Arnold Skolnick, who designed one of the most famous pop culture images of his time, the poster for the original Woodstock music festival in 1969, with just a few days to work, died June 15 in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was 85 years old. †
His son Alexander Skolnick said the cause was respiratory failure.
Mr Skolnick’s poster design was an example of simplicity conveying both information about the festival – when and where it was, who was performing – and the sensibility of the moment. With a striking red background, the dominant image was the neck of a guitar with a white bird on it. “3 Days of Peace & Music”, read the big type.
Mr. Skolnick was 32, freelance work for ad agencies and other clients – “more ‘Mad Men’ than ‘Easy Rider,'” as The Washington Post described him 50 years later – when he got a call from John Morris, the production coordinator. of the festival. Mr. Skolnick told The Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Massachusetts in 2008 that an architect friend working on a hotel in the Virgin Islands that attracted many rock stars knew Mr. Morris and made the connection.
He was commissioned on a Thursday, he told The Stamford Advocate in 2010.
“And I brought it to them Monday afternoon,” he said. “It was just another job, but it got famous.”
The job had originally gone to David Edward Byrd, who had created posters for rock shows at Manhattan’s Fillmore East. The poster Mr Byrd created was, as Adweek described it for the festival’s 50th anniversary, “a pseudo-psychedelic scene (lots of hearts and flowers) with a neoclassical centerpiece – specifically a naked woman posing with an urn. “
“I thought this was perfect because she’s Aquarius,” Mr. Byrd told Adweek. “What could be wrong?”
For starters, the fact that she wasn’t wearing any clothes. The Woodstock Festival was at one point scheduled for Wallkill, NY (it was moved late in the game to the hamlet of White Lake in Bethel, NY), and merchants there wouldn’t want a naked woman in their shop window. Also, the Byrd poster left no space to list the names of the artists.
And so Mr. Skolnick got the call for an urgent job. He had recently seen some cut-out works by Henri Matisse in a Manhattan museum and took the razor-blade commission, cutting shapes out of colored paper and placing them first on a blue background. But then he switched to red and, as he told The Daily News of New York in 1976, “the whole thing came alive.”
But not without some adjustments.
“At first I thought about bird and whistle,” he told The Daily News. “But the flute is really jazz, so I turned it into a guitar.”
About that bird: Mr. Skolnick said in interviews that while most people assumed it was a pigeon, it owed more to the cat birds he sketched that summer while spending time on Shelter Island, NY. Oh, and he said the poultry contains an error.
“I forgot to tell the printer that the bill has to be black,” he said, “so it’s a red bill.”
A writer friend, Ira Arnold, helped with the words, and, Mr. Skolnick told The Daily News, the two split the $12,000 fee.
The poster has become a widely circulated and imitated image, although Mr. Skolnick said he did not own the copyrights and thus was not taking in any royalties. In 2012, when the Museum at New York’s Bethel Woods, on the festival site and dedicated to Woodstock, held an exhibition centering on the Byrd and Skolnick posters, it also featured dozens of images inspired by them, most notably the Skolnick version. .
“Someone saw a poster in Memphis for a barbecue competition,” Wade Lawrence, the museum’s director, told Hudson Valley Magazine at the time, explaining one of the inspirations for the exhibit. “It was an imitation of Skolnick’s poster. Instead of the guitar there was a fork, and instead of the dove there was a pig.”
Neal Hitch, chief curator of the Bethel Museum, said Mr. Skolnick had come up with the right poster for the moment.
“His work is so widespread because it replaces design and represents an ideal,” he said by email. “There are few artists who have captured the essence of a movement better on one sheet of paper than Arnold Skolnick.”
Mr. Skolnick was born on February 25, 1937 in Brooklyn. His father, Samuel, was a linotype operator, and his mother, Esther (Plotnik) Skolnick, was a secretary who operated a Comptometer, a pre-digital mechanical calculator, at an advertising agency.
Art, he said, was something born in him.
“You don’t become an artist,” he told The Daily Hampshire Gazette in 2008. “You either are or you are not.”
He attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then studied with the artist Edwin Dickinson at the Art Students League in Manhattan. He was, his son said, an unlikely choice for the Woodstock poster in several ways.
“He didn’t like rock and roll, he didn’t like drug culture and he hated psychedelic art,” Alexander Skolnick said in a telephone interview.
However, he did attend Woodstock. He stayed for a day. But then he heard of the coming rain.
“I said, ‘I have to get out of here,’” he recalled in a 2019 video interview with New England Public Media. “I got into the Volvo. I must have damaged 20 cars coming out of the parking lot.’
Michael Lang, one of the festival’s main promoters, who died in January, claimed in his 2009 book “The Road to Woodstock” that he came up with the text and imagery for the poster. But in an interview with Newsday that year, Mr. Skolnick said that Mr. Lang had nothing to do with the poster and only saw it after it was finished; that account, the paper said, was supported by other festival organizers.
Mr. Skolnick spent the compensation he received for work on a house in Chesterfield, Massachusetts, and alternated between that house and New York for decades before moving to Northampton in 2015, where he lived until his death.
Though best known for one poster, Mr. Skolnick had a varied career, designing books and a few film shoots and working in advertising. He also founded Imago Design, a design company specializing in art books, and Chameleon Books, a publishing house that published books such as “Paintings of the Southwest” (1994) and “The Artist and the American Landscape” (1998).
And he painted and exhibited over the years at the Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Maine and the Pratt Gallery in Amherst, among others.
In the mid-seventies he started painting flowers and plants. By the time his works were on display in Amherst in 1982, those images had grown more cynical, with Mr. Skolnick depicting plants that seemed to guard against environmental threats.
“In my earlier paintings I thought that if I showed how beautiful nature is, people would want to protect it,” he told The Daily Hampshire Gazette in 1982. “Now I’m showing it as it’s being destroyed, and I’m trying to get people to respond before it’s too late.”
Mr. Skolnick’s marriages to Iris Jay in 1960 and Cynthia Meyer in 1990 ended in divorce. Besides his son Alexander, from his first marriage, he leaves behind another son from that marriage, Peter; a sister, Helene Rothschild; and two grandchildren.
Not long after creating the Woodstock poster, Mr. Skolnick came up with another image that was seen by many: the cover for “What to Do With Your Bad Car: An Action Manual for Lemon Owners” (1971), an early book from Ralph Nader’s consumer watchdog team. He said his publisher asked him one day to review some cover ideas for the upcoming Nader book. He was not impressed.
“I looked and I said, ‘Put a lemon on wheels,'” Skolnick said in a 2019 interview with The Daily Hampshire Gazette. “And nobody moved. They said, ‘Get Ralph Nader on the phone!’”
He was asked to translate the suggestion into a photo.
“I have a lemon,” he said. “I have a Tonka toy truck. I put it on my kitchen table and shot it.”