Arnold Skolnick, Whose Poster Embodied Woodstock, Dies at 85

Arnold Skolnick, Whose Poster Embodied Woodstock, Dies at 85

Arnold Skolnick, who with only a few days to work designed what became one of the most familiar pop-culture images of its time, the poster for the original Woodstock music festival in 1969, died on June 15 in Amherst, Mass. He was 85.

His son Alexander Skolnick said the cause was respiratory failure.

Mr. Skolnick’s poster design was a model of simplicity that both conveyed information about the festival — when and where it was, who was performing — and caught the sensibility of the moment. With an attention-getting red background, it had as its dominant image the neck of a guitar with a white bird perched on it. “3 Days of Peace & Music,” the big type read.

Mr. Skolnick was 32 and doing freelance work for advertising 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 for the festival. Mr. Skolnick told The Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Mass., in 2008 that an architect friend who was doing work on a hotel in the Virgin Islands that attracted a lot of rock stars knew Mr. Morris and made the connection.

He got the assignment on a Thursday, he told The Stamford Advocate in 2010.

“And I brought it by to them on Monday afternoon,” he said. “It was just another job, but it became famous.”

The job had originally gone to David Edward Byrd, who had been creating posters for rock shows at the Fillmore East in Manhattan. The poster Mr. Byrd produced was, as Adweek described it for the 50th anniversary of the festival, “a pseudo-psychedelic tableau (lots of hearts and flowers) with a neoclassical centerpiece — specifically, a nude woman posing with an urn.”

“I thought this was perfect because she is Aquarius,” Mr. Byrd told Adweek. “What could be wrong?”

For starters, the fact that she wore no clothes. The Woodstock festival was at one point planned for Wallkill, N.Y. (it was moved to near the hamlet of White Lake in Bethel, N.Y., late in the game), and merchants there were said to have not wanted a naked woman in their shop windows. Also, the Byrd poster left no room to list the names of the performers.

And so Mr. Skolnick got the call for a rush job. He had recently seen some paper cutout works by Henri Matisse at a Manhattan museum and took to the assignment with a razor blade, cutting out shapes in colored paper and putting them, at 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 tweaking.

“At first I thought of bird and flute,” he told The Daily News. “But the flute is really jazz, so I made it a guitar.”

About that bird: Mr. Skolnick said in interviews that though most people assumed it was a dove, it owed more of a debt to the catbirds he had been sketching that summer while spending time on Shelter Island, N.Y. Oh, and he said the fowl includes a mistake.

“I forgot to tell the printer that the beak should be black,” he said, “and so it’s a red beak.”

A writer friend, Ira Arnold, helped with the words, and, Mr. Skolnick told The Daily News, the two of them split the $12,000 fee.

The poster has become a much-circulated and much-imitated image, although Mr. Skolnick said that he didn’t hold the copyright and thus did not rake in royalties. In 2012, when the Museum at Bethel Woods in New York, which is at the festival site and devoted to Woodstock, held an exhibition centered on the Byrd and Skolnick posters, it also included dozens of images inspired by them, especially the Skolnick version.

“Someone had seen 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 exhibition. “It was a knockoff of Skolnick’s poster. In place of the guitar there was a fork, and instead of the dove there was a pig.”

Neal Hitch, senior curator at the Bethel museum, said that Mr. Skolnick came up with the right poster for the moment.

“His work is so widespread because it supersedes design and represents an ideal,” he said by email. “Very few artists have managed to capture the essence of a movement on one sheet of paper better than Arnold Skolnick.”

Mr. Skolnick was born on Feb. 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 predigital mechanical calculator, at an ad agency.

Art, he said, was something born into him.

“You don’t become an artist,” he told The Daily Hampshire Gazette in 2008. “You either are or you’re not.”

He attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, then studied under the artist Edwin Dickinson at the Art Students League in Manhattan. He was, his son said, in several ways an unlikely choice for the Woodstock poster.

“He didn’t like rock ’n’ roll, he didn’t like the drug culture, and he hated psychedelic art,” Alexander Skolnick said in a phone interview.

He did, however, attend Woodstock. He stayed for a day. But then he heard about the coming rain.

“I said ‘I’ve got 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 getting out of the parking lot.”

Michael Lang, one of the main promoters of the festival, who died in January, claimed in his 2009 book, “The Road to Woodstock,” that he came up with the wording and the imagery for the poster. But in an interview that year with Newsday, Mr. Skolnick said Mr. Lang had nothing to do with the poster and saw it only after it was finished; that account, the newspaper said, was supported by other festival organizers.

Mr. Skolnick put the fee he received for the work toward a house in Chesterfield, Mass., and alternated between that home and New York for decades before moving in 2015 to Northampton, where he lived until his death.

Though best known for one poster, Mr. Skolnick had a varied career, designing books and a few film credit sequences as well as working in advertising. He also founded Imago Design, a design company that specialized in art books, and Chameleon Books, a publishing company that brought out books like “Paintings of the Southwest” (1994) and “The Artist and the American Landscape” (1998).

And he painted, exhibiting over the years at the Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Maine and the Pratt Gallery in Amherst, among other places.

In the mid-1970s he started painting flowers and plants. By the time of a 1982 show of his works in Amherst, those images had turned more cynical, with Mr. Skolnick depicting plants that seemed to be arming themselves against environmental threats.

“In my earlier paintings I thought if I showed how beautiful nature is, then people would want to protect it,” he told The Daily Hampshire Gazette in 1982. “Now I’m showing it in the process of being destroyed, and I’m trying to get people to react before it’s too late.”

Mr. Skolnick’s marriages to Iris Jay in 1960 and Cynthia Meyer in 1990 ended in divorce. In addition to his son Alexander, from his first marriage, he is survived by 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 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 look over some cover ideas for the forthcoming Nader book. He wasn’t impressed.

“I looked, and I said, ‘Just put a lemon on wheels,’” Mr. 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 photograph.

“I got a lemon,” he said. “I got a Tonka toy truck. I put it on my kitchen table and I shot it.”

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Last Update: Thu, 30 Jun 22 12:05:59