Drawing is similar to as it is very internal.
JVH: Well drawing is an all together different thing, but they are both nonconscious states where you have a feeling and you see it and all these things that are in your head that make up your education all of a sudden are all framed down to this thing that is moving that you snap and you freeze it. That's your thought.
MXK: You capture this moment in reality to express your internal ideas.
JVH: Not really. You make it up. I mean that's good photography. Yes there is a reality, in the sense that if you copy a scene of something, a still life or something like that, but I'm not talking about that kind of photography. I'm talking about a reportage photograph.
MXK: Even returning to drawing, there are many different ways to think about drawing in all its different functions.
JVH: Well let's put drawing this way. You hop into your car with your key out consciously and you put it in the ignition. You turn the key and you hear your car start and then you already know all the rules of driving and you just become unconscious and let it go and drive the car. Well that's the same way art works. You're no more than all your experiences so when someone tells you to do something, you don't do what you're told you in a sense. You make up what you want. That's in a sense, unconscious. It comes from all your previous experiences as it comes out. And drawing is about building too. I mean there's copy drawing, which in school, you go through, but there's a point where you leave that and you have to make your own drawings. You are making up your own shapes and your own colors, like Barry McGee who is obviously making up his own stuff as he goes. He's in a dream, a dream state.
(We went to McGee's opening at Prism Gallery later that evening).
As I say in one of my videos, people don't draw really. Everything is manifested out of photography and television. They use these conveyances to make a statement. And then it's all chopped up, and it's done by teams. They’re conscious of it. It has to be a certain way it has to tell a certain story.
A drawing is a much more lost consciousness sensibility, sometimes in severe style. A Disney cartoon is a severe style. These very educated people came together and teamed up and made this animated feature. Even the children's book or illustrations in magazines are narratives because they have to tell something that is relative to the story. When I design magazines I never considered that. I just made abstract magazines.
MXK: In reference to your book and how you approach drawing in your practice, during the time when you were making posters in the '60s and '70s, how did you think about drawing then?
JVH: Here's the thing that happened. I left art school and I became a consultant. I was no longer teaching a student. I was teaching a president or vice president of a company. I was teaching them about art and design, giving them the aesthetic to form their opinions around. They have art departments with big machines that produce and put out ads so it was like an overview. I didn't do anything. It was all talk. And maybe I had to take some photographs and paste some things up to lead them through what I was talking about so they could have a visual thing to reference. When I went into the chain business I would be with these businessmen and they would say something like, "What's this going to look like?" I would bring out a piece of paper and with my left hand I would draw a sketch of what it was and they were awestruck. They had never seen anything like that before: that someone could, at will, dream and show you what they were thinking about.
So along came a mouse, and a reality that is cut off from the analogue world. And it is under the control of somebody else's unconsciousness, their application: Illustrator, Photoshop, where a team has made this whole vernacular or this set of tools which you can freely use, somewhat. So as the whole culture of the 2000s moves into this electronic-based, digital art, I don't know what to do with it. I make a couple cad movies, I make cad architecture. I've done printing. I'm watching the printing press being taken over by digital companies. So around 2005 I'm asked to do a Cream poster. So I actually sit down and draw, and I haven't been drawing for twenty-one years or something. I've just been talking to people, moving things around, and being paid for that. So here I am in a room in front of a situation where I’m making a poster that I'd probably done in the '60s. So this is a drawing that I'm rendezvousing in 2005.
MXK: A few decades later you begin to pick up what you at one point departed from.
JVH: Yeah. So I'm sitting there in a body in an unconscious structure that has such a huge experience. I'm pulling out that pen and starting over again, as if it was 1968.
MXK: What was that experience like going back to drawing after your fairly long hiatus?
JVH: It was spectacular and I learned a lot because it was about adjusting things. There were all kinds of loose drawings but it took all these adjustments, but I was also adjusting into a new way of drawing, which was a stencil, so that it could be screened, or scanned. The scanning is the most important part of this whole thing, and the fact that I had to realize that everything was a skin. It was just a thing that wrapped around something. It could be all kinds of different things. It doesn't have to be a page. It could be a poster. It could be on TV. It could wrap around and be a part of all these different things. So that was like a breakthrough. So I could see myself as someone who could draw and conceive things, and then run them into these machines and they'd become a scan that can be wrapped around something. That became a new business for me.
MXK: Drawing in this case becomes an image that can fit into a variety of templates with varying degrees of commercial application.
JVH: You are creating the finished, conceptual illusion that is then applied to these templates. It's molten and changing and evolving. The computer is a template.
MXK: How is it to adjust to these emerging digital tools as opposed to tools like simple drawing and printmaking that you began working with when you were starting as an artist?
JVH: In it's day, well let's say in the '60s, lithography on really good paper with certain kinds of presses was an artistic process. You had silkscreen as well, but then in the commercial sector you had these presses where you could print oodles of images. So I took that technology I once understood from that time and brought it over into this time. I looked at it as a silkscreen press that had 8 colors in a row for example. You have a good sheet of paper go through 8 units, and come out at the other end and you have these beautiful posters.
The drawing is done as one piece, like Japanese printmaking in doing wood blocks. The Japanese would actually color each block, rub the ink, and then press it down on the paper. The way this is done is it's all composited as one thing at first and then I go into the computer and break it all into sections in different colors. So I usually work in six to eight colors so I can go onto a big press at some particular time.
John points to a drawing
So that one was made for the printing process. It was made as one unit, one drawing, and then that drawing was broken into pieces and parts and designated to yellow and red and all those different colors.
MXK: Your initial drawing is itself an artwork and then it manifests in so many different finished products because it is based in these various print applications.
JVH: That is understanding the digital world. You don't have to make it inside the application. You can actually create outside of it and just use it as a processor. It's just a tool.
MXK: Although layers are a part of almost every type of drawing (to some degree), the way you draw has a noticeable emphasis on layers so it makes this transition very well into the various digital processes.
JVH: Here's a drawing I did the other day that they were filming. They had a camera here looking over me. So okay, that's a finished stencil that I would break all these pieces out of, but really, it's a whole set of other drawings that make it up
John reveals layers of sketches on successive layers of vellum and drafting paper
So you can see where I added on and traced over in each new layer. I'm just getting the feel of the composition, getting what I see out of it. (He flips back to the first sketch) You can see how vague it is. In the beginning it is terribly vague. It's a sketch.
(John's cover for Surfing Illustrated back in the early 1960s)
MXK: This process with which you draw for these printed images has many obvious similarities to painting with successive layers of paint.
JVH: Yeah exactly. Ground colors, background colors, and then so on. Pieces also get pulled away and delineated somewhere else and drawn over as objects.
In the old days what Rick Griffin would do, he went down to this place called Cal Litho, and it was this old German guy there who would take the illustration board and spray this kind of stuff on it, and then he would make a positive of Rick's drawing. Then he would make up these four boards, which were all the same boards. Then Rick would then take the boards and divide them into colors: the yellow board, the magenta board, the cyan board, and the black board. He would re-draw everything on top of the boards until he got the four boards the way he wanted them to. So in the end he would go down to the press and they would combine that, and then put it into plates and it would be printed.
MXK: Where did Rick's drawings end up?
JVH: Most of the time it was posters, album covers and comic books, the Zap comic books. The comic book then was black, no color. Only on the cover was there color. So they just made black and white drawings all in one piece. The posters were very compacted.
In my Traffic poster from 1968, what I've done is I've broken it all up into pieces and parts, which are assembled. There's 35 layers to that in what the call the "golden rod" and then they strip in the various half-tones that I want, so then the thirty flats are then photographed, combined into one negative, the yellow, magenta, and cyan negative, and then it goes into plate and it all comes together like that. So that was more like Photoshop at that time, because it was done in layers. I was always aware of layers at a very young age.
(John's first Surfer Magazine in 1964 when he was art director)
MXK: The digital technology prominently used now is developed from these older technologies, so your knowledge is not lost moving forward into newer processes.
JVH: Well back then, because I knew all that stuff I was more like an architect. I would take the project in, and I had about 20 people I would work with, and eventually this album cover would pop out in the store in shrink-wrap, but it was very complicated. Today all those master people I used to work with are all brought down to one person. Me (laughs). So I have to be skilled like a typographer, an illustrator, a poet, a copywriter, etc. all in one. So that's the way the book is, the book is an assemblage. All that technology has been built in Illustrator and Photoshop and then it goes into inDesign. Eventually you have a PDF that will go back and forth to Berkeley from LA, and then essentially, when all those corrections have been made with those publishers then it goes to Ohio, and it is sent by them again, by digital wire, to China, and they undo it and make it into an analogue manifestation of all that data (a physical book). It's crazy!
MXK: It goes through so many steps of transformation within these digital processes; it is kind of comical that it ultimately turns into a tangible object in the end. The book traverses this evolution of technology, in its actual physical production as well as your experiences in the book and the time periods it spans across.
JVH: I sat in front of someone that explained to me the music business, the differences between analogue and digital. The person who has the instrument and the vocals and all that, comes into the studio, as analogue. Then they produce all these sounds, which are then constructed onto a board digitally, and that is the final kind of master that is made. The product is then made which is taken over to the speaker, or in your IPhone as a download and then it becomes analogue as it's played. So we're in this world as everything is interpreted.
(John's cover for Surf Guide)
MXK: You’ve seen the industry change quite a bit and have lots to share. When you do you think you’ll start working on the complete biography?
JVH: Like with Andy (Warhol), there are various books. It all evolves until finally somebody wants to talk about it and break it all down and have all the specific pieces and everything. That's a big project. This (the current book streamlining 50 years of John’s design) is four years in the making, and this in a sense is just taking my archive and enhancing it and setting up the puzzle and putting it all together. You saw the past book?
MXK: Yes I've seen it through the digital world (laughs).
JVH: Yes through the plastic universe. You've seen it planted in the plastic universe. That book is actually printed in Ohio. Not in Japan or China. It's an American product.
The past book was a story and now here we are today: there is a collection of pictures. There was a narrative, and now there's the symbology.
MXK: The symbology is easier to consume quickly. It condenses a similar span of time and information mostly into images.
JVH: It's a collage and there's nine chapters. You can enter at any particular point. It's not necessarily a beginning and end. When you enter the center, it is the surf business and the rock business, and that's where the book splits.
MXK: It's great how the book functions in a chronological order but each section is independent and can be read on its own.
JVH: It's really about icons. The whole thing is about icons. The Endless Summer is sitting there fifty years ago, but that's still today. So, I started seeing past and present as one thing. So, we called the company "Post-Future". The past in this particular time we live in is the present. We've lost a sense of the future.
All the way back to Jules Vern, we were in the fascination of what the future would be. Only to realize we live in the future today. There is no more future. It's only getting to know what the future is.